Letter: Silence is no response to slaughter

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The Independent Online
Sir: As the contributor of a 'Daily Poem' on the subject of Bosnia, my first reaction on reading my friend and fellow-poet George Szirtes' angry Burnsian stanzas on 'the caring British bard' (letter, 27 July) was to agree, and feel ashamed. Then I re-read them and knew that his position needed to be challenged.

His bitter, satiric stanzas are saying, by implication, that writing or reading poems is not a fitting way of speaking about, drawing attention to, encouraging action to halt, the terrible human and political catastrophe (in which the West has been first complicit, and then inactive) that has followed the death of Yugoslavia. He is downgrading poetry as a voice for sentiments people other than poets may express in other ways. It doesn't help. Besides, might not the soldier, the widow, the children and 'the charred corpse' his verses stereotypically cite have once known a decent life that included poetry as well as family, friends, food, shelter, medicine, tolerance?

George Szirtes can only be suggesting that, for poets, silence is the only proper response. The politicians, the journalists, the eloquent letter writers may be heard, the poets not. Burns himself would not have agreed with this position. Nor would Byron. Shelley would have sharply dissented from it.

May I say this with the discretion and understatement George Szirtes so deplores: he and I may not write quite so adequately, appropriately and enduringly as those poets if we try to address the unspeakable by whatever poetic methods we ourselves are capable of using. But, along with other poets in our own time (Auden and Spender on Spain, and, closer to our own day, James Fenton on Cambodia), should we not refuse to abandon our right (perhaps it is our duty) to try?

Yours faithfully,


Standhoe, Norfolk