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Poetry’s purpose

Tuesday, March 21 2017

POETRY makes nothing happen, poet WH Auden once remarked.

By this he likely meant the duty of the poet is separate and apart from any programme, any agenda. Yet, poetry does have a function and purpose in any society. It is a vital part of the arts, involving language, imagery and ideas that have the potential to make us question, understand and think about the tangible world.

However, the potential of poetry to move and to astonish is sometimes overlooked. In a world dominated by social media, attention spans have shrunk and the literary arts as a whole face a challenge of competing with vibrant, diverse tools of narrative that technology has birthed. Film is the dominant art form of our times.

Yet, there is still a place for poetry in our world and in Trinidad and Tobago society. Today, as we join those who commemorate World Poetry Day, we highlight the need to ensure poetry is not left behind in our consideration of the arts.

Our region has produced many outstanding poets of regional and international acclaim. The passing of St Lucian poet Derek Walcott last Friday has brought back to the fore his formidable achievements as a poet. Walcott’s output has placed him alongside the likes of Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, WB Yeats, Maya Angelou and the like.

While both Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar both praised Walcott’s legacy, his life story demonstrates how much more work our statesmen need to do to nourish the arts.

Walcott made Trinidad and Tobago his home in the 1950s.

The Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), which he founded in 1959, became a key avenue through which he brought many of his plays to life while also showcasing and launching many local dramatists.

Notwithstanding Walcott’s many international laurels, including the Nobel Prize in 1992 and the TS Eliot Prize in 2010, the TTW remains without a permanent home.

As Walcott once observed, “Where are your monuments?” Today, upon entering the TTW lobby in Belmont, you can still see an old, worn, faded petition which reads, “We the undersigned petition the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to dedicate the building location known as the Old Fire Station…for the exaltation of the arts as well as a well-deserved homage to Derek Walcott, Nobel laureate 1992.” Theatre and poetry have a clear nexus — as anyone who has read the plays of Shakespeare can tell you — and it is doubly ironic that today, as we celebrate World Poetry Day and continue to grieve the loss of Walcott, that the TTW’s predicament is more or less the same as it was all those decades ago. We hope this year, however, the State reflects on the need for not only fitting tribute, but also a more robust approach to the arts.

For example, we praise those entities, including State companies, that have supported the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. The festival, which will launch its seventh edition tomorrow at the National Library in Port-of-Spain, is an annual feast for those seeking Caribbean literature which reaches all over the world. It runs from April 26 to April 30. All readings, panels, and performances are free and open to the public and an exciting line-up is expected to be formally unveiled at tomorrow’s launch.

But in a time of crime and violence, in a time of economic turbulence and uncertainty, in a time when global affairs appear to be sitting on a knife’s edge, with the rise of far-right groups, Brexit and Donald Trump, what is the use of championing literature and poetry? What is the use of the arts? To those who ask these questions, we turn to Martin Carter’s famous line, “this is the dark time.” Poetry gives us a tool to express our humanity. It also reminds us that we are not alone. It can bridge gaps, bring people together, and move us to new understandings. Today, we call for more to be done to ensure that the legacy of Walcott lives on.

And to remind us of the power of the written word.



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