The other day I came upon an English poem that seemed to summarise the feelings of many people under the coalition government in Kenya. The form and vocabulary are dated, but this reminds us that similar situations and responses occur throughout history: literature is not the work of the super-sensitive bestowing enlightenment upon the masses. It is the words and images that those gifted in expression make available to those who share the same griefs, passions and bewilderment but may not have found a way to ventilate and come to terms with them.
Vikram Seth reminded us at the Storymoja Hay Festival in August 2009 that the political responsibility of writers is precisely the same as that of other citizens. Putting pen to paper does not make us wiser than anyone else. Concerned writers, concerned plumbers and concerned farmers all have a role to play. We would all wish from time to time that we had learnt to apply a tourniquet, to defuse a bomb or to detect a forgery. This is the poem which I don’t remember seeing until it was included in Michael Schmidt’s The Great Modern Poets (Quercus UK n/d):
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
They shall not return to us, the strong me, coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and, hid them in their
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night
Never while the bars of summer hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employment of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly and how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors and take counsel with their
To confirm and re-establish each career?
Their lives can not repay us – their death could not undo-
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?
The poem is called “Mesopotamia 1917”, that is, it refers to a war in Iraq. The author - hold on to your seatbelt - is Rudyard Kipling. I was surprised too, though that extraneous heavy syllable at the start of each line should have given me a clue. So is Kipling commonly stereotyped as an imperialist and racist, and related through his mother to the conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin subject to the same hurts and angers as ourselves?
Evidently yes. This is what I want to examine.
Technically it is not a good poem, though not nearly as bad as “If”. Wilfred Owen’s poem about Abraham sacrificing Isaac (“The parable of the old man and the young”) indicts the old men more memorably. But Owen was killed in 1918. He did not have to live with the aftermath. Kipling, who lost his only son in battle, did. He was indeed an imperialist and a martinet, not easy to get on with. But he never held public office of any kind, was never a soldier, though much of his work relates to soldiers, Indian or English, often of the lower ranks. He never accepted any of the national honours offered to him, even the Order of the Merit and the Poet Laureateship.
He is often characterised by a partial quotation from The Ballad of East and West.
* “Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”,
rather than the lines that follow:
“But there is neither East or West, border nor breed nor birth,
When two brave men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”
James Fenton has drawn on his rhythms and idioms to familiarise readers with the conflicts and issues of the later twentieth century.
(“Tiananmen is broad and clean
And you can’t tell/where the dead have been
And you can’t tell/when they’ll come again.
They’ll come again/to Tiananmen.”)
Having a common enemy does not necessarily – or optimally - lead to total consensus. “Many there be that desire peace, but few that desire the things that make for peace.” We should like to heal the nation but retain our professional jealousies and generation gaps, our dubious title deeds and high pollution rates. Not everyone would welcome a society where having a baby or having a car was permitted only to those showing prudence, foresight and responsibility in everyday life.
Protagonists on both sides in any war commonly pray for victory, write poems and produce moving graphic images on similar themes. Popular tunes echo on both sides of the lines with different words. So, Plaatje punctuates his account his visit to London during WWI to protest against discriminatory changes in South African land law with snatches of soldiers’ songs like It’s a long way to Tipperary in Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele. It was one way of linking two sets of readers. We cannot afford to ignore those who from another point of view genuinely seek for justice.
The classic example of this understanding is Yeats’s Easter 1916 about the gallant but unsuccessful Dublin rising of that year.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart.
But I number him in the song
He, too, has been changed in turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
We do not face disaster cold as concerned citizens the day riots break out. There are plenty of poems about Burnt Forest and Ennosupukia, about Mboya and J.M. and Ouko. We used to read them out on Torture Day or Heroes Day, weep a bit and feel better but we failed to put two and two together. Disaster management does not start after the worst has happened but before- like when glass-fronted buildings, for instance, are built in an earthquake zone. The American Embassy bombings would have caused fewer casualties if we had been taught at school,to shield eyes in nay explosion.Good sense provided voluntary ferry service to hospitals and an information desk at Uhuru Park. By the time the tsunami occurred, we had one of the best early warning systems around the Indian Ocean. Disaster does not have a sudden ending either. You get used to restrictions during a real war.
When the shooting stops there are new constraints – to behave normally towards the airman whose burnt face is disfigured with skin grafts, the released prisoner of war who does not feel safe without a snack hidden in his pocket “just in case”, the refugee who cannot bear to return to town where no one known to her survives. And, like Kipling, to contemplate a regime change which he could not have imagined ten years earlier.
When I represented publishers , I remember showing a new book to a scientist in Makerere just after peace had returned to Uganda in 1981. He stared at me wild-eyed.
“But this ought to have been my book. It duplicates all the research I have been doing while we were cut off from the outside world.”
We shall never know how many lifetimes of work are destroyed or set aside in violent times. We now have the techniques to preserve them – at that time the Makerere Institute of Computer Science was operating without a computer – but have instead used these to intimidate and misinform.
Like the unknown to the hungry
We were once the hope of the generation
Promise of the bumper harvest
As Jared Angira puts it in Hope of Tomorrow (Lament of the silent, Nairobi: EAEP 2004) 127f.)
We were the icebox
To dissolve violence
And melt hatred
I once met Michael Schmidt at a London book fair and requested him to consider some of my poems for his Carcanet Press. He demurred, since he said, African poetry was only politics. At my insistence he did read them and admitted there was poetry but it would not be of interest to his readers. The readers were, I believe, Mexican as well as British. But many years have passed and Schmidt refers to poetry as “the language of accrual” (op.cit.p.5) – each re-reading adds something to our understanding. His new anthology inevitably includes some politics.
But when so many died, so many and at such speed
There were no cities waiting for the victims.
They unscrewed to name plates from the shattered doorways.
And carried them away with the coffins.
(‘James Fenton, “A German Requiem” p.221)
The pen may conceivably be mightier than the sword but it is also frequently two edged. The drum, the bugle and the bagpipe may call to battle but they only do good if the strategy and the target are rationally laid out. All of us have lived with anger and I am sure I am not the only one who has held back poems that might do more harm than good until some equilibrium has been reached. The object is not to relieve our feelings but to restore order to society…. “The dead shall not return to us”. “But shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?”