PEN International Sat 20 March 2021

Today the world marks World Poetry Day, an opportunity to celebrate and promote poetry and the power and creativity of language. Each year on this day, PEN International highlights the case of poets who face great challenges across the globe simply for their work, and asks its members and supporters to take action on their behalf. 

When I think of the poets incarcerated in the world and punished, I think of poetry. Poetry is almost the only thing that has no monetary value. You cannot sell a poem. Nobody wants to buy a poem. Poems are not for sale in the market by the apples and peaches, or in the auction houses by sculptures and paintings. I confess that it gives me a strange wonder and shock to think that a poem is so powerful and so dangerous that a poet can be locked up and sentenced to death for rhymes and couplets, for metaphors and symbols.

When contemplating how dangerous poems have become, I recall the words of British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy: ‘If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone’. In our times, if Galileo had inked his discoveries in free verse with stanza breaks, he might be looking at the sky- his round, telescope-shaped sky- from a prison cell.   

Mahvash Sabet, imprisoned in Iran in 2008 and freed 10 years later in 2017, penned impassioned poems to Fariba with whom she shared a cell at the beginning of her incarceration. Sabet wrote: ‘O my companion in the cage! How many cruelties we saw together; how many favours too and blessings in our isolation. […] They tied your wings to mine, feather to feather, and you rested your head beside mine every night’.

The poet Li Bifeng, in China, continues to compose poems in prison where he has been since 1998. One stanza begins: ‘Over the high wall, we watch the sun from afar and the mountains from afar. In the dreams of nights, we see people from afar using the net of yearning we salvage those scattered memories and then we let the bones grow into the bones’.

In answer to these verses, we are not neutral. Everyday members of PEN think of these poets and their suffering. We know, for poets who are incarcerated, the sun is cold and there are months between months, days between days and hours between hours. Even in the months, days, and hours, which are not on the calendar, we are working for their freedom of expression and their freedom.

When I visited Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet who was under house arrest and awaiting sentencing, she gave me a cloth she’d embroidered in red thread with the words: ‘Poetry is not a crime!’.

In 2020, PEN International defended writers from across the globe, including poets who have been harassed, threatened with death, detained, imprisoned, and tortured for their poetry and for their activism. Just this month, two poets were killed in Myanmar as they took part in the pro-democracy protests. This World Poetry Day, we highlight the case of poets Maryja Martysievič (Belarus), Katherine Bisquet (Cuba), Varavara Rao (India) and Innocent Bahati (Rwanda).

In honouring all PEN’s poets who are in peril, I think of how, in my fidelity to empirical knowledge, poetry is my secular faith and where I find revelation.  Poetry is the search for truth and solace before the invisible. And every poet knows this: although stars may have different names in all the world’s languages, they cast the same light.

Jennifer Clement, President PEN International


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