Watching Mahua Moitra taking on professional hecklers and seasoned politicians while defending an idea of India, and drawing on a variety of literary texts and, of course, the Constitution to do so was an interesting moment. To believe in change, to believe in the principles of democracy, to believe in dissent, and to believe that ‘this too shall pass’, as she calls our attention to poets who spoke of the temporality of power demonstrated that political rhetoric, polemics and argumentation also demands the literary.
But if ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ as the great WH Auden stated, then why do political leaders, judges writing influential judgements and corporate honchos cite poetry? Is it because poetry – and literature in general – offers a language that sounds good? Or is it that it offers us visions, dreams and worlds that drive the collective imagination to imagine a different reality? The jury is still out on this, is it? No.
The Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which describes itself as a ‘museum of conscience’, on the banks of the Ohio River, separated the slave-owning States of the South from the anti-slavery States of the North. The Underground Railroad was a system of routes, safe-houses and messengers that was instrumental in taking many slaves from the South into the North, Mexico and Canada in the 19th century. Hanging from this museum’s roof, about halfway down for all visitors to see and read, was a banner with some lines of poetry.
The lines were from the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Cure at Troy’. Heaney, quite used to fascism, violence and the quest for independence, hailing as he does from Ireland, had more to say in this poem, as I discovered later:
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
The stanza beginning ‘History says’ was what transfixed me at the Museum.
Creating the Context
Even though Heaney’s opening lines here seem to echo Auden’s sentiments, there is something more going on in the poem that makes it suitable to the Museum, and what it stands for.
Reading the history of slavery, racism and the battles by the brave to save the wretched of the American earth within the Heaney lines is to find a frame to understand the events from a different era. The Underground Railroad activists believed in and executed miracles, and yet did not seek revenge. Even when history claimed that one cannot hope, some did. History and Hope do not, normally, rhyme, but within specific contexts they possibly could. What Heaney and the Museum point to, like Moitra, is the necessity of creating the context in which they may rhyme, or made to.
The rhyming of Hope and History is a miracle that rides in on the tidal wave of justice, demanded by the slaves in 19th century America, by Heaney’s Irish, by the many global south countries when under colonial rule and, now, by those same nations seeking it from their countrymen and governments. Heaney’s lines, then, are not pure fictions but directly reference histories of civil rights movements. To read History is also, sometimes, to read Hope in that
History, and the contexts that created Hope – and in the process making History as well.
Heaney acknowledges the shore is distant, but one must believe that it is reachable, not unlike the fiery speech in which the debutant parliamentarian sought to reclaim and re-imagine an India of various poets and freedom fighters. To inculcate belief where none exists is, in Heaney’s lines indexed to the ‘museum of conscience’, the work of poetry.
Admittedly, this belief is not easy to discern within the lines of poetry or to acquire, but another great Irish poet, WB Yeats, would exhort us to possess, individually and collectively, ‘a fascination for what’s difficult’. When Toni Morrison says, ‘we do language…that is how civilizations heal’ (something we have quoted before), it is not just an invitation to produce a certain kind of poetry for our times, but also to read our contemporary within certain kinds of poetry that anticipates, frames, our times.
Museum of Conscience
The museum of conscience fascinates us – and it is interesting that Moitra mentions another museum of conscience, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in her speech – on its own. The immense risks the Railroad people took, the courage and the suffering, the narratives recorded in history, show us that the Railroad was the tidal wave of Heaney’s poem. Read in conjunction with the Heaney lines the Museum performs something spectacular.
Geoffrey Galt Harpham recalling that, when he first read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a student, he forgot the hour and the day and so missed his class. Harpham, who would later write on ethics and literature and become the Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, concludes his reflection on his reading experience by saying, Literature obeys the law of inertia: it moves you so much, that you cannot move. It is a spectacle that transfixes you.
It is this power of poetry to move you so that you are stilled – let us, for want of a better word for our times, call it ‘petrified’, with all the meanings the word carries – that the politician and the judge, often for very different purposes, harnesses. Heaney is right: poems do not rectify a wrong, what they do often is to teach us that what we are seeing is wrong.
This function of poetry, to shape our perceptions in the age of percepticide, is what the Museum attested to, and the new parliamentarian invoked. The last word on this power of the poetic line, as we have seen many times now, must again go to the poet, and we return to Auden’s unforgettable:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)