Danger: Poets at Work

I wonder if Günter Grass and Sheikh Raed Salah read one another’s work. Grass published a poem that criticised Germany’s arms sales to Israel and its difficulties with Iran, and was promptly declared persona non grata in Israel. Salah is the leader of an Islamic political party in Israel, and a poet. In one of his poems he wrote

You Jews are criminal bombers of mosques,
Slaughterers of pregnant women and babies.
Robbers and germs in all times,
The Creator sentenced you to be loser monkeys,
Victory belongs to Muslims, from the Nile to the Euphrates.

Maybe it’s better in Arabic. According to a Senior Immigration Judge the poem ‘misled’ the Home Secretary into thinking he was a dangerous rabble-rousing anti-Semite whose presence in the UK was not conducive to the public good. In 2007 a young woman (self-described as ‘the lyrical terrorist’) was found guilty of an offence of possessing ‘information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’, under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 – the ‘information’ including poems she had written. She was no TS Eliot, more a bloodthirsty McGonagal. Her poem about the joys of decapitating the enemies of Islam included these immortal lines:

No doubt that the punk will twitch and scream
But ignore the donkey’s ass [sic]
And continue to slice back and forth
You’ll feel the knife hit the wind and food pipe
But don’t stop
Continue with all your might.

The Court of Appeal quashed her conviction. Although she had other explicitly jihadist material, the judges thought that the poem was not the sort of thing Section 58 was intended for, and may have confused the jury.

At least she was a bit more ‘lyrical’ than Grass, who wrote

And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.

Clunky. Maybe it’s better in German. It reminds me of the graffiti that used to greet train travellers approaching Paddington Station:

I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this torturous mediocrity.

The verses of Grass, Salah, and the lyrical terrorist lack the power of Shelley, the greatest English political poet, who excoriated the violent, repressive state of the country after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (‘I met Murder on the way/He had a mask like Castlereagh’ – the Home Secretary). In the same year Shelley wrote ‘England in 1819’, a touchstone poem:

An old, mad, blind, despised and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow –
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless–a book sealed;
A Senate, Time’s worst statute unrepealed,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.

This was incendiary stuff then. It’s not safe now. You can imagine what the Daily Mail would have made of it – and of Shelley and his romantic friends. Auden was wrong when he said poetry makes nothing happen.

About Francis FitzGibbon QC

I am a QC and member of Doughty Street Chambers, London (www.doughtystreet.co.uk). I practise criminal law. Please do not look for legal advice in this blog as you won't find any. The views expressed here are my own.
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