Statement | Art can only change the world when artists enter politics

When I was asked at the end of 2020 if I wanted to be Poet Laureate, I had my doubts. I assumed that would mean I would have to write a lot of commissioned poems and I knew that I usually don’t feel like writing commissioned poems at all. The reason for this is that I know that writing on assignment comes with a certain pressure, and once that pressure is there, there is a danger that I will start imitating myself. For example, in the past I wrote a ‘Lieke Marsman’ style poem more than once because I knew I could easily complete a task. Push away, client happy.

But such poems are not truthful, and I suppose the reader will find out in the end. Fortunately, writing poems with poet laureates turned out to be much more fun and freeing than I thought. Because you always choose the time or the occasion when you write something, you are at most your own customer and it is a customer that you do not always happen to call at the exact moment when you have inspiration. Push away, client happy.

Over the past two years, I have thought a lot about the role of literature in the public arena, and I have come to the conclusion that that role is both very large and very small. I can explain that. Since I’m in my book The opposite of a human have written about climate change, I am regularly invited to speak about the question: what can art do to combat climate change? At first I gladly accepted such invitations. I then wanted to have a socially desirable talk about the power of imagination and the importance of literature as a place to engage in conversation. Now I can no longer hear that question. I’m afraid we are in some kind of go has ended up where we wonder what art can do and over and over until the water runs into our backyards. In this respect, the role of literature is small.

The result of such cowardly panel discussions is twofold: artists mistakenly get the idea that their art has to do something, which it doesn’t, because even when the world is ending, they are free to make something that has nothing to do with that tragedy and secondly, nothing is being done to combat climate change. You cannot write or read a book about climate change and expect everything to change for the better. Yes, literature can give people a better understanding of what lies ahead and, like any art form, can help our imagination search for solutions, but I actually think that the average literature lover knows by now how climate change works and what the consequences (and solutions). When it comes to social issues, literature is just a tool to sharpen one’s weapons, words – then one must use those weapons to force political action. The more I write politically engaged poems, the more I become convinced that art can only change the world when artists enter politics. By that I don’t mean that artists should stop making engaged art, I mean mainly: for God’s sake more artists in politics, how lovely that would be.

Customer satisfaction survey

In recent years I have increasingly felt that society as a whole is under so much pressure that we are all starting to suffer from the imitation syndrome I described above. Civil servants produce the language they think civil servants should produce. Politicians say the things they know politicians can score with at that moment. And the ‘ordinary citizen’ uses his last bit of energy and a STAP budget to follow an extra training course so he can continue with emails, reports and research proposal produce that he or she has already produced while a therapist encourages him or her from the sidelines. The exorbitant amount of trainers, consultants and interns and all the meaningless reports and evaluation forms we are bombarded with every day – all are signs that society has become too complex for humans (especially the customer satisfaction survey phenomenon is always a sign to me that the employees in a company are on their last legs – if all inspiration is really gone, tell the boss you started a customer satisfaction survey, it’s always a good thing).

And art, especially poetry, has a very important role to play in this. One of the most important things poetry has taught me is to do nothing. To write a good poem, but also to be able to read a poem in a way that sinks in, you don’t have to do anything. Poetry is proof that working more is not the same as getting more work done.

We don’t do enough, and as a result we live in an imitation society where we increasingly play a fading copy of ourselves.

More poetry is the antidote par excellence, a way to make our language meaningful again – in its compactness, moreover, a solution that efficiency managers must also be able to agree with.

Any self-respecting organization should have poetry in it toolbox so we can ban words like toolbox from the Dutch language forever.

That is my wish for the future.

This article is based on the preface to the recently published volume On the occasion of poetry (Pluim Publishers), a collection of texts made by Lieke Marsman as poet laureate. Her successor will be announced next week.

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