The Death of Poetry?

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With Easter and Passover falling early in April, Poetry Month began in full earnest later than usual here in New York City, about the middle of the month. While some continue to wait their turns in line to decry the end of poetry in these United States, the sheer number of poetry events around NYC on a non-April day can be impressive. Come April, it can be staggering. And while I missed the chance to hear Brooke Shields recite Billy Collins, Meryl Streep interpret Elizabeth Bishop, or Tom Brokaw declaim the good gray bard of Long Island at the Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Alice Tully Hall on April 5th, a particular event from the first half of Eliot’s cruelest month stayed with me in a way I can’t imagine the gala, no matter who spectacular, would have.

Fady Joudah, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets series and renowned translator of Mahmoud Darwish, is certainly accomplished enough to carry the bill at a poetry event, but on Friday the 13th that was not the plan. Joudah was at Poets House, where he was to celebrate the poetry of Ghassan Zaqtan with the poet himself. Zaqtan, who was to begin a nine-city book tour on the 3rd, had his visa inexplicably delayed, missing much of the tour. The Daily PEN American reported on the event in its April 4th post.

Joudah, who handled the situation at Poets House with intelligence and aplomb, moved between a video of Zaqtan reading his poems in the original Arabic (available on youtube) and his own live reading from his translations, released in a beautiful and substantive collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, from Yale University Press.

In an e-mail sent two days subsequent to the Poets House event, Joudah reports,

Ghassan Zaqtan’s visa has come through; after thousands of dollars have been lost and his presence has been turned into an absence, of course. Hopefully, we can manage to re-arrange a mini-tour for the fall, but who knows. Main thing, for me, is the original process, its indiscriminate banality towards Palestinians, Arabs and many others. It continues to shock me about us here.

And in a strange way this strengthens my feeling that any literature worth its weight in salt, any important literature is, as Deleuze called it, a “minor literature.”

It’s funny, Jim, that all I was looking forward to was discussing and sharing the poetry, and not a word of politics; my introduction attests to that; because in always spinning back to politics, one risks reinforcing the defacement, the dehumanization of self and others.

Let us hope Joudah is right, that a tour can be arranged for the fall and that Zaqtan will still care come. As Marilyn Hacker puts it in a comment on the PEN site,

I was appalled when I learned of this situation, but I am sad to say I was not surprised. It seems that Palestinians are suspect in the United States by virtue of being Palestinians (perhaps just “of being Palestinians”), and particularly suspect of making known their desire to enjoy the same freedoms Americans are said to enjoy. Ghassan Zaqtan has been recognized as a poet of international stature in France, Italy, Brazil, Germany, as well as throughout the Arab world, and has visited, with no visa problem whatsoever, numerous countries in Europe and Latin America. I hope his visa is delivered, however tardily, and that he will still WISH to read and discuss his work in the United States. (Darwish got fed up after a while…)

And as Alicia Ostriker also comments on the PEN site,

May “the land of the free” act in accordance with its ideals, in welcoming all who share those ideals.

Unfortunately for audiences in California, Texas, and New York at least, the State Department has done so too late.