Authorial note: In a personal interaction with Lord Rowan Williams at the Gifford Lectures concerning the poetry of those ‘under pressure’, Williams quite possibly did not understand the full force of my question concerning the use of poetry for the struggle of the people as opposed to Love. The following is an attempt to make that clearer.

            Azam Ahmed, in his piece for the New York Times, recounted how the famous Pashtun poet, Matiullah Turab, held no interest in creating poetry about nature or love, but stated quite boldly that “A poet’s job is not to write about love…A poet’s job is not to write about flowers. A poet must write about the plight and pain of the people.” Most of us who appreciate the social justice aspects of Hip-Hop culture, resonate with these words immediately. But for many, for whom the lyrics of music are a soothing source of peace from the long days at work, for whom the lyrics of music do not necessarily have to mean anything, for whom the lyrics of music give voice to their passions they are not able to express, and for whom the lyrics of music are something great to dance to, the words of Turab, while the sentiment may be grasped, nevertheless fall short of the entirety of the poetic experience. ‘There may be great poetry written about love from the lower classes!’, ‘Much of the best of political commentary in poetry comes from the upper classes!’ But, this low-hanging criticism of Turab’s statement entirely misses the force of his words.

            The force of his words come from an energy sweeping much of the middle east in recent years, of a revolutionary spirit for justice proclaimed through the power of spoken word. In north America, it may be generally said, much of our music, movies, and words are produced to talk about love, sex, and romantic relationships, while at the same time we claim a moralism concerning social justice that other countries may not necessarily have. We can see this contradiction of the intellectual/cultural climate of north America most exemplary in Kanye West’s new album (?) Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella, 2013), where we find exactly the sexualization of politics. kanye-yeezus

            In probably the most vulgar track on the album (though that’s a tough competition), “I’m in it”, Kanye says, “your tittes, let ’em out, free at last/ Thank God almighty, they free at last”, and “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”. Here we see nothing less than the prophetic speech and symbolism of the Black civil rights movement used for the expression of sexual liberation and hedonism. Much of our cultural discourse then, as exemplified in Yeezus, is completely unable to distance issues of social justice or politics from erotic desire, so saturated is our culture in discourse about ‘love’.

            Turab’s words then, are harsh to those raised in a society whose poetry and discourse is saturated in themes concerning ‘love’ and sexuality. His words however should not be misunderstood. We can grasp them better if we look at the example of the poetic collective of Afghani women known as Mirman Baheer. For them, to write about romance is a crime. But in the force of their poetry they do speak about love and relationships, even with political overtones such as the landai, “Your black eyelashes are Israel/ and my heart is Palestine under your attack.” Piercing… but how is this example different then from the example in Yeezus? Why does Turab’s criticism, as will be more elaborated on, not apply in this case?

            It is here then where we can still that Turab’s words are not against writing about ‘love’ as such but rather that much of the ‘poetry’ that may come from oppressive and upper-class milieus is about a type of love known as Ἒρως, whereas what the poet’s job should be is to write about ἀγάπη or “the plight and pain of the people.” Turab then is not making a criticism about the quality of the words spoken or written regarding ‘love’ as only an elitist endeavour, rather he is redefining the poet, as not merely the articulate one or the rhetorician, but as the prophet. G.K. Chesterton’s famous contrast between the poet and the logician in his work Orthodoxy, can then be faithfully adapted, with Turab’s words in mind, as,

“The poet only asked to get his head into the heavens. It is logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits. But it is the task of the prophet, not to wax ‘n’ wane about the beauty of nature or the heavens, nor is it to simplify justice into logical Kantian categorical imperatives, rather the prophet’s task is to split the heavens!” 

What might it mean to split the heavens? Firstly, if we should think of ‘heaven’, as the ancient did, as the realm which determines how things in earth are ordered. Secondly, if then the prophet writes and speaks about the pain of the people then it is straightforwardly to say that the lack of order upon the earth, exposes that there then must be a war in the heavens (Rev. 12:7-13). The heavens, the determining realm of earthly affairs, are themselves at war. It is not that either the Americans or the Taliban can merely carry out the mandates of the heavens to bring order and justice, as Turab exposes in his poetry/prophecy so well, but rather that the plight and pain of the people is a sign that there is a war waged within the heavens themselves.

            The difference then between the words about ‘love’ from Kanye West and the Mirman Baheer, both of which are mixed with political conflicts, is that the former’s are in the service of erotic love, which merely marvels at the heavens, while the later speak to the pain of the people, which shows that the heavens are split. If then the heavens are split, the battle is no longer as to who has discerned the knowledge from the heavens right (e.g. astrology or astronomy), but it is rather as to which authority you will submit to in this on-going cosmic struggle.  The classical reversion here to all that has been suggested so far is to say something to the affect of, ‘Well, erotic love speaks about the moment, the now, the right here, doesn’t everyone fall in love? Whereas all this non-sense about the split heavens is too abstract to be of any use to anyone!’ The proposed reply here to this objection is too say that erotic love is the highest form of love only for those most removed from agape love, from the plight and pain of the people. In other words, it is the splitting of the heavens, the exposure of the plight and pain of the people that is the right here, it it those who fantasize about erotic love that are in the abstract.

            Spike Jonze’s Her (Annapurna Pictures, 2013)* brilliantly demonstrates this exact point. Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is perfectly able to have an erotic relationship with his OS1, Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson. Erotic love is perfectly able to be abstracted and transposed from ‘real’ life to the point where one can even achieve an orgasm from mere thoughts. What Jonze’s film points out however is that Samantha and Theodore will never be able to express agape love, that is the plight and pain of the people, precisely because Samantha is not subject to pain or plight for she is not a person! There is no splitting of the heavens in the film, and in fact, Samantha along with Alan Watts are able to abandon earthly relationships to go off to an eternal cyber-space heaven, for it is there that peace is. Turab’s words then, about poetry not being about ‘love’ or nature, are exactly right. The moment that words are used to express emotions of erotic love or the beauty of nature they have immediately removed themselves from the plight and pain of the people, the greatest source of human poetry/prophecy, and have merely become the sophistry of masturbating emotions.**

            Turab’s criticism was never about the fact that lower classes could write incredible words about erotic love, nor that the upper classes could write incredible words concerning the plight and pain of the people, this entirely misses the point. Turab’s words are about what the function of poetry/prophecy is, and it is to express the plight and the pain of the people, to expose the split of the heavens. All words spoken about erotic love or the beauty of nature while aesthetically pleasing, are at the end not the job of the poet/prophet, they’re the job of a court jester, they’re the job of a crowd pleaser, they’re the job of a false prophet. The challenge then for ourselves from this incisive criticism is how we use our words. With twitter, Facebook, and blogs (blogs!!!) the temptation is to use our words uselessly to praise erotic love, or take pride in nature, or cheap flattery. The task of our words, at least if we are committed within a Christian theological framework, committed and following the supreme example of agape love, Jesus Christ, should be that,

“…Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:10-11)

*A fuller review of the film will be forthcoming 

** In the film Her one can see the affect abstract erotic love has upon human expression in the painfully awkward career of Theodore who has to write letters for other people in relationships.

Advertisements