In 1969, a year after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, a Czech translator who was working with MPT wrote to Daniel Weissbort about some poetry he was attempting to get out of Czechoslovakia: ‘as you can see there are still ways how to deliver the right things to the right hands’. ‘Please let me know when you get it and refer to it as to the “folk poetry”’ he notes. At the end of another long and amusingly veiled letter he explodes in exasperation: ‘/Go fuck yourself, Mr Letter-censor!/’.
All these letters (and the poems they speak of) arrived and were published, despite the increasing Soviet censorship. They illustrate what a dance censors and poets have led each other, and how even in retrospect it is not always possible to say who had (or who removed) the last word. For every word wiped from a poem in the name of ‘public morality’, for every poem torn from a printing press, there has been another poem, learnt by heart, or typed out and passed on, sent abroad or put online. Underneath the potted aspidistra that is official literature at any time and in any country, there is a thriving community of dissidents and nonconformists who will be heard and will express themselves whatever the cost.
I do not make light of censorship: the cost is the closing down of magazines and presses, the destruction of the link between poets and their wider audiences and the hardship, imprisonment, murder and suicide of poets. But we should take consolation from poets’ refusal to be silent victims. The Russian poet Larisa Miller noted in an interview for MPT that every collection of poems she published in the USSR needed a couple of ‘locomotives’ – model Soviet poems – for the rest to be left alone. There were, it was well known, parts of the country where the censor didn’t operate with such zeal, or political situations when the censor was minded to care less. And there was samizdat, that beautiful and physical practice of typing up poems to pass on to others. Poetry survives, writers and readers carry on communicating, because it is a human need.
But how does it feel to be censored or to read a censored line? The censor’s ██████ has historically including blanking out a ██ or a ███. Or perhaps the whole ███████████████ so the reader was aware of the might of censorship.
Sometimes a line might be rewritten in a crude, but politically aligned way AS THE DELETERIOUS EFFECT OF POETRY ESPOUSING SO-CALLED FREEDOMS CAN BE CLEARLY SEEN. The censor may strike in a seemingly random way, erasing inexplicably so the poet and reader are no longer sure what ███████████████. Sometimes the censored material is removed subtly so its absence cannot be felt. […] At other times all that can be seen is the absence
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But poetry thrives in such constrained circumstances – until the mouth is absolutely stopped, that is. Twentieth-century Eastern European poets particularly noted how one effect of censorship is to deepen the poetic well, the poet forced to use his or her poetic gift to evade the censor and yet say something of importance. Censorship thickens the fibres of metaphor and develops the reader’s close reading skills.
The Polish satirist Stanisław Jerzy Lec wrote, ‘I had lost faith in the word, censorship restored it to me’. Censorship restored faith in the poem –for how marginal is a genre if the censor needs to clap a hand over it to protect people’s morals? As powerful as a regime seems, if it needs to silence poetry then it is built on sand.