Vural Özdemir / Toronto
2021 is here. We all can use some hope in the New Year.
Hope is a sine qua non for life, something that we cannot do without, like air, universal human rights, and independent journalism to strengthen democracy and hold power to account.
Hope is not only a positive expectation but also a form of veritable resistance against tyranny. Hope prevents public complacency and keeps political engagement, critical thinking and the struggle for democracy alive.
In the current era of populist autocrats and rising fascism, it is not uncommon for interviews with democracy advocates to conclude with the question “do you have hopes for the future?”.
But is hope an irrationally positive feeling despite facing serious adversity?
The poet and playwright Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) once said,
"Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Hope is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, that gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.” (1)
Indeed, hope is not about the status quo or a simple arithmetic calculation of the current risks and solutions. Hope depends on an ability to work toward a principled cause beyond oneself, and importantly, re-imagine life and society beyond the immediate time and place.
Hope against tyranny is very much about saying another world is possible!
And good poetry does precisely that – a transformative travel in time and place, beyond our immediate era, physical confines, and social context, and all else that oppress us, whatever they may be: a prison cell, poverty, capitalism, social class, gender-based violence, official histories of nation-states that hide colonialism and genocides, and threats to free journalism and democracy.
Poetry as a form of travel
The feelings of despair and depression that result from chronic exposure to oppression are not merely learned helplessness or results of low serotonin and dopamine concentrations in the brain. They are also caused by a ‘compressed sense of time, place and the self’ and entrenchment in the here-and-now. This entrenchment prevents re-imagining creative solutions to fight oppression.
Oppression is not always external but can also be internal, self-imposed, by us-on-us. For example, many poets wrote about the figures and images of beauty, and the associated false, unchecked and imposed social norms and standards which are internalized and then cause oppression with pressure to meet them.
Although each of us has different tastes and preferences in poetry, poems that are well poised to resist fascism share, therefore, the common denominator of offering the reader swift travel - in timescapes, landscapes, and the self.
Anti-fascist poetry sometimes says nothing directly about fascism. But it decompresses time, place and the self, and thus empowers the reader with a type of extraction from the status quo and its unimaginative echo chambers.
In a time when we face oppression daily, we need a special type of hope powered by poetry. Here are some examples.
C. P. Cavafy
Let’s consider this excerpt from the poem “Ithaca” by C. P. Cavafy (2):
“As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time.”
Reading Ithaca offers instant strength. It lifts the reader’s thoughts high to a larger panoptic and panoramic view of her/his immediate context, and prevents the oppressor persons, social norms and institutions from being internalized. The Ithaca poem is both a shield to protect, and a second wind to sail forward in life, free and in solidarity, no matter what the immediate circumstances might be.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Thinking about new ways to boost our imaginations for democracy, and doing so in scale for collective action against fascism, cannot be complete without Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018) (3).
A versatile writer in many genres including science fiction and poetry, Le Guin represented the word ‘writer’ in its most veritable form. She emphasized that other worlds are possible even if they exist only in our imagination, and that to build a new world, we first have to be able to imagine it.
Hence, if we are to seek total emancipation, and freedom from oppression of all sorts, Le Guin’s poetry, science fiction and other writings offer much hope (4, 5, 6).
Le Guin’s web page opens with a quote from one of her works, City of Illusions (1967):
“In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies.” (7)
As this quote appears at high level on Le Guin’s web page, it might be safe to think that Le Guin herself likely valued the sentiment on hope personally as well, independent from the context of the book.
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a documentary film in English (official trailer: https://worldsofukl.com), and an interview reflecting on the life and works of Le Guin by esteemed scholar Bülent Somay are available in Turkish.
Onward to 2021 with hope and poetry
We need poetry for hope against the tyranny of the autocrats. Times of populism and autocracy will pass but poetry will stay with us forever, as with Le Guin and Cavafy.
Constant exposure to oppression and autocrats is not healthy. Not only does it undermine our physical and mental health, chronic oppression makes us forget that another world, one that is equitable, democratic and kind, is possible. With ongoing oppression, we also lose our capacity for long-term thinking and foresight on multiple possible futures.
Reading every day a few pages of Le Guin and Cavafy, or whatever your choice of poetry might be, to take you to new timescapes and landscapes, can do wonders for human health and the health of global democracy in 2021.
(1) Vaclav Havel. (1990) Disturbing the Peace. pp. 181-182.
(2) C.P. Cavafy. (1975) Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley. Princeton University Press.
(3) Ursula K. Le Guin kimdir? (2018) Gazete Duvar, January 24th. https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2018/01/24/ursula-k-le-guin-kimdir
(4) Ursula K. Le Guin. (2019) Şimdilik Her Şey Yolunda. Son Şiirler 2014 – 2018. (So Far So Good. Final Poems 2014-2018). Çeviri: Gökçenur Ç. Yayıma Hazırlayan: Müge Gürsoy Sökmen, Bülent Somay. İstanbul: Metis Yayıncılık. https://www.metiskitap.com/catalog/book/36656
(5) Emek Erez. (2019) Ursula K. Le Guin’in şiirli vedası. Gazete Duvar, November 29th. https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2019/11/29/ursula-k-le-guinin-siirli-vedasi
(6) Poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin. (2020) https://www.ursulakleguin.com/poetry
(7) Ursula K. Le Guin. (1967) City of Illusions. New York: Ace Books.
Vural Özdemir is a writer in Toronto, Canada.