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A phenomenon is scaring me.

No, not just SCROTUS, although he’s a big part of it.

There’s a peculiar anti-word, anti-thought movement spreading through our societies, which opposes reason and embraces slogan. Nothing new there, a blunt cudgel of opinion-bashing has its historical precedents.

Which should be terrifying by example. I’m not telling you where to look. I don’t need to.

Go check a random oppressive regime. How far down the list do you find ‘silence the thinkers’?

Here’s a mini test:

Name three regimes whose policy was to slaughter intellectuals.

Name three governments who imprison opponents without trial.

Name three countries which spread misinformation and propaganda to sway their population into supporting their own agenda.

(Hint: you probably live in one and this is why we need a free press, even if some of them are gits.)

One of the scariest phrases I heard was Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign: “Oh I think people have had enough of experts”.

These inexpert, self-interested campaigners for anything that will get them up the career ladder speak for ‘The People’. One of their base tools is arguing against argument. It’s the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting your own position over and over until ‘The People’ (or ‘Folks’ if you want the current Imbecile-in-the-White-House version) can repeat it verbatim.

This is a crass, patronising assumption on every level.

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Firstly, ‘The People’ enjoy argument, rationale or reason. Engaging and discussing issues in person often leads to a less fossilised position. Online is a different matter. Comment is as dehumanising, reductive and debasing as a scrawled cartoon of a bear shitting in the woods. But it still works. Make us yell at each other and we take our eye off the argument. Sit us in a bar to chat and it’s a whole different game.

Secondly, simple words – make, great, take, ours, us, we, sad, bigly(?), danger, wall – is a reductive and banal way to communicate. Joined-up thinking requires a sense of cause and effect. People – yes, even ‘The People’ – are aware the credit crunch and subsequent drain on the working and middle-class was not due to immigration, fake news or or the liberal elite, but rampant pocket-lining by the very same people who tell you ‘You Ne-ver Had It So Good’. (One syllable at a time, folks.)

Thirdly, attacking people who dare to show some more articulacy than bellowing ‘Lock her up!” are derided for being elitist, intellectual and not of ‘The People’. It’s much more difficult to reduce the problems inherent in destabilising the EU to a tidy ALL CAPS phrase on a banner.

Lastly, how highly do you rate your supporters when you stand up in front of them and lie? Lie loudly, repeatedly and with bombast in the conviction they will believe it. If this is your methodology, your rationale must be that ‘The People’ are truly stupid.

We are not. You, me, all of us will be remembered by our thoughts, our words and our actions.

In a time like this, words are the bridge between thought and action.

They could not be more vital.

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sharon oldsSharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events.

Olds’s candor has led to both high praise and condemnation. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life.

Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap (2012), includes poems that explore details of her recent divorce, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. In awarding the latter, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”

Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.

 

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible — the Psalms and Song of Solomon.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

Window overlooking water, trees, sky (city or country); train, bus (window seat); any window overlooking anything.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

4/4 time of church hymnal; music — classical and rock & roll; stories to tell.

The word I most think of while reading your poetry is fearless. What are you afraid of?

Everything. (I’m copying Adrienne Rich!)

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Golden sweet amber bright etc.!!

So many reviewers compare your work to music. How do you perceive the relationship between words and sound?

I didn’t know that — I’m happy! I guess I perceive the relationship with my ears, body (dancing, walking), breathing, and eyes.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

Supposed to but: the book of child martyrs I won as a choir prize (loudest voice).

What’s your view on the future of poetry?

Yes!

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

For essential escape from my own mind, for mental travel, for emotion, for the study of guilt and fear and (someone else’s) (imaginary) danger, I read detective stories and murder mysteries (no horror).

Your legacy will be both poetry and poets – what do you learn from teaching?

How to listen, how to pay attention to 12 people at once, how to describe, what life is like now for the young, how poetry changes with the changing world.

Which work has impressed you most this year?

The advances the younger poets have made away from sentimentality and self-pity.

In a parallel universe, what job would you be doing?

If it’s right beside us, a mirror opposite, I would be writing poems backwards.

Would you share a line from a review you liked?

May I share a poem which contains a line from a review?

sharon olds poem

Jonathan Cape and A. A. Knopf/Random House – One Secret Thing)