‘How many people read poetry? If no one does, then even the strongest poems will not change anything’

Does poetry make anything happen? Ahead of a roundtable discussion bringing together some of Malta’s best known writers, poets and songwriters, we asked each of them the same question

W.H. Auden, centre... ‘Keats and Yeats by your side’
W.H. Auden, centre... ‘Keats and Yeats by your side’

Part of a roundtable discussion bringing together some of Malta’s best known writers, poets and songwriters, we asked each of them the same question inspired by W.H. Auden’s oft-quoted line from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”.

The various expressions of protest literature in Malta, written and performed over the past months and beyond, were planned to be discussed at the 2020 Campus Book Festival in a conversation moderated by Jean Paul Borg. The Festival has now been postponed until further notice, but our authors have contributed some comments when asked the question: does poetry make anything happen?

Wayne Flask

I’m not the best judge of poetry around; I deal in prose, on many levels. I think however that there’s a huge need for more Maltese politically-aligned writers to speak out. I am at a loss as to why many prefer to keep their mouths shut even during recent times, when we’ve witnessed the collapse not just of the institutions, but of the very notion of public decency. For if the arts cannot, in my opinion, bring change on their own and certainly not in a vacuum, they should – and have a duty to – inform, educate and inspire. Ultimately, I believe that activist and popular movements will bring tangible change. The arts have a duty to motivate intellectual change. 

Wayne Flask (Photo: James Bianchi/Media Today)
Wayne Flask (Photo: James Bianchi/Media Today)

Nadia Mifsud

If the question is: does poetry bring about immediate political action/social change? – the answer is ‘no’. On the face of it, any literary text is simply words on paper. When read, however, something happens. Anything may happen, because no two readers will interpret a text in the same way. The impact of words varies, depending on who is reading them, where and when. The bigger the audience, the larger the impact. This holds true for all art forms. Art triggers reflection and critical thinking – it is that which ultimately generates social movement. If it were otherwise, why would totalitarian regimes view artists as potentially threatening and systematically try to hinder their practice? I believe my responsibility as a human being, our responsibility as human beings, is to fight any wrongdoing we witness in any way available to us. Writing is one form of expression among many others – it just so happens that it’s the form of expression I feel most comfortable with.

Nadia MifsudNadia Mifsud. Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Nadia MifsudNadia Mifsud. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Mario Vella

Surprisingly enough I’ve never been into poetry much. I lean more toward lyric writing which, in spite of similarities, distinguishes itself from poetry due to its symbiotic relationship with music. With poetry, the writing has to stand on its own feet. There’s no ‘band’ aid. Whether both forms of expression make anything happen at all mostly depends on the quality of the writing or the reader’s/listener’s personal baggage, but I don’t feel it’s the writer’s duty to change his reader. At the very least he is obliged to grab his attention and provoke something, anything, within him. If his mastery of the craft is such that he wields transformative powers, then kudos to him. 

Mario Vella
Mario Vella

Noah Fabri

My preferred kind of poetry is hip-hop, which does communicate the frustrations of a generation with the system whilst being a part of it. But a traditional idea of poetry is esoteric enough to be interpreted any way you like and won’t exactly break down class barriers either. Change is not a writer’s responsibility; I mean you have a space to say something, so you can comment on what’s happening and question and upset the social order, but any kind of art does something in society, whether reproducing and resting on the status quo, or questioning and disturbing it, or actively resisting it. Art that provokes change works when the artist is actively engaged in a community and keeps that community’s interest foremost in the production, promotion and economic use of their work.

Alex Vella Gregory

Many people look at art to find answers, but I personally believe that art should provoke questions and not provide answers. Setting out to create works in order to ‘change the world’ feels like a futile crusade. Audiences are unpredictable because we all have different points of reference with which we navigate our realities.

An artist’s responsibility lies not with pushing for change, but in asking the right questions. Change will happen anyway – it is a natural process. There is rarely a clear straight line between cause and effect. To cite an example: What caused the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille: the Marseillaise or the Enlightenment? I’d say the latter, because a group of individuals asked the right questions. That to me is what all art is all about.

Immanuel Mifsud

How many people read poetry? If no one does, then even the strongest poems will not change anything. I’m of course stating the obvious. When I was ten, our teacher used to read us poems about nature and the environment, and the good and the bad. Forty-two years later I’m noticing some things remained the same, others have changed, only to the worse. Poetry will become effective on a wide scale only the moment those in power to implement changes are inspired by it. Unfortunately, hardly anyone lurking in those dark and grungy corridors read poetry, so I’m not so hopeful. Yet, I keep writing and urging fellow writers to struggle for change. I don’t know why I do it.

Author Immanuel Mifsud. Photo: James Bianchi
Author Immanuel Mifsud. Photo: James Bianchi

Adrian Grima

I’m no longer a fan of the idea of literature as an instrument of social change. I’m referring to ‘literature’ here as that searching, often tormented and always intoxicating kind of writing that allows us to explore the known and the unknown. That takes us beyond everyday experience and language, but at the same time allows us to delve deeper into them. 

But there are other kinds of literature. More immediate perhaps. With a no less important role to play. The kind of poetry they are writing and reciting right now in Algeria. It was not poetry that started the Hirak revolution. But poetry is an important part of this incredible movement. ‘The military rule will be removed’, intones Mohamed Tadjadit, a 26-year-old poet who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and was a fruit seller when the revolution began. ‘And the mafia State will fall / The people are proud and will never be broken / They only want to clean their nation.’ 

Adrian Grima. Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Adrian Grima. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Is this poetry? Of course it’s poetry. And it’s in high demand in Algeria, like the socially engaged Algerian rap of urban poets like Abderraouf Derradji, alias Soolking. But there’s also a more melancholic, more ‘literary’ kind of poetry that’s doing the rounds. It expresses people’s deeper feelings, their aspirations. So it’s not always easy to draw lines between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ poetry. Do we need to?

For further updates and to know when the 2020 Campus Book Festival will be held, follow the Campus Book Festival page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/events/2972097009519075/). Download the full programme here.

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