Here in Oxford, we are hardly short of opportunities to express ourselves. In fact, glancing at the abandoned piles of unread student newspapers which clutter college JCRs, you might be left sympathising with Alexander Pope’s scornful condemnation of the ‘snows of paper’ littering the streets of London following the advent of the printing press. However, this is not a luxury enjoyed worldwide; indeed, the treatment of writers in certain countries is almost inconceivable in Britain – a fact which, to my shame, I was hardly aware of prior to my exposure to the activities of Oxford Student PEN.
2013 marks the first anniversary of the Oxford branch of the society- an offshoot of English PEN, a writer’s association established primarily to campaign under the banner of their fundamental message, ‘Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read’.
The central organisation, supported by a wealth of eminent writers and academics, seeks to ‘defend and promote free expression, and to remove barriers to literature’. Due to the global spread of the organisation, the Oxford branch of PEN has put on an extremely varied assortment of interests events in its first year, ranging from letter-writing sessions in support of Pussy Riot, to some thought-provoking visits from international writers such as the Libyan novelist, Salah Al Haddad, and three excellent poetry readings held in collaboration with Oxford University Poetry Society.
This characteristic diversity was fruitfully replicated in the anniversary event of the organisation, held last Friday at St Anne’s College. With the broad title of ‘The Defence of Poetry’, the afternoon began with a stimulating panel discussion on the topic, involving four prestigious writers and academics: Simon Altmann, Jane Griffiths, Don Paterson and Seamus Perry. Having each presented their initial thoughts on the utility of poetry in contemporary society, the discussion was opened to the floor, inviting questions on all manner of topics, which stretched from queries regarding the poet’s role and social responsibility and the relationship between poetry and politics, to the significance of poetry in early education. While the debate proved engaging, it suffered slightly from the rather narrow outlook presented which was inevitable, given each of the panellists’ intimate relationship with the literary world. Nonetheless, the discussion provided a strong foundation for the evening’s event where, following a presentation detailing the year’s work and a drinks reception, the third ‘Poets for PEN’ reading took place.
For me, this was the highlight of the event, as it was the most effective defence of poetry exhibited that day. The reading opened with the absorbing collaboration of exiled Iraqi poet, Adnan al-Sayegh, and Jenny Lewis, in which the pair, who have been working closely together on translations, read alternately in both Arabic and English to a captivated audience. The staggering control and eloquence displayed by al-Sayegh, alongside his melodic manipulation of the language, was thrilling to watch, unhampered by my complete ignorance of Arabic. The pair were followed by Don Paterson, whose irreverent style contrasted effectively with the more solemn tone of Patrick McGuinness’s reading which closed the evening.
It may be, as Paterson noted, that poetry needs no defence, but the day’s events were a crucial reminder of the necessity of the work of organisations like PEN. We may take freedom of expression for granted in this country, but the issue remains critical on a global level, with the censorship, imprisonment and exile of writers around the world contravening what we’d consider to be our basic human rights. We need to ensure that literature retains its worth by preventing a continuation of the current pattern of inflation and devaluation- this, as the panel concluded, must be arbitrated by poets themselves through rigorous ‘self-censorship’. Perhaps, with a less saturated market, we might place a higher price not only on ‘good’ literature, but also on our freedom of self-expression.