‘Does Poetry Matter?’

Dana Gioia, poet and former boss of the National Endowment for the Arts, many years ago wrote a book titled “Does Poetry Matter?” The inside back page essay in yesterday’s NYTimes Book Review by Robyn Cresswell (poetry editor of  The Paris Review) had this to say about “Egypt: The Cultural Revolution”:

But for the crowds in Tahrir, now is above all a time for poetry, and the muse of the moment may be Ahmed Fouad Negm. Born in 1929, Negm was a railroad worker, postman, and political prisoner before he became a hero of the counterculture in the 1970s. During that decade, he paired up with the oud player Sheikh Imam and recorded dozens of amusingly anti-authoritarian songs—including a famous lampoon of Richard Nixon and an equally famous elegy for Che Guevara—that circulated in cassette form among university students. Since the early days of the demonstrations, these songs and poems have resurfaced on the square. Interviewed on Al Jazeera shortly after the protests began, Negm was burbling with excitement. He immediately launched into his poem “Good Morning,” which he composed for high school students during a series of demonstrations in 1972 and borrows its theme from folk songs that celebrate a newborn’s first week of life. Asked if he had been to Tahrir, Negm said he hadn’t, explaining that he was “an old man.” In fact, he is one year younger than Hosni Mubarek, but maybe he just meant that he knew when to get off the stage.

. . .While Egypt’s intellectual class may be internally divided, the people in the square have, for now, drawn very clear lines in the sand. In the words of Negm, often chanted in Tahrir: “Who are they, and who are we?/They are the authority, the sultans./They are the rich, and the government is on their side./We are the poor, the governed./Think about it, use your head./See which one of us rules the other.”