Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ventriloquising Tragedy

I've recently begun to wonder about what the bounds of a poetic subject might be. Is it good for a poet, with the best possible intentions, to take on the voice of a holocaust victim or a female suicide bomber, or a victim of sexual abuse?

It's a question really about how far we can ventriloquise the voices of real people. In Charles Reznikoff's Testimony and Holocaust, we get the voices straight: these are transcripts from trials minimally poeticised with line endings etc. The same is true in the work of Elaine Randall, where it seems to me that proper attention is being given to the marginalised people she is writing about.

But to speak 'for' someone is a different matter. To put words into their mouths, thoughts into their heads, is another matter. To write from a privileged Western middle class position in the ventriloquised voice of a victim, or even a perpetrator, of violence, seems morally dubious to me. When I read a Celan poem, I read the poetry of a survivor of the camps. When I read a poem in the voice of either a real or an imagined survivor, all too often I read someone trying to appropriate someone else's tragedy to make art of it. Pretty art, art that is somehow failing to get anywhere near the enormity of the situation it's trying to describe.

The philosopher Adorno said that that there could - or should - not be a lyric poetry after Aushwitz. An extreme position perhaps; but one I think that poets should take seriously. An abiding image for me is the black-and-white footage of the camps coupled with the sonorous voice of Lawrence Olivier in The World at War: it was both horribly fascinating and effective: it's probably the reason my religious beliefs found a home in Quakerism for instance.

But I'm also aware that I cannot imagine what it is like to be a victim of genocide; and that it is presumptious of me to think I could. The same is true of female suicide bombers. Before writing that poem, maybe we should ask ourselves who we think we are. Comfortable Westerners writing from a place of privilege seem to assume too often that they can speak for anyone.

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