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Proposal for an Exploratory International Conference

Poetry-making and Policy-making

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Part H of Poetry-making and Policy-making: Arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast (1993)

1. Preamble

In a period when the art of governance has proven distinctly inadequate to the challenges of the times, it is appropriate to explore radical new approaches which may offer new insights.

A significant number of policy-makers, including the current Director- General of UNESCO, are also poets. Heads of state from Jimmy Carter to Ho Chi Minh value expression of their insights in poetry. The unexplored question is whether there are new ways of integrating the cognitive approaches to poetry-making and policy-making. This could suggest new, and less alienating, approaches to policy-making -- which, hopefully, could be more appropriate to the complex challenge of the times.

Ironically it is in the classic traditions of China and Japan that poetry-making and policy-making are most intimately combined. The ability to write poetry was an attribute of the policy-makers of the time -- if not a requirement. In the Western tradition, poetry was an art practised by Roman Emperors.

2. Considerations of scope

Whilst the title "poetry-making and policy-making" evokes a usefully challenging image, there is concern as to whether the focus should be limited to poetry amongst all the arts.

The focus could be usefully extended to cover the rhythmic arts in general. But a case can also be made to include the visual arts. Care would need to be taken not to dilute the theme by extending it inappropriately. It is especially necessary to retain a challenging general title, possibly in the metaphoric form of "arranging a marriage between beauty and the beast".

3. Considerations of focus: vital distinctions

For any such event to be of significance to policy-making, there is a need to clarify functional emphases. There is a trap in emphasizing "performance" of pre-prepared works, whether from the arts or as a presentation of policy-papers. But such performance may be important to those coming from such opposing sectors and to demonstrate that they have not lost their relationship to them. Performance may offer illustrative insight as examples.

The principal concern would however be how to create an environment in which insights from poetry-making and policy- making could be fruitfully shared. For the breakthroughs required, the emphasis should NOT be on existing works of art or policy but rather on the cognitive and other processes through which they take form. An important focus is therefore on the art, or aesthetics, of policy-making.

This central focus would naturally be challenging to both poets and policy-makers. It possible that the insights sought could only come through the exclusion of poets and policy-makers in their formal capacity and with their respective needs to perform. The event might however provide for other sessions in which each was allowed to engage in activities in which they were less challenged by the other. And indeed there will be many who will find such sessions or conference tracks to be of greater significance in terms of their existing paradigms.

In discussing the design of the event, it would be important to maintain the distinction between the following, with a view to de-emphasizing (or even rigorously excluding) some:

  1. Marriage of Poetry-making and Policy-making: Nature of the cognitive marriage through which the insights of poetry-making enrich those of policy-making -- RECOMMENDED PRIMARY FOCUS
  2. Poetry deploring Policy: As in liberation poetry, protest poetry, and poetry focusing on human rights and unfulfilled aspirations.
  3. Poetry extolling Policy: Poetry praising policy, as in socialist poetry (such as under Communism).
  4. Poetry accompanying Policy: Use of poetry to decorate or enhance a policy occasion: UN symphony orchestra, Clinton inaugural, poet laureate
  5. Poetic illustration of Policy: Use of poetic illustrations within formal speeches; illustrative poetic metaphor; memorable phrases (cf Wit and Wisdom of the United Nations)
  6. Poetry of Politicians: Policy-makers who are privately interested in poetry, but who do not necessarily bring poetry into their policy-making activity. Poetry as a vehicle for reflection of policy by politicians.
  7. Poetic articulation of Policy: Characteristic of some sophisticated traditional systems (Mandarin China; Vedas).
  8. Poetry as an education for Policy-making: Poetry seen as an essential reparation for policy-making (Oxford University tradition; Mandarin China)
  9. Policy-making concerning Poetry: Administrative concern with the administration of cultural policy and the arts.
  10. Policy for the use of Poetry: Deliberate and skilful use of poetry by policy-makers to promote policies: propaganda.
  11. Policy for the development of Poetry: Cultural development programmes for the preservation of ethnic or national identity (eg Celtic poetry)
  12. Policy enhanced Poetry: War poetry (Serbia); martial (battle) music.

