What is the role of a poet in modern society? Sophie McKeand writes about the overwhelming challenge facing artists today: to speak up or stay silent?
I’m writing this at 5.30am on a Friday morning. Later today will involve catching the train to Cardiff to finalise details for a once-in-a-lifetime project. An opportunity like this has never been offered before and I keep pinching myself to believe it’s really real.
What woke me with a jolt at 5am this morning though wasn’t excitement, it was an overwhelming sense of dread that it’s not really going to happen, that somehow somewhere something will occur to halt this opportunity. I can’t shake this dark feeling – opportunities like this don’t get offered to people like me. By that I mean outspoken, mouthy poets, and I’ve woken early with The Fear remembering a recent Tweet sent criticising a Welsh Labour politician’s myopic stance on immigration. I wasn’t the only one on social media agreeing that said politician would be better off joining UKIP but I’m probably the only one with this project on the near horizon, and I’m definitely the only Young People’s Laureate Wales wading into the debate (although these options are my own and not given in any official capacity).
Perhaps this isn’t such a difficult decision after all – if I’m experiencing these levels of worry and stress that being politically outspoken will hinder my poetic career, surely the simplest solution is to cease speaking out, to stop giving political opinions or challenging people and politicians who post tweets such as ‘We must move away from multiculturalism and towards assimilation. We must stand for one group: the British people.’
There are so many things wrong with this statement that I don’t have the time or energy to extrapolate here but, aside from simultaneously romanticising the mechanisms of British colonialism while sounding like The Borg from an episode of Star Trek: next generation, this politician, in less than 140 characters completely wiped the indigenous culture of Cymru from history and the map. I was devastated.
Which brings me back to the title of this piece, and the question – how can artists remain authentic and earn a living? I’ve heard a number of people state recently that our poets are not political enough these days or if they are it’s in such an obtuse, vague fashion they might as well not have bothered. I’d have to agree in the main part, but it’s not okay to throw this criticism at the feet of poets then walk away. We need to examine why this is – how is the political framework within which our poets are working silencing their voices?
Wales has a long tradition of poets earning a living from writing. Arguably our greatest poet ever, Taliesin, wrote his praise poems for various kings and noblemen with this tradition continuing for centuries from Y Cynfeirdd (the early poets) to the Beirdd y Twyysogion (Poets of the Princes) and beyond. This illustrates how tightly Wales’ poetic voice has been tied to seats of power going back over a thousand years and it does lead to wondering how much these bards were able to criticise their paymasters?
Moving into nearer history and widening the lens a little, poets who actively spoke out politically needed to either have their own financial security (such as PB Shelley – think The Mask of Anarchy) or were forced to embrace a life of poverty and intense opposition from mainstream critics – such as Baudelaire on publishing Les Fleurs du Mal.
But this is all in the past. We’re so much more progressive that that nowadays – aren’t we? We’re an open-minded liberal country who actively supports freedom of speech and the right of the individual to speak their truth unhindered.
I used to believe this was the case but nowadays I’m not sure how much I agree with this line of thinking. My worry about a reaction to the aforementioned Tweet, whether hyped-up by my own early-morning-crippling anxiety or not, still underlines reasons why our poets don’t, or won’t, speak out.
Perhaps you think I’m being hyper-sensitive or overly sensationalist for the sake of an article, so I’m going to give you a very recent example.* A poet I know was a dead cert for a year-long poetry residency. They had the necessary credentials and it was agreed by all that they were going to get the position as they’d obviously do an outstanding job. Why didn’t they get it? Because in the final interview, determined to stick to their principles, this poet made it clear that they weren’t interested in cosying-up to certain politicians at networking events, especially particular right-wingers whose politics they openly reject. The poet didn’t get the residency and someone on the panel told me explicitly that this was the reason why.
If a poet of this caliber can lose a year’s work and countless opportunities for being principled, what message does that send to our next generations of poets? What example does it set for artists working in any field?
To give another, personal example – I spoke out recently about being denied a vote in the Labour leadership elections, and although the majority of everyday people were supportive of my stance two things happened: a ‘Welsh politico’ began tweeting that I was a ‘naive fool’ and a reporter from a national newspaper interviewed me in such a way as to imply that I had no business speaking out in this manner when my ‘job’ is paid for by the Welsh government.**
If I were a younger poet still trying to make it this would be more than enough to silence me – in all honesty, as a middle-aged poet still trying to piece together a living this is still a hugely daunting prospect. It doesn’t take grand declarations – just the quiet closing of doors, this censorship-by-stealth, the slow chipping away of confidence whenever a poet finds the strength to speak out, or speak up for something they believe, or challenges someone in a position of political power. Couple this with the hyper-competitive attitude encouraged in most young artists nowadays and it’s no wonder nobody’s interested in disrupting the status quo.
This approach has been pervading the arts for some time but, perhaps because we’re a free country, we look further afield when championing the freedom of speech of poets and writers. Nobody on these isles will be whipped or arrested or murdered for speaking out. The essential campaigning of organisations such as PEN Cymru who work to highlight the plight of writers being silenced by politicians and political structures abroad is crucial in an international context, but in addition to this we need to examine how we got to a position in this country where the slow suffocation of poets who put their principles before their next paycheque is becoming increasingly acceptable.
We have reached an absurd contradiction, where the poet is both someone we seek to actively silence whilst also being someone we overtly criticise for not speaking out. In this current political climate, now more than ever, we need to ensure that these voices are encouraged and heard – regardless of whether we agree with them or not.
*Some details changed for anonymity.
**I’m self-employed and the two-year position of Young People’s Laureate Wales currently makes up around a third of my work. The rest is writing commissions, residencies and workshops booked by a variety of organisations and individuals who fund their projects through numerous channels but this journalist wasn’t going to let his lack of understanding of my work get in the way of putting me down.