Liberation poetry is a poetics of consciousness which emphasizes poetry’s element of communication and its capability of sharing, rather than its formal aesthetic utterings. As with its counterpart in reggae, rap or the Haitian samba-ginen movement, liberation poetry is made of rage, torment, exile and testimony to a certain experience of being. Its overtly political overtone is an intrinsic part of its continuous questioning of the social environment, and of the conditions and feelings of the people who live in it. Liberation poetry seeks meaning underneath the official proclamations and depictions of reality by the powers that be, which often mask and masquerade the establishment’s or the ruling class’s self-interest in the representation of that reality.
Stressing intellectual integrity and political courage as cardinal virtues of the experience of being, liberation poetry dismisses without appeal the so-called “cuteness” of poetry, which is often another way of masking the ugliness of living. Liberation poetry believes with Jean-Paul Sartre that “naming is changing;” it believes that the uttered word can at once condemn, congratulate, express love, hatred, save, pray to God or kill. It also knows that poetry’s inherent alterity can both serve the master’s need of decorative transcendence and the oppressed’s craving for cosmic escape. Poetry engendered by necessity, urgency and immanent tragedy, the poetry of liberation is in a way the exact opposite of the post-modernist discourse of normalization of horror, whose tenet of the “end of history” encourages an attitude of passivity, of platitude, self-contentment, tranquility and, ultimately, of complicity with the current political order and its practice of oppression.
The poetry of liberation tells what it sees and expresses the denunciation or admiration that the seen thing deserves. The cat is called a cat, as they say, and the poet lets the conscience of his or her perceived interlocutor (listener/reader) decide what the verdict and sentence should be. For that reason, liberation poetry is both similar and fundamentally different from the defunct Socialist-realism: similar because it vows to depict both the objective and the idealized conditions of human experience. But it also differs from Socialist-realism by its iconoclastic approach to political judgement. While Socialist-realism glorified the genius of the critical mind, it often implicitly discouraged the critical eye by keeping quiet on observations of wrongdoings by the revolutionary power structure which it currently supported or was forced to support, encouraging in effect a de facto submission to the dominant power structure.
In fact, liberation poetry comprises an anti-hegemonic poetics which challenges the existing power structure from a radical perspective on human rights, social justice and fundamental freedom. Both the language and spirit of that poetics are impregnated by a potent rage toward the injustice of the social order, and by an obsession with discovering the hidden truth in people’s everyday dealing with oppression and alienation. The poet’s own demons are in a way overcome by what we would call his/her identification with his/her consciousness. The magic of the non-said is diluted in the rage to name its by-product; it is revealed in an avalanche of candid clarities, giving way to a process of identification and localization of the factors of oppression and alienation.
The poetry of liberation is also aware of the trapping net of language. It knows that the use of the existing linguistic (written or spoken) medium—be it Haitian Creole, French, English, Spanish or Arabic—is derived from a “perverted” intentionality to disrupt the normal functioning of communication among people. Not unlike the African Griots, the Surrealists or the Chicano poets, the practitioners of liberation poetry approach language with great suspicion. They know that any motivated social, religious, ideological or ethnic group can use and manipulate the attributes of a given language for its own agenda—and it usually works for the benefit of the most privileged. The Haitian Creole case is, a contrario, obvious since its very use is an affirmation of liberation, but that doesn’t make the use in itself a revolutionary endeavor. In this respect, poets as diverse as Gary Hicks, Mutaburuka or Jack Hirshman have manipulated the English language to say things other than what it was originally invented (and intended) to say: a discourse of disruption that goes overboard of both the confines of academic dogmas and the mystification of prejudiced truths.
Similar to the Surrealists who dismissed grammatical structure as part of the bourgeois legacy and tendency to impose forms, law and order on the intellectual level of consciousness, liberation poetry rejects all models of Classicism which equate poetry with the narrow scope of coded and specialized languages of the Establishment’s discourse of transcendence. And like Existentialism’s foundational premise that “Existence precedes Essence,” we believe that poetry cannot live outside of existence, outside of everyday life, which encompasses pain, suffering, joy, despair, tragedy and struggle—all of which being parts of our real world, everyday contingencies that mold, influence, and profoundly affect our “being in the world.”
The “essence” of poetry being primarily an attempt to communicate feeling and experience, certain required grammatical constructions often become a liability or a handicap to genuine sharing. In such cases, the confining grammatical structure helps create what the French call a “faire-semblant”: a make-believe, a distortion of reality for purposeful end-result. To counter the effect of the “faire-semblant” of grammatical dogma, one must know when, for example, a conditional future tense (required by the grammatical standard) may not be appropriate to express an empirical situation of determined certainty. Otherwise, one only perpetuates the “policeman function” played by language in the ruling class’s power structure.
