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on poetry, and agosín’s ‘i lived on butterfly hill’

“Poetry is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”
Wallace Stevens

One evening many years ago, I stood up in a modestly filled room at the Goethe Institut, Nairobi, walked somewhat unsurely to a seat at the front and read some poems from my ‘Pink book’ notebook collection of poetry. The event was a poetry night and they had exhausted the list of people who had signed up to read or recite and the MC asked, ‘anyone else want to read?’ …. (silence) ‘anyone?’ And because I am the type of person who feels pity on teachers in classes with unresponsive students and therefore always raise my hand to contribute, I got up, and walked to the front. I proceeded to read perhaps my best liked poem by other people who’ve read it, ‘This Evening’…and through it all my voice, and hands, and all the rest of me shook.

Later after the event, I walked to my bus-stop with a guy, a poet, who’d been there too, and who told me to keep writing. I remember telling him that my poetry was not ‘social poetry’ and that I wished I could get to the point where I started to write ‘social poetry’. My poetry was about personal things- family, love, angst …all those things teenagers have to deal with. At that point my definition of social poetry was pieces inspired by heavy political and social problems…you know, responsible things; and my poetry was definitely not that.

the ‘pink book’ – old and beaten up but still there

I don’t know now that there is any such thing as social poetry…or non-social poetry. The personal is political as we are often reminded- and family, love and angst are as social and political an issue as any other. As I grew older I stopped writing (blame a broken heart), then after a soul shaking event, started again, with themes that are perhaps more ‘social’. I haven’t fully come back to it I feel. The well (of inspiration and words) is only slowly beginning to fill up again. But I just finished reading a wonderful young adult novel by a poet recently, and it was inspiration for me to get back to writing, and more.

Marjorie Agosín’s novel, ‘I Lived on Butterfly Hill’ is set in the city of Valparaíso, Chile and Maine, USA. It follows a young girl, who wants to be a writer, during a time of political upheaval and dictatorship in Chile, exile in the USA, and return to Chile to look for and be reunited with her family. The whole novel is lyrically written- you can feel the poetry and musicality in every page. In fact, Agosín, the author and a poet herself, when asked whether she employs different tools in writing fiction from writing poetry said that at heart she is a poet, and always writes as a poet.

Chile is known as the country of poets, famous ones such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral top the list, but there are many more. Learning and reciting poetry by heart is an activity both Agosín and Celeste, the main character in the novel, undertake while at school and at home. I myself have recited poetry at national drama competitions while in primary school, but this was an extracurricular activity (that did not last long) as opposed to the class homework Celeste undertakes, or the poetry on the radio and while doing chores that Agosín describes. Throughout the novel there is the sense that poetry and words are important to the work of forming the nation.

Poetry is at heart imagination woven into words. Indeed in an Albright Institute lecture titled ‘Imaginative Literature and Global Affairs. Or Does Literature Have Any Authority Here?’ Larry Rosenwald, professor of English and Peace & Justice Studies at Wellesley College said “…we would do better in this heroic and necessary enterprise…if we gave a more prominent place to the imagination and to those whose discipline it is to cultivate it.”

He was referring to the goals that most people would say they aspire to for themselves and their countries: peace, justice, happiness, flourishing, etc. To move towards these, he asserted, we have to imagine them; and if we are to imagine we must turn to those whose expertise is in the work of imagination.

Agosín herself considers her poetry part of her activism today. Her family is of European Jewish origin and moved to Chile to escape Nazism. Only to later move to the USA to escape Pinochet’s 17 year dictator regime that saw many people perceived to be in opposition to the government dead or disappeared. Her work is therefore heavily concerned with memory, and she views this remembering as a moral duty. In an interview she said “…it’s not enough to be part of [a] history, you must make the choice that you will speak for this history….I made the choice to become a witness of those times. I made an absolutely conscious choice that I was going to be that, and I continue to look at the world with the same passion and commitment for social justice as when I was 17 years old, and sometimes people cannot believe it.” Moreover Agosín’s own assertion is that poetry is integral to healing after trauma.

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”
William Carlos Williams

In recent days and in the wake of natural and human caused disasters greater attention has been focused on the loss of cultural heritage under the banner ‘Culture Cannot Wait‘. The purview of ‘culture’ that is meant is often quite narrow, however: ancient monuments, artworks, and objects. But words- novels, fiction, memoir, poetry, literature- these too are part of cultural heritage. They are important and they cannot wait. If we work to save that which is ancient, we must also work to promote the continued creation of culture- tangible and intangible. Otherwise we might not have anything to save or enjoy in the future.

There was much I loved in the novel (read my review of it on Goodreads here), especially how it highlighted, and was poetry. It has helped me walk a few more steps along the path of return to poetry- social and otherwise 😉


I walked my lone path, today, this evening,
And as I did, I looked up, this evening.
I saw bright Venus, beautiful, this evening,
I wished upon her, your sleep, this evening.
I turned, there bold Mercury was this evening,
His gleam as red, as full red, this evening.
I wished upon him too, for you this evening,
For your gentle rest, calm slumber, this evening.
I walked on, but a warrior, this evening,
Stopped me, ere far I went this evening.
Mighty Orion: I shan’t wish this evening
Upon you, but ask if you, this evening,
Would watch over, watch over this evening,
A soul I love and love so well this evening.
He bowed his aye, flew away, this evening,
To watch over that soul, your soul, this evening.
Rest easy then love, you’re watched over- this evening.

c 2008

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