Monday, May 2, 2022

Prophecy, witness or waste of time?

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...


  1. Some of us write to complain too, but this has even less effect on outcomes than poetry. Nice photo.

  2. I don't imagine I can change anybody's thinking, except maybe my own, and that's a big maybe. I think bearing witness is important and reading about how others live and think is important too. It allows us to expand, hopefully.

  3. Welcome back. F has a friend who studied her PhD in the psychology of climate change art. It sounded a bit weird to F who thinks in old terms about engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Art historians might be as esoteric as F goes, never-the-less she read the thesis and gets the general idea that art (in her case a study of climate change installations and how people described being changed or influenced by experiencing them) may have the power to influence attitudes and actions. Writing and poetry are art. Laura (or that's her name) reckons that we are evolved to deal with immediate threats to personal, family and group safety, tangible threats, things we can see/sense directly. Climate change, nuclear holocaust, the rising of the seas is too remote for our innate threat responses to work, and that creates stress. Does that make sense? It did when she described the concept. Therefore, maybe the way to break it down is find an immediate threat we can get a handle on and work to do something about that, and maybe seek to influence other overwhelmed people who perceive a larger threat than they can resolve to tackle their own bit too.

  4. On this blog it is your thoughtful and interesting observations on life's events that keeps me reading. After twelve years of blogging in the voice of my dog 'Bouncing Bertie' I realised that I had, in a sideways manner, documented many difficult life events, notably the deaths of both my parents and that of a close friend and soul mate, my retirement, the pandemic, and of course Bertie's long struggle with cancer - and the blog had been an anchor throughout. This feels valuable to me, if not to anyone else!
    Cheers, Gail.

  5. I have tried to form a meaningful response Mark other than that I agree with what your say. There is not a lot I can add. I am a member of a poetry group where we write and read our poetry and that of others, well established and known poets. I am often on the periphery but that makes no difference to our friendships as are always the constant and the same, and should be, on blogs and in life. We are all different and hold different views, it is not to say who is right and who is wong, but to tolerate and listen to each other is paramount and is the only way to bring peace amongst ordinary people; dictators will always exist and we have no way of controlling this. Divisions engendered and prolonged on social media are of no good, deserve no respect and do not help anybody. Sharing of ordinary life is the best we can do to all remain friends.

  6. I think your poet is being a bit too defeatist, but I know what he means. I don't often write much about current events because I don't think I have any special insight that isn't available to many, many other people. But occasionally I mention something going on just to get my opinion on the record. I don't think it will change anything in the immediate sense, but someday someone looking back might wonder what we thought of a given situation or controversy, and there's my opinion on the record.

  7. What do any of us bloggers have to offer except opinion, feelings, memories, reports of our days? Well, there are of course professional journalists who blog and that's a different matter. But for most of us, it is as you say- a sharing, not a shaping. Some bloggers do tend to write more frequently about politics or social justice or climate issues- important issues, I guess we could say, and that's fine because that is what occupies their thoughts, I suppose. But I tend to agree with the "what difference does really make?" train of thought. And the people who find and enjoy our blogs generally share a great many of our tenets, beliefs, so are we not just preaching to the choir? Of course sometimes we are absolutely moved to comment on things going on and that is fine too.

  8. When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to matter. At this stage of my life, things have changed. I know that I will not change the world in a large way. I will not make a difference in the big scheme of things. When I am gone, I will not matter, except as a random memory to my children. I just want them to know who I was. That's all.

    I like the camaraderie of blogging, to know that in other corners of the world there are others of a like mind, living their own lives, and trying mightily to make sense of an increasingly senseless world.

  9. PS: I've come to realize perfection is a wasted pursuit in an imperfect world.

    1. Someone once said that perfection is the enemy of good. I generally strive for good.

    2. Allison, I really love that.

  10. I have to agree with all that Debby says above - she wrote it much better than I ever could! I'm not sure my children will actually bother remembering much about me, grandchildren - well just one of them really - will hold me closest and she will therefore reap the reward!
    I have enjoyed 15 years of blogging, have made/met so many friends around the world, and the blog became my creative outlet once I'd retired from my life in art/advertising. It has brought me a chance to write, capture life in photos, and is a meaningful pursuit of happiness for me in this less than perfect world.
    As always Mark, I've found much of interest in this post. . . . . and love the photo of Oscar on the beach.

  11. Dear Mark,

    I hope you are doing well. Writing for me has always been a displacement activity. I have always felt that there is something I should better be doing than writing down my thoughts. But I suppose that I do it as a form of necessity and therapeutic exercise. The readers, although there are not many, remain incidental. But they are always kind and understanding. Perhaps, they probably know what it is like to be an introvert who knows how to be expressive only on a page.

    The kind of writing that I admire is neither didactic nor offer advice in any instrumental way. It is far from having an imperative call to change one’s life or the world. I like the quiet voices (including yours), without capital letters, that are warm, giving, humane and endlessly surprising. I always refrain from going to the places where I will be put into “an echo chamber” or worst, being shouted at in order to defend one's corner. I do think that blogging allows these quieter voices to come through so that they could be heard, which is not a bad thing.

    Your story about the poet at the online event reminded me of what Hannah Arendt once said. Arendt once compares Rilke’s voice to “a voice without an audience, or a voice that speaks despite ‘the absence of an echo’”. It is the voice that has a “need to speak even without an answer.” I believe that we can apply this idea to writing too. On the top of my desk, I framed a quote by Rilke [from his famous, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’] so that I can always see it in front of me whenever I have a difficulty in expressing in words. Since his words always bring me a great deal of solace, I do not mind sharing it with you. I hope you have the best possible week ahead.

    With warmest wishes, ASD

    “There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write?

    Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, "I must," then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

    Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. [...] Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.”

    Rainer Maria Rilke, Paris, 17 February 1903 from “Letters to a Young Poet”

  12. What a thoughtful and deep response from anonymous. I wasn't going to answer but he/ her has changed my mind, especially the 'subjects of your memory'. Memories crowd into the mind as you get older, fighting for a space, upsetting the emotions but also bringing a delightful dance of the past and I think assuring you that life is not lived in vain. As for poetry it always has had an emotional catch of the heart for me.

  13. I like the idea of "bearing witness". In my opinion, poetry helps to make better sense of those aspects of life that the poet turns his or her gaze upon. Readers may or may not be affected by what they find - depending upon their propensity for absorption.

  14. "This too shall pass" for me is a sacred thought. Without it we'd all go crazy given the world events today. As for other people influencing me, I tend to appreciate hearing multiple views and then make my own decision. I generally do not take offense and have been told I have a thick skin. I guess that is part of being open and receptive to others and their views. That said, I have no problem disagreeing, debating and sometimes agreeing to disagree. To each his/her own.