We know that to prove his point that literature can and should serve to help change any socio-political order, Sartre put poetry in the role of an unwanted child, from whom little is expected. That was a mistake, especially from a thinker who bestowed upon literature such a tremendous mission for revolutionary change. It’s clear today that the role of embellage (“wrapping paper”) traditionally attributed to poetry is very undeserved. And that is precisely what liberation poetry’s credo would like to demonstrate. While we’re in agreement with Sartre’s dictum regarding the weakness of poetry vis-à vis the teeth and nails of the existing power structure, we disagree with his conclusion that poetry is less potent than the novel. In fact, poetry is very much relevant to the representational prestige of the power structure, and it is often used to legitimate the need of noble enlightment felt by all power claims. And, precisely because of that alterity, one can deduce that poetry can also serve to formulate another ontology of consciousness, a different way of feeling and apprehending reality.
Poets like Neruda, Mayakwovky, Césaire or Amiri Baraka exemplify this tension, and also this transcendence, within the alterity of poetry, between rêverie sublime and social action. As the African griots before them, who used poetry to conserve and preserve memory, the above mentioned poets and many others have not only used poetry to proffer (and reveal) the non-said, they have also joined the collective political praxis to change reality. While their poetic expressions for the most part emanate from a search for universal beauty, their political engagement has somewhat legitimized the relevancy, or preferably, the finality of their poetic emotions. In a way, they have accomplished, by their dual embrace of poetic creation and political militancy, what Paolo Freire calls the “praxis of freedom.”
The poetics of liberation doesn’t confine itself to one medium of communication; it also encompasses other creative media. For example, beside its expression in the poems of Jack Hirshman, Paul Laraque or Roque Dalton, it is very much alive in music, particularly in the poem-songs of Mutaburuka, Jean Ferrat, Manno Charlemagne, Lucky Dude, Pablo Milanés, Pete Seeger or Bob Marley. All of these singers testify to a use of musical and liberational creativity as both medium of communication and agent of change. When Bob Marley played in the Harvard Stadium in the summer of 1979, before tens of thousands of people, for the most part white Harvard students and liberal Boston and Cambridge locals, it was a great social event in itself. If one adds the fact that Bob Marley dedicated both the spirit and the proceeds of the festival to the then current armed struggle of Black Africans against the apartheid system of then white dominated Rhodesia, it was clear that music had regained its osmosis with beauty, dance, pleasure and liberation. Naturally, this praxis of musical engagement and elation can achieve its complétude only if great artistic quality is integrated in the effort.
In a world of endemic devaluation of life, in a world of despair and fear, liberation poetry is revealed as the poetics of ultimate resistance to the deteriorating alienation of what we call the dream of being. Its seeming disregard toward beauty is directed to its conventional codification by the ruling elite, not to its empirical and elemental manifestation in everyday life. The wonder of the ortolan bird who flies through the forest, in the reverberation of the brightening horizon, can also reverberate in the smile of the beautiful child who is dying of malnutrition. Beauty is relative; its pretended universal splendor, as represented in the ruling classes’ standard of valor, is a fraud: its false transcendence is revealed, denounced and devalued by the not so endearing occurrences in practical reality.
When poetry misses that dimension of tragic reality, it misses at the same time both its meaning and its relevance. It is that effort toward the totality of being, seen in the embrace of the whole human existential odyssey, that we call liberation poetry. Such effort presumes that poetry and beauty can join together and be authentic only if they join in expressing the total reality, with all its imperfections and its craving for change.
Since the very consciousness of the poet is an on-going process that evolves in a given and changing environment, with all its baggage of despair, disillusionment, frustration, hope and pain, he or she is contaminated by both the practical structure and the ideological mind-frame of that environment. The poet’s desire for authentic expression and self-affirmation can be actualized only through an act of rebellion or, better still, an attitude of rejection, à son corps défendant, of the entire mode of valorization and gratification of the existing regime of oppression. This attitude is, of course, different from Dadaist’s definition of the authentic poet as someone who pulls his gun and randomly shoots at the crowd. The poetry of liberation believes that no rationale for an act of either folly, ignorance or evil can justify horror.
In our survey in developing the concept of liberation poetry, we notice certain trends not only in poetry and music, but also in painting, particularly among the new generation of Haitian painters, who tend toward a reappraisal of both the reality perceived by the individual painters and the traditional confinement of their art to a certain mental ghetto construed by the oppressors. Painters like Bernard Wha, Ti-Gérard, Henry Toussaint, Blondèl, Josaphat, Ossé or Ducheine paint a reality that is real in Haiti and in the Haitian Diaspora, and their respective styles are often as divergent as Rimbaud’s was from Baudelaire’s, but they most of all share a certain use of the plastic arts as a means of cosmic re-creation.
Ultimately it is this communality—among the arts—of feeling, creativity, reverie, political consciousness and Promethean energy that would make all the differences. In a civilization so engulfed in despair, sorrow and tragedy, the arts remain (at least the ones which value their role) a great source of rejuvenation. Governments and political systems come and go, but people continue to live the dream of being with hope in a better tomorrow even in the middle of abysmal horror. And this “better tomorrow” can be attained only when the arts, and poetry especially, join in the praxis to «changer la vie» as Rimbaud advocated.