Is poetry a form of protest?
John Kinsella, an Australian poet who recently withdrew from the shortlist of the T.S. Eliot Prize because of his objection to the prize's sponsorship by an investment firm, certainly believes so.
"I practice 'linguistic disobedience' in the hope of bringing about positive social, ethical and political change," Kinsella wrote in New Statesman.
Kinsella's withdrawal followed that of British poet Alice Oswald, who also cited her discomfort with the financial backing of the prize.
The prize, which awards about $23,000 to the winner, is run by the Poetry Book Society, which recently lost its funding from the Arts Council, a move that was protested by over 100 British poets at the time. In October, the Society announced that it had entered into a three-year sponsorship arrangement with Aurum Funds, an investment firm that manages the funds of hedge funds.
"I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions," Oswald said in a statement.
"My politics and ethics are such that I can't accept money from such a source," Kinsella told The Bookseller at the time. "Hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism, if I can put it that way."
Kinsella, who describes himself as a vegan, an anarchist, and an activist, writes poems that often focus on ecological issues in his native Australia, including land degradation and the dispossession of native peoples. For Kinsella, poetry is a potential vehicle for alerting readers to larger issues in the world. Once, he even stopped bulldozers temporarily from destroying bushland by reading out poems in their path.
"I try not to write poems of propaganda [...] but ones whose subject matter and language will draw the reader into considering 'issues' without being instructed what to think," Kinsella wrote. "Poems can express 'extreme feelings' and still work against violence; this is what most appeals to me about the medium."
Central to his notion of poetic activism is something he calls "linguistic disobedience," which can be employed through anything from the use of unexpected syntax and form, to the recording of unheard voices and unseen sights, all the way to full-on rants. Here is a segment of Kinsella's own poem, "Figures in a Paddock," which ends:
Towards the dry bed, marked
by twists and shadow-skewed
runs to colour like bad blood.
The sky is brittle blue,
foliage thin but determined:
colour indefinable beyond green.
They walk, and walking makes history.
And tracks. All machinery.
The paddock inclines. A ritual of gradients.
Ceremony. Massacre. Survey.
"For me, poetry has no point in existing if it's not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change," he wrote in Poetry Magazine.
The rest of Kinsella's poem can be read at his website.
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