The Power of the Pen

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, and yes, it does get some kids to read. But 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, it might add some perspective to their myopic 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 original NYT story:

A Dozen Writers Put Down Their Pens

6 thoughts on “The Power of the Pen

  1. FictionFan says:

    Great post! We got taught no Russian poetry at school – in fact, from memory we only got taught British (English) poetry. I don’t even remember any US stuff. But the poetry that had the most impact on us all was undoubtedly the WW1 war poetry. I can still quote huge chunks of it, and so can most of my generation, and it undoubtedly still affects our attitude to war today. Being child-free, I have no idea what they’re taught today, but I’m slightly horrified in truth at the books that seem to be churned out glorifying war, even though they’re called fantasy. And even more slightly horrified (at risk of sounding like an embittered old woman) that young people seem to go on reading what I can’t help but think of as childrens’ books until well into their twenties, even thirties – an age when my generation was out there being politically active and protesting against war amongst other things. Oops! I think I did just sound like an embittered old woman after all…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      HA! No spoonful of sugar for you! Yes, there are some heart-wrenching poems from WWI, aren’t there? I’m thinking that more “politically charged” poetry should be taught. Not that I really know what’s being taught and what isn’t. But I do think that the tendency to think of poetry as a way of releasing or chronicling personal angst has tended to overshadow the poem as an agent of change. If we had more knowledge of how subversive poetry can be, perhaps people would once again start thinking of it as “relevant.”

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