Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Of poetry and war crimes

What I've found fascinating about recently-captured Serbian war-criminal Radovan Karadžić was not his hair (which, incidentally, is quite remarkable both before and after) but rather the fact that, in addition to being guilty of crimes of genocide, he is a poet. That he is a poet surprised me, because I'd always supposed that literature in general and poetry in most particular would act as some sort of inoculating force against the decisiveness, the arrogance, narrow vision, and lack of empathy necessary for such a crime.

But perhaps I am naive, and you-know-who was a painter, etc., and surely there have been plenty of evil writers. Yes, definitely there have been some evil writers, by which I mean writers who thought, said, wrote some evil things, but unlike the poet/war-criminal, this doesn't surprise me at all. For surely it is the writer's role to think himself into places others can't even fathom, and it's natural that some might choose to stay there. But I do see a mild distinction between thinking and doing, the former abhorrent and the latter inexcusable.

It still surprises me that poet could do, a poet. Poets, I'd supposed, knowing better than the rest of us the careful constructs upon which ideas are built, of "just words" after all, and how those words and those ideas can't be bent and twisted into anything, and that anything is everything, and that nothing can be sure. The difference of a line break, a comma; how fragile is simply everything, including life itself.

But perhaps I've overestimating this man, and all evidence suggests as much-- the poems are terrible. I read the excerpts and reasoned that they must have been put through an online translator, or translated by a drunk illiterate baboon, but they are said to be as "bad in the original as they sound in the English version." The lesson being that bad poets are prone to war crimes? But then I'm not so sure, because that kind of assumption is bound to tarnish the reputations of a lot of us.