On my way home yesterday evening, I bumped into an acquaintence and engaged in one of those random and somewhat odd conversations one does, on occasions find oneself involved in. My acquaintence with the gentleman with whom I spoke is of a passing nature, in that we have spent a few minutes chatting when we encounter one another. However, yesterday evening we spent some 40 minutes or so talking, during the course of which I learned that he is an artist. This led me to mention that I write poetry, to which his response was that “poets/poetry wants to control people”.
I was, I must confess somewhat taken back by the above statement. Despite me trying to elicit why my acquaintence held such a view, I was unable to obtain an answer which made sense to me. However the statement that “poets/poetry tries to control people” got me thinking about whether there might be any substance to the opinion expressed by my acquaintence.
Poets do (as with the rest of the population) hold views on religion, politics etc, some of which find their way into the poetry they write. Can reading a poem which voices a particular opinion “control” the reader?
Many years ago I remember reading an anthology compiled by the late left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn, entitled “Writings On the Wall: A Radical and Socialist Anthology”. I remember being impressed by some of the writings contained therein, however the book did not turn me into a Socialist. Where there to be a simple connection between what we read and how we vote then, surely I would now be a card carrying member of the British Labour Party or another Socialist party which (as mentioned above) I am not.
A poem has no power to exert physical control over the reader. Indeed, during the course of our chat, I mentioned to my acquaintence that where I to take hold of him and demand that he act in a certain manner that this would, quite obviously entail an attempt by me to exert control over him (I hasten to add that no one was grabbed or maltreated in any manner during the course of our interactions). We can, therefore safely conclude that poetry (or any other form of art for that matter) has no power to (literally) “control anyone.
Having said the above, it is true that Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, Mao’s China and various other regimes have banned books and persecuted (or even murdered) writers with who’s work they disagree. For example “The Gulag Archipelago”, which catalogued the horrors of the Soviet prison system was banned in the USSR, and its author persecuted. So, obviously totalitarian governments fear literature that attacks the belief structure on which the regime is built.
Does the fear of totalitarian regimes of literature which attacks their world view proove that poetry (and other forms of art) have the power to “control” those exposed to them. No. What free artistic expression can accomplish is to encourage those exposed to it to question their view of the world (or at least some aspect of it). Encouraging critical thinking is not control. Quite the opposite for, in the case of the authoritarian government it is the regime (not the poet or other artist) who is “controlling”, whilst the artist is questioning the status quo.
In conclusion, poetry does not “control”. It may (and often does) contain a message (political, religious or otherwise), however the reader can make up his/her own mind as to whether they agree (or disagree) with the poet’s perspective. It should, of course also be remembered that much poetry is purely (or largely) playful in nature. There is, for instance in most limericks no desire on the part of the poet other than to produce laughter in his/her readership.
As always I would be interested in the perspectives of you, my readers.