June 12, 2015

Poetry by extremists, radicals, jihadists, and other folks on FBI watch lists


Osama_bin_Laden_portraitThe New Yorker recently posted an article on poetry written by jihadists, and while this might beg any number of wildly inappropriate jokes about poetry’s decreasing national readership, it’s also a chance to talk about the long tradition of literature being written by people condemned as radicals by national and international governments.

Authors Robin Creswell and Bernard Haykel touch on this in their article, which focuses on the popularity of up-and-coming “Poetess of the Islamic State” and ISIS propagandist Ahlam al-Nasr. Her verse isn’t too shabby; speaking about the 2011 Syrian Revolution, she writes:

Their bullets shattered our brains like an
even strong bones cracked then broke.
They drilled our throats and scattered
our limbs—
it was like an anatomy lesson!
They hosed the streets as blood still
like streams crashing down from the

The authors also discuss a more immediately recognizable writer to a large Western audience: the “most celebrated… jihadi poet” Osama bin Laden. During his time in hiding, in an oddly endearing detail, he requested to al-Qaeda leaders that, “If there are any brothers with you who know about poetic metres, please inform me, and if you have any books on the science of classical prosody, please send them to me.”

Of course, all of these poetic forms, as bin-Laden notes, are conservative and traditional—a notable difference from previous literary extremists. The unapologetically fascist WWI poet Ezra Pound, for example, was widely considered a literary innovator, and his Cantos—one of the founding texts of Modernist poetry—has been read and given up on halfway through by fascists and nonfascists alike.

Likewise, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti— best known for the batshit 228-page concrete poem “Zang Tumb Tumb” and also the Futurist Manifesto–was an advocate for finding new forms for both writing texts and killing people. In stark contrast to the publishing industry’s current focus on revitalizing older forms, both of these writers, more or less canonized, received credit for forging new modes of thought, surging into a brand new world of (partly) their own making.

 It’s important to note both that preserving past poetic traditions–as the ISIS poets do–and promoting heterodox, nontraditional voices–as, um, the ISIS poets do–are often important work. Even in the U.S., more politically correct political poets have been condemned for their viewpoints, especially surrounding the Civil Rights era. The incredible, multiply-arrested civil rights activists Muriel Rukeyser and Amiri Baraka, in addition to all of the Last Poets, all faced FBI watch lists for their activism, despite being substantially less politically reprehensible than Pound and Marinetti—which is to say, not reprehensible, the bar’s pretty low on that one.

Granted, the works and political orientation of Baraka and Rukeyser are very different from those of Marinetti and Pound–and, for that matter, bin Laden and al-Nasr. Yet at the same time, all of these writers were at one point or another condemned by governments not so much for their works as their political beliefs. Ezra Pound ostensibly survived the ravaging–although there might be another reason behind that–but many of these poets and writers, ISIS specifically, will probably not. Considering how frequently poetry is termed as being inaccessible, isolated above current sociopolitical concerns, these poets are a sort of short-circuit: focusing on outsider movements, condemned for their beliefs, they reflect a “problem” with political poetry (if it’s oriented wrong) as much as there is a problem with apolitical poetry. Or, at the very least, the reception of ISIS reflects declining interest in poetry in general.