A Qatari poet, Mohammed ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced in November 2012 to life imprisonment, apparently for writing a poem, “Tunisian Jasmine,” that applauds Arab Spring uprisings. The poem praising specific actions in Tunisia was officially interpreted in Qatar as insulting Qatar’s ruling emir and inciting revolution there, amply demonstrating the dark side of literary criticism that interprets literature through an ideological framework.
Poets in fear of reprisals often develop a subtle, symbolic art, and their readers develop a complementary sophistication as they read. al-Ajami’s poem lacked that subtlety, sounding more like a polemic.
Disquieting interviews with al-Ajami’s lawyer as well as the country’s chief human rights defender — appointed by the emir’s government, unperturbed by the sentencing — can be found at Democracy Now! (here). Most Americans probably wonder what the fuss is all about, as we live in a country where poetry is seldom read, in part perhaps because we spend so many hours online insulting our own leaders and reading so many Tea Party calls for revolution.
American poetry is in general far less political than most world poetry, except in times of internal strife (such as the Depression and the years of the Viet Nam War). Perhaps our political life is usually too stable and our daily concerns are too narcissistic. In contrast, political consciousness infuses much of the poetry of countries where daily life is deeply affected by war, civil strife, ideological conflict, oppression, ethnic antagonisms, or poverty. One can hardly imagine a poet in contemporary Sudan or Iran or Syria not writing at least some political poems.
The imprisonment of al-Ajami reminds us that poets in some countries cannot safely write overtly political poetry because they fear government reprisals. Osip Mandelstam died in the Soviet prison system because he wrote a poem critical of Joseph Stalin. A Cuban poet, Maria Elena Cruz Varela, was literally forced to eat her own words, and to repudiate them, and spent time in prison because of her writing.
Does this happen only in classic dictatorships? No. A 2007 book of prisoner poems from the American base in Guantanamo, Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, met official resistance. The Guardian reported that the Pentagon refused to declassify much of the detainees’ poetry because poetry “presents a special risk” to American national security. Why? Because of its “content” — an arguable position, maybe — and its “format.”
Its format! Poetry!
Some poets who feel the sting of the market’s marginalization and neglect of poetry might take a small bit of comfort in the idea that repressive governments and cold bureaucracies fear poets enough to imprison them, not that such an attitude is of any use to the al-Ajamis who are made to suffer. In truth, it was not poetry that got al-Ajami imprisoned, but YouTube. Twitter and YouTube reach far more people than poetry can reach in other media, and reaching a mass audience is a clear and present danger to unpopular regimes, whether the message is a poem, a song, a banner, or an idea.
The fact is that poetry does not topple dictatorships, but even in its traditional forms — recited orally to small groups or printed in books and journals — poetry demonstrably can influence what and how a culture thinks about war and repression and society. President Obama’s second inaugural included a performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” whose lyrics will continue to emotionally move many people for years. Other poems, probably including the two inaugurals’ official poems by Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, will not.
“Poetry makes many things happen,” Howard Nemerov once wrote, “but never what the poet expects or intends.” Every poetry reader knows the profound effect a single poem can have on one person’s emotional life and attitudes. Every historian knows the profound effect that a few poems have had on whole nations.
Muhammad al-Ajami is only one of many victims of state intolerance of dissent, but as a poet, as one of us, he probably deserves some of our time, even if we think it is too late to save him from a life sentence. Several human rights organizations are trying to persuade Qatar to issue a pardon.
Author: Stephen Sossaman
Stephen Sossaman is Professor Emeritus of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. He now lives in California. He was an artillery fire direction computer in Viet Nam, serving in the Mekong Delta (1/84th artillery, 9th Infantry Division).