Christina Patterson: Where poetry still has power

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:08

Mahmoud Darwish, who died at the weekend, was, according to the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, "the last poet who could fill a football stadium". In a country that regards poetry as a pastime for the lost and the lonely – like, say, knitting tea cosies, or making wicker baskets – this is quite hard to understand. Celine Dion fills football stadiums. So does Elton John. So does Simply Red. But a poet?

The last time I met a poet who could fill a football stadium, he had struggled to get an audience of 40. The poet was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a man who spoke out against Stalin before Solzhenitsyn, and whose poem attacking anti-Semitism, Babi Yar, distributed by samizdat and set to music by Shostakovich, won him rock-star status in the Soviet Union. Critics felt he trod a fine line between dissent and the status quo – a bit like, say, Bono, preaching about poverty, but keeping his millions safely offshore – but his mass appeal was never in doubt. Never in doubt, that is, until now.

The fact is that the country which gave us Tsvetayeva and Mandelstam and Ahkmatova and, of course, Solzhenitsyn, a country in which, less than 30 years ago, a poet could be sent to a labour camp for "the dissemination of slanderous documentation in poetic form", and in which that poet would write poems on toilet paper which she would then smuggle out, doesn't give a kopeck about poetry any more. There are still people writing poems, of course, and publishing them, and some people even buying them, but the age of poetry readings to massed crowds has gone. Today, Russia's rich snap up stadiums to go with their girlfriend's handbags – and get the club thrown in.

Mahmoud Darwish, however, did not come from a country which swapped communist oppression for blatant capitalist excess. He came from Palestine, or what would be Palestine if the state were allowed to exist. At the age of 12, he was invited to write a poem for Israel's Independence Day and wrote one contrasting the experience of living in Israel of an Arab and a Jew. He was summoned to the military governor, who told him that if he continued to write such subversive material, his family would suffer. From that point on, he never stopped.

Between 1961 and 1967, Darwish was jailed by the Israelis five times. He worked for the resistance, worked for poetry, worked for change. Last summer, he read to an audience in Haifa of 2,000 people. "How difficult" he wrote in a letter to the Palestine Festival of Literature last year, "it is to be Palestinian, and how difficult it is for a Palestinian to be a writer or a poet... how can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?"

Actually, the "literariness of literature" seems to thrive most in "brutal times". And perhaps the real answer to Darwish's question lies in a poem of his own: "And they asked him:/ Why do you sing? And he answered:/ I sing because I sing."

Now that's what I call an Olympic feat

While the rest of the world was watching the Olympic ceremony – two thirds of it, apparently – I was watching a man on a wire. I was watching, in fact, Man on Wire, James Marsh's film about Philippe Petit's high-wire walk, 34 years ago, between the Twin Towers.

The week before, I went to the feel-good film of the moment, Mamma Mia! Now I like an appalling rom-com as much as the next stressed out office slave, and I bow to no-one in my love of Abba – even bought Abba: the soap, for God's sake – but really. The sight of James Bond and Mr Darcy vying for the attentions of an ageing hippy who looked much, much more comfortable as the survivor of a concentration camp must be one of the most excruciating cinematic sights on offer. Feel-good? I nearly punched my whooping neighbours.

From the opening moments of Man on Wire, on the other hand – which isn't a comedy and doesn't play for laughs – I felt my mouth twitch into a smile which didn't falter. The energy, the vision, the skill, the joie de vivre and the sheer bloody cheek of this diminutive man who was determined to walk in air between two of the world's tallest buildings, is utterly irresistible. "You have to live your life on a tightrope," says Petit at one point. Most of us don't do it quite so literally, of course, but there's something in his act of mad courage, and in all the mad courage at Beijing, that makes you feel happy to be human – happy, in fact, to be alive.

Don't spend it all at once, Lorna...

It's always nice to hear about unexpected literary success. It's particularly nice when the subject of it is no pouting babe doubling as a waitress, barmaid, or lapdancer – no spring chicken, in fact – but a 93-year-old grandmother from Surrey.

No wonder a number of newspapers on Monday made space for the tale, complete with pics of doughty author, Lorna Page, posing with her first novel. And Mrs Page was a philanthropist too! "The book has sold nicely," she said, "and I was able to buy a much bigger place to live... I wanted to be able to give a room to as many friends who live in care homes as possible. Care homes can be such miserable places."

Heart-warming stuff. Except that the book is published by AuthorHouse, a company in which the traditional flow of money for publication, from publisher to author, is reversed. They wouldn't reveal, when I phoned them yesterday, whether Mrs Page had yet recouped the cost of her investment, but it's a fair bet that she'll be lucky if her profit runs to some net curtains. If Mrs Page's gift for fiction extends to her writing, then perhaps she'll stretch to a suite.

* If joining a shuffling queue to gawp at an ancient trowel is your cup of tea, you'll love the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum. Personally, I prefer the broad-brush approach, which garnered the following revelation: Hadrian's empire was all about hair. Hadrian has sideburns and sometimes, most unRomanly, a beard. Antinous, his lover, looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy. And everyone has a mass of curls that sometimes look like worms, sometimes like maggots and sometimes like Cheesy Wotsits. Surely a subject for serious study – but there's probably a degree in it already.

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