Friday, 3 September 2010

All About Soul - free expression or language fascism?

(editor's note: this article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of NAWG LINK)

A few months ago, a dreadful example of literary fascism dropped through my letterbox. It wasn't an election leaflet from a right-wing political party; it was the judge's report from the latest competition in a respected poetry journal. The report was one long diatribe against poets who used a small subset of words to which the judge seemed to have taken an irrational dislike. "Shards", "crimson" and "seeps" were singled out for particular criticism.

I won't name the journal, or the offending (male) poet. In his defence, there's no doubt that poets can get over-fond of certain words ("shards" is probably one of them). It doesn't matter how beautiful a word might be, its poetic resonance will pale if you see it too often. Even the professionals are sometimes guilty of over-using their favourite expressions – just count the number of times the verb "to sieve" crops up in Carol Ann Duffy's writing!

But it got worse. According to this judge, the word "soul" has no place in contemporary poetry. It is "curious and archaic" and shouldn't be seen except in Victorian hymn books.

OK, so this poet might prefer a rational, non-mystical approach to poetry. Fair enough. A few of my favourite poets are secular atheists, some outspokenly so. But I can't think of any who would make a pronouncement so sweeping, or so culturally alienating. The word soul is still in common usage to refer to a dimension of life which people use to encompass poetry, nature and the arts as well as religious experience.

And what about "soul music"? Is that an anachronism too? Judging by the public response to the untimely death of Michael Jackson last year, it clearly isn't. His music still inspires and uplifts generations of people from a worldwide cross-section of cultures and traditions.

Making arrogant pronouncements about the words a poet can and can't use is a fascism of language. It is dictatorship, in the literal sense of the word: one self-appointed authority telling others what they should (and shouldn't) be thinking, believing, and trying to express; one poet controlling the style and manner of expression of an entire art form. This is completely contrary to the spirit of free expression that poetry should be about. It isn't just an intellectual pursuit; and we shouldn't be content to let language fascists turn it into one.

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