|Beach pondering with Oscar
Earlier this week I attended an online poetry evening, themed on the environmental threats (many would say crisis) we are facing. Three excellent writers gave readings and discussed their concerns in what was a convivial and supportive forum. Looking in from the outside it might easily have been mistaken for a Friends of the Earth campaign, rather than a literary event.
But it wasn't so much the message, or indeed the enviable quality of the work, that I've been pondering since. Rather, it was a comment from one of the writers, responding to a question about the difference that poetry might make. His reply was as candid as it was unequivocal: very little, if any!
Poetry, he asserted, is read by very few people. Those who'd attended the evening and listened so intently were self-selected believers; and if not, they'd be unlikely to change their view because of his verse. He'd long accepted that his acclaimed collections had little capacity to influence others. Someone (or was it him, I can't remember) suggested that poetry might be seen as a sort of prophecy; in any event, he didn't think much of that either. At best, he said, it was about bearing witness.
And what struck me, is how relevant this was to me, and to many other bloggers too.
The concept of 'writing for change' has a long history. Much of ancient philosophy is political in its intent, as were the dramatic tragedies, comedies and epics of that time. For thousands of years, playwrights, diarists and pamphleteers (as well as novelists, journalists and scholars) have chronicled events with the intent of shaping opinion. Today, in addition to those forms we have TV, radio, film and social media... There will be hundreds of academic theses on how public perceptions can be moulded by words.
And yet, if I think of the essayists and political writers I admire —Orwell, Greene, Koestler... I wonder how many of them actually had that much of an influence. Most social commentators write 'after the fact' and those that don't (Dickens perhaps) are usually read by a sympathetic audience. And as for journalism: we've long known that newspapers reinforce rather than reorder opinions, just as Twitter is more of an echo chamber than a forum for debate.
But what of bloggers, and particularly those like me?
For many, it will be an irrelevant concern. They write to share rather than shape; to clarify their thoughts not change those of others. The vast majority of what we read on forums like Views From The Bike Shed is not political but personal. Its merit, if it has any at all, comes from transcending the 'me', to become something more universal; achieving an ill-defined sense that the words are as relevant to the reader as they are to the author.
This is not so much writing for change—and far less for prophecy —than it is the idea of giving testimony to our lives. It is, in effect, the same as bearing witness. And I suppose I believe that to do so truthfully and meaningfully has inherent worth, even if it alters very little in a tangible way. I sense this is why I most often write about experiences that moved me or in some way adjusted my view—narrating how I've changed rather than telling others that they ought to too.
Which brings to me the end of this pondering. And I hope the start of a refreshed enthusiasm for what is my writing homeland. For weeks I've been stuck in a mire, planning the 'perfect post' that would somehow encapsulate my despair —and in truth, my anger too—at the perma-crisis we seem to be living through. From Brexit to Covid to the War in Ukraine, (and a hundred topics in between) there is so much I could say.. could give an opinion on... could rant or cry or bellow...
And yet, I think on balance it's better left unsaid. For it would not alter anything, let alone me —and nor would I be confident of its truth. Better I think to stick to what I know; to the chronicling of the seemingly little things in life; those moments that change us forever.
As for the rest. this too shall pass...