As World Poetry Day rolled around this week I was taken aback to read on the website of its founder, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO for short, that one of its aims is to ensure that "the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art". What? Someone thinks poetry is like hair jewellery? Who are these people talking to?
"Encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals" on the other hand, is an aim I am happy to get behind. Although "poetry recital" does sound -- if not quite outdated, perhaps overly quaint, evoking the poetry pursuits of school-days (of which, please note, my memories are all good) -- I am a huge believer in poetry being shared not just through books but by being spoken, performed, read aloud, and slammed.
The descendants of Homer who make up the Poets Circle in Athens also believe in the power of spoken poetry. They invited poets around the world to join together this World Poetry Day (also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) in performing readings calling attention to the cataclysm of our time, the refugee crisis.
It is so natural, so unsurprising, that this idea saw the light in Greece. Or better, under the light of Greece -- that incandescent, supernal light, as Henry Miller described it in the best book ever written about Greece by a non-Greek, The Colossus of Maroussi. "One would have to be a toad, a snail or a slug not to be affected by this radiance which emanates from the human heart as well as from the heavens," he writes. "Wherever you go in Greece the people open up like flowers".
Travelling in Greece and experiencing the same extraordinary hospitality fifty years after Henry Miller -- years in which the Greeks had suffered through occupation by the Axis powers during World War Two, a bloody civil war, and a repressive military dictatorship -- we used to say that it must have been because of the strength of their age-old tradition of having gods who were always popping down to earth in human form, so that any stranger knocking at your door could have been a god in disguise.
And the tradition continues:
|Photograph: Kostis Ntantamis/AP via The Guardian|
This is a photograph of local people on the Greek island of Lesbos helping bring migrants to safety after their arrival by boat. "Refugee Crisis: how Greeks opened their hearts to strangers" is the title of the article in The Guardian which this photograph accompanied. "Despite six years of economic hardship, ordinary people have shown astonishing generosity in helping the 42,000 migrants stranded in their country".
In Auckland poets Ruby Porter, Gregory Kan, Ole Maiava, Mohamed Hassan and Siobhan Harvey responded to the invitation of the Athens poets by sharing their poems in a pop-up reading on the steps of the Central City Library, hosted by Auckland Libraries in association with PEN International and the World Poetry Movement.
How do you measure the weight of a human life, asked Ruby Porter, in a poem which caught at me with its mix of combativeness and eloquence:
How to weigh a life
Ruby will be one of the readers taking part in Central City Library's upcoming "A day in their shoes: the refugee experience" (Friday 29 April, 11am-2pm).