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Writers on poetry - a case study (ii)

In this article, Dr Shazia Jagot explores the literary criticism written by poet Vahni Capildeo.

Can poetry offend? What consequences might this have for the poet? These are questions that might not come to mind immediately when we think of poetry yet in the extracts below, Vahni Capildeo demonstrates that poetry is an active, live force that can offend, intentionally or otherwise.

I’ve chosen two sections from Capildeo’s essay, ‘Punishable Bodies: Poetry on the Offensive’. This is a piece of writing that I find to be engaging and thought-provoking - it sheds light on the active power of poetry and gives a subtle call for action. It asks us to rethink the relationship between poem, poet and audience. I’m particularly taken by the way it brings into sharp view the very fact that poetry moves; with this movement, the potency of offense can be distilled or exaggerated.

Here, place can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, across geography, space, time, and perhaps even language. The specific example of conflict over questions of authenticity in the circles of writers from the Caribbean diaspora reminds us of the energetic dynamics of poetry as expressions of lived experience. However, the focus is not on who speaks for whom, but offense in action – what does offense mean? How do we act and react to offense in poetry, personally and collectively? Can we, and how can we, separate the poem from the poet? More than anything, the piece reminds us that poetry is a product of a poet -a person, a body - for whom there can be serious and life-threatening consequences.

Extract taken from Vahni Capildeo, ‘Punishable Bodies: Poetry on the Offensive’, Poetry 21 (2018), 175-182, pp. 175-76.

It is a truism that poetry, transferred from one place to another, gains or loses in its power to offend, or its vulnerability to being deemed offensive. This truism becomes striking when the experience of that transfer is lived.

Those not “from” the Caribbean diaspora may not be aware of the infighting that is breaking out sporadically, in real and virtual spaces, over what is “authentically” Caribbean. Just after the historical moment of independence, now that the archipelago has begun speaking to as well as of itself, giant bell jars have started being clamped down upon it, empty yet already echoing with imported divisiveness, ethnic and otherwise. Writers who were peers have fallen out; some refuse to be in the same room, let alone mentor or review each other. People — poets — write, read, and are offended.

Extract taken from Vahni Capildeo, ‘Punishable Bodies: Poetry on the Offensive’, Poetry 21 (2018), 175-182, pp. 179-180.

“Offense,” as an abstract noun, is an odd word in the constructions that home it. In English, offense may be taken or given. In emotional truth, offense may balloon around full of poison gas, leaking and punctured, but not owned — and with a trailing string. Sometimes it drops like a mislaunched firework. If I am — if one is — aware of an intention to offend, a space may open up where distance can be taken; the offense can be dodged or coolly allowed to go flying; and the intention, or the ill-wisher, be dealt with rationally. It is possible to have a detached response. When one’s life is not immediately at stake, or dependent on the whimsical mercy of overpowering forces, that is.

People are good at feeling what they ought to feel: at catching a communal emotion, and letting it carry them away; or at carrying through with whatever action that communal emotion may move them toward, or justify, or apparently require. In extreme yet not uncommon cases, where a poet has been disappeared, killed, jailed, tortured, banned, or terrorized into compliance with the state or some other dominant grouping, how many good citizens—if compelled to attend a reading of the offending poems, a recitation of words, no body to punish — would feel personally offended, upset to their core? How many would have suspended a personal self in favor of a collective self, in a kind of internal keeping up with imagined and cruel neighbors? In aligning themselves under the banner of anger, instead of experiencing offense, might they not be the opposite of upset—in tidying away a supposed threat, perhaps they might feel righteous, strong, and strengthened? Even in the case of “blasphemy,” is the condemnation really for the what (let alone the how) of saying — is the poem condemned? Or is it the poet who is condemned, for the temerity of speaking out of turn?

Poetry, and offense, are both personal and impersonal. Foisting a documentary, rather than imaginative, duty on the poet at work, and marketing poetry by encouraging the identification of the work with the ocular proof of the poet in body, rather than expanding the role and responsibilities of the audience, is perhaps not the most clarifying — or inoffensive — move for literature today.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question - we look forward to hearing from you!

What does Shazia Jagot mean when she talks about trying to separate the poet from the poetry? Is this possible, or desirable?

Can you think of instances where poetry has offended people, proven to be dangerous, or resulted in punishment?

Does this change how you think about poetry?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York