The Power of the Pen

14 May

I love the quote mentioned in today’s New York Times (5/14/2012), regarding a march instigated by a group of Russian writers just wanting to take a protest stroll (against Putin’s crackdown on dissent) through central Moscow without being harassed, beaten, arrested, etc. :

“Russian history is full of confrontations between leaders and writers, whom Stalin once described as ‘engineers of the soul.'”

If only the written word had such power in the U.S. People understand the power of political cartoons:


But poetry?

It’s long been used as a powerful tool to inspire the masses, yet so few in the U.S. now read anything more than pulp fiction. Today’s librarians (and desperate parents) often say, “Well, at least they’re reading.” I understand their well-intentioned hope, but I beg to differ. WHAT you read DOES matter. And I wonder if it’s yet another failure of our educational system that allows so many kids to skate through their schooling without learning any history through poetry. It’s not just “roses are red, violets are blue.” Poetry is passion, oppression, injustice, and violence.

So many young (and older) boys look at the war and weapons books, and say “This is cool! I only want to read books like this.” 

If they could just take a dip into Anna Akhmatova’s work, or any of the great Russian poets of the 20th century, it might alter their world view.

Think of their excitement as they get to pore over the blood and guts of revolution, and possibly conclude that war is not glamorous, that oppression is abhorrent, that poverty and injustice plants the seeds of violence and upheaval. From a translation of Akhmatova’s REQUIEM:

That was when the ones who smiled
Were the dead, glad to be at rest,
And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
Swung from its prisons…

Akhmatova lived through the imprisonment and death of two husbands and imprisonment of her son. She was also persecuted and wrote how poetry is a common motive for murder in Russia. Her anguish is every Russian’s anguish (from REQUIEM):

The Sentence (Verdict)

The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.

I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again . . .


Mountains bow down to this grief,
Mighty rivers cease to flow,
But the prison gates hold firm,
And behind them are the “prisoners’ burrows”
And mortal woe.
For someone a fresh breeze blows,
For someone the sunset luxuriates–
We wouldn’t know, we are those who everywhere
Hear only the rasp of the hateful key
And the soldiers’ heavy tread…”

And when she is “recognized” while standing in a prison line in Leningrad she wrote (from REQUIEM):

Instead of a Preface
Then a woman with 
bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had
never heard me called by name before, woke up from
the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and
whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered: “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

If only…I think we might have some converts in our American classrooms. And then they, too, might be inspired to march for peace, for justice, and equal rights for all.

Here’s the NYT story:

A Dozen Writers Put Down Their Pens

2 Responses to “The Power of the Pen”

  1. Jilanne Hoffmann May 14, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    My apologies on the formatting of this post. I just couldn’t get WordPress to cooperate. Perhaps it’s a Communist plot! :o)

  2. subtlekate May 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Engineers of the soul. I love that.

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