On Gathering and Togethering
the 30th International Medellin Poetry Festival, Colombia, 2020
1. At the time of the global COVID pandemic, the Medellin International Poetry Festival has risen to an unprecedented humanitarian and cultural challenge, and in doing so, has set a new bar for attainment for all other poetry festivals in the world.
2. The modern movement of international poetry festivals began in the early 1960s. In 2020, by deploying the latest Internet satellite technology to organise a network of globally accessible poetry events for a period of over 70 days, the Medellin Festival has taken the entire concept and practice of the international poetry festival to new levels of involvement, participation, and attainment. Over 200 poets have taken part from over 100 countries. In this way Medellin has effectively transposed many thousands of dreams and aspirations of individual poets, over many generations, ancient and modern, into a collective, present and living reality. These facts alone suggest why taking part in the 30th Festival in 2020 has been a powerfully moving and inspirational experience. But these facts indicate only the skeleton, not the entire body of Medellin as a living reality.
3. To be human means to learn, use (deploy), pass through and pass on language. It means not only to live in (dwell in, inhabit) language, to be conditioned by language (above, all one’s own native language), to experience, explore and understand the world through language and language through the world, and to think and feel, as well as to receive and express the thoughts and feelings of others, by means of language – but also to relish (enjoy, delight in, rejoice in) language – and celebrate it and test its limits. Since poetry is rooted and based in language, the poetic art is the core expression and celebration of our humanness.
4. The core of this core is joy in freedom and freedom in joy in both the expression and the communicability of movement. Life itself is movement. By incorporating (embodying) and sharing (transmitting, receiving) this joy and freedom through language, poetry transcends the merely functional (pedestrian) ‘uses’ of language. It may be said, then, that poetry is language in a condition of dance.
5. So, like all other similar festivals all over the world, by focusing on poetry, Medellin celebrates the spirit of humanity. What’s more, this spirit, celebrated in poetry, isn’t limited to poetry itself. Rooted in poetry, its energy spreads out, radially, inclusively and exponentially, to welcome and embrace all the living and all aspects of life. Poetry, then, is a florescence of this living spirit. “Poetry,” wrote William Wordsworth, “is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads). “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth, “wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley (A Defence of Poetry). All life, all science, the very image of life, flowering – these, then, are the qualities celebrated by Medellin.
6. To what Wordsworth and Shelley said, I need to add that the spirit of poetry is inherently welcoming, hospitable, magnanimous. This last word, magnanimous, itself means possessing and being possessed of (and by) a large soul. And this also implies a big heart and a wide, deep, generous and gentle spirit. And because the secrets poetry offers originate in magnanimity, they’re inherently both open and inclusive. Always at once given intimately and yet available to be received by anybody – and whenever given, always in the this, the here, the now – poems are and embody presents in both senses of this English word: presences and gifts. The spirit of poetry extends an open hand to whoever willingly approaches it; and so too the spirit of poetry responds to desire. The spirit of the Medellin Poetry Festival is welcoming, hospitable and magnanimous in precisely these senses and in these ways: large in soul, big in heart, wide and deep in spirit, and responsive to desire.
7. What all this means, further, is not only that the Medellin Festival is inclusive but that the inclusivity it embodies and offers is one that’s continuously widening and deepening. This in turns means that the quality that characterises and particularises Medellin isn’t merely to be approached and understood in terms of its already highly articulated, actualised, explicate, present inclusivity, but in terms of the scale, scope, ambitiousness (breadth and depth) that it invites, implicates and holds, potentially, for the future, for our futures, and for those of generations to come. This holding, incidentally, is part of what UNESCO has termed humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. It involves the complex notion and practice of tenanting, maintenance, guardianship, holding in trust. The French word maintenant, which translates rather more prosaically into English as now, illuminates this motif: literally, it means ‘holding’ (tenant) in one’s hand (main).
8. What’s more, by its inclusivity, the signal achievement of the Medellin Festival to date has been to demonstrate and affirm with total explicitness that poetry is a core element of every culture in the world, and that while every separate culture’s poetry is irreducibly distinct and unique, ultimately all poetry is one poetry, and all poems form part of one single poem. This one single poem is the song of humanity in nature and of nature in humanity, and it is sung through the imagination. This potential and implicit reality, which Octavio Paz (1914–1998), like many others, affirmed throughout his oeuvre, the Medellin Festival has now made actual and explicit:
Since the Palaeolithic, poetry has been a part of the life of all human societies; no society exists that has not known one form of poetry or another. But although tied to a specific soil and a specific history, poetry has always been open, in each and every one of its manifestations, to a transhistorical beyond. I do not mean a religious beyond. I am speaking of the other side of reality. That perception is common to all men in all periods: it is an experience that seems to me prior to all religions and philosophies. (The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry 153-154; emphases added)
To spell this out some of these implications still further, inherent to the theory and practice of inclusivity is the fact that Medellin has demonstrated how poetry is an art that belongs to everybody, to all people, regardless of age, background, gender, language, and all the other facts and features that individuate us, as well as those that both bring us together and divide and separate us, such as faith, ethnicity, class, income, status, and so on. To put this another way, the Medellin Poetry Festival has shown conclusively that the spirit of poetry itself presupposes, postulates and advocates not only community, but the commonality of all humans, all life, all matter, and all energy. This, then, paradoxically, is an inclusivity, a collectively comprehensive, innerness, that in effect posits no outside-of-itself. It is universal.
9. And to take up an earlier point, mentioned in §4 above in the context of life as movement: Medellin has re-affirmed that by its rootedness in the individual human imagination, poetry is a key element of human freedom – as, among many others, the great English poets Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century advocated (for example, Blake, Byron and Shelley); and that poetry necessarily speaks out against injustice and for and on behalf of the oppressed.
10. In all these ways, then, Medellin has reaffirmed that poetry is an essential vehicle of expression for the finest and most noble movements of our time and of all time (as Paz says above, transhistorically), including the advocacy of peace, decency, dignity, self-respect and respect for others, love, balance, harmony, connectedness, and all the physical, psychic, emotional and spiritual aspects of health (haleness, wholeness), not only of human beings but of all life on earth. The gathering of the Medellin community of poets, then, extends to and embraces all poets, all people, all of nature. It’s a gathering that is a togethering.
11. In this respect, one of the most important aspects of the Medellin festival has been the encouragement of children and young people to write, read and listen to poetry, and so to open up the potential of their own receptive and active imaginations. Included in all these factors, as the English and international poet Anthony Rudolf has argued, “Poetry presupposes futurity, presupposes continuity” (Wine from Two Glasses, 45). To presuppose futurity means not only to advocate hope for the future but also to engage in action to protect the future of all life on this planet Earth.
12. Making and responding to poetry involves the treasuring of past, present and future. In terms of heritage, tangible and intangible, the protective and projective celebration of poetry in the present is action for and on behalf of the future. Past, present and future are treasured together in the Medellin Poetry Festival.
Cambridge, October 2020This text adds to Richard Berengarten’s ongoing series of statements on poetics entitled Imagems. Like the contributions of all the poets attending the 30th Medellin International Poetry Festival, because of COVID-19 his reading (15 September 2020) was delivered remotely, from his home.
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