4. Practical steps

(a) Identification of a core group: A group of 5-10 people needs to be identified who are committed to exploring the "cognitive marriage" between the aesthetic arts and policy- making. This could include people with skills and experience in one area but not the other. However it would be important that such people should not endeavour to de-emphasize the area with which they are least familiar -- for this would create unnecessary tensions within the group. Such a group might be formed into a preparatory committee, with appropriate letterhead, etc.

(b) Identification of policy-makers with a commitment to poetry: It is important to develop a list of policy-makers, especially heads of state and government ministers, with a strong interest in poetry, music or the arts in general. It is this list, with an indication of the nature of the interest of each, which gives credibility to the initiative. In effect the event is designed as a friendly challenge to such people to clarify and build on the two seemingly incompatible activities in which they engage. At some stage it would be important to contact such people, explaining the nature of the project, and looking to ways in which they might offer their support, notably by agreeing to be on some form of supporting or honourary committee.

(c) Development of a project proposal: This document would clarify the scope of the project with a few to sponsorship. Of special important is the size of the event, or series of events. Options are:

The first two could be organized with relatively little effort. It is possible that the initiative could be limited to one or both. But these could also be seen as preparatory to the larger event outlined in (c).

(d) Involvement of international organizations: There is much scope for involving key international organizations in such an event. UNESCO is a good example (especially since it is in the middle of a Cultural Development Decade), but cultural bodies associated with the Council of Europe, such as the European Cultural Foundation, are another. But again it is important to ensure the right kind of involvement so that the event does not acquire the image of an artistic indulgence through association with bodies who have been criticized for their response to development issues.

(e) Relevance to development and community building: There is a possibility that this approach may also be relevant to the challenges of community building and unemployment, namely situations where new ways need to be found to enable people to "get their act together". Work chants and war chants are out of fashion, except in their sporting form, but they have important clues to major breakthroughs. But there is more to it than simply singing together as is done in "community building" contexts. It is the cognitive and action oriented dimensions which need exploration.

With the increasing resignation in the face of the problems of Africa, it is worth exploring rhythm as the key to organizational breakthroughs there. Accepting the inappropriateness of much conventional management thinking in response to the dramatic developmental situation in Africa, this approach effectively opens the discussion of more radical frameworks compatible with resources in African cultures which are not taken seriously by the North. It is worth confronting the question as to whether insights into rhythm and harmony cannot be used to catalyze the emergence of new forms of organization and management, whether at the grass-roots or strategic level. It is hypothesized that by giving legitimacy to skills common in aural cultures, notably those associated with song, new insights may emerge which place African cultures at an advantage (notably in comparison with Northern countries) in navigating through the turbulent periods of future decades. There is some probability that such insights are more readily accessible, as an unexplored developmental resource, at many levels of African society than in other cultures. This approach would also challenge the tendency to view any appreciative evaluation of African skills in this respect as a subtle form of disparagement.

5. Comment

It is possible that many of the thematic approaches would attract distinct audiences. They could then each be the subject of parallel seminars with the same general framework. Possibilities of overlapping events could be envisaged.

There is an important distinction in looking at the presentation of any such event. There are policy-makers who write or enjoy poetry, just as there are poets who have managerial tasks. There are policy-makers who arrange for poetry and music presentations on the occasion of formal conferences, just as there are poets and musicians who create works about the challenges of policy decisions and the life of organizations.

Whilst there is a place for such perspectives in the proposed event, it really only offers the possibilities of exciting breakthroughs when the focus is on a real marriage between the cognitive and creative skills of poetry- and policy-making, namely how policy-making can be reframed through insights from poetry and music, and made relevant to situations like Rwanda, Somalia and Bangladesh. This latter criterion is the most serious. It is essential to demonstrate that we are looking for a creative breakthrough with immediate application to social development and relief processes in a chaotic world. It is vital to move beyond the possibility of portraying the event as an artistic indulgence however intriguing.

Care needs to be taken in choosing the cultural setting for such an international event. Outcomes can be coloured in less fruitful ways by choosing inappropriate settings -- especially if there is any hidden