Lyrical terrorism

The trial of Samina Malik has come to a conclusion at the Old Bailey. The self-proclaimed ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ was found not guilty of possessing articles for a terrorist purpose, but guilty of collecting articles ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. Amongst the evidence levelled against Malik were two of her poems, entitled ‘How to Behead’ and ‘Beheading – How it Feels’. She is, as we say in the business, working a groove.

Malik is hardly unique. Plenty of people with beliefs bordering on the psycopathic have taken to writing poetry. Mao Zedong was a respected poet in the Chinese Romantic tradition. Stalin also penned Romantic verse and was published in his teens. Ezra Pound’s antisemitism and fascism are well-known. Saddam Hussein wrote numerous novels as well as poems like this. And we even find a minor poet behind the anoraked figure of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This might appear to be merely coincidental. Surely lots of people write poetry? But there is something, I think, that draws together Mao, Stalin, Pound and the unlikely figure of 23 year-old Samina Malik. It is an adherence to perfection, a belief that the world can be redrawn according to a set of common principles (communism, fascism, islamic fundamentalism). The impulse to rule over people is not so far from the impulse to create art. The poetry I like is open-ended, messy, inconclusive, even contradictory – it is language interrogating itself. But poetry can easily be escapist (like Saddam’s fantasy novels) or push black-and-white political or philosophical agendas. Poetry and power are both products of the dreamworld.

*  *  *

Contrary to the popular stereotype, poets can be busy people. And not just with mass murder. I received an email today from Melanie Challenger who writes:

I am currently mid-Southern Ocean, and the sea is liquid platinum and sublime. Albatrosses arc down to the undulating surface and it is as though we were all upon the back of a whale, quietly sleeping.

Melanie is an Artist in Residence for International Polar Year 2007-8, working alongside scientists in Antarctica and developing her novel Extinction. Perhaps a sign that writers can affect positive as well as negative (see above!) change, Extinction will explore the environmental dangers threatening our world, set against the awesome backdrop of the Antarctic. We are all waking up from a bad dream.

I wish Melanie luck on her voyage, and look forward to welcoming her back in March for a special event at the Bishopsgate Institute – ‘Make Nothing Happen: Writers and writing in a threatened world’.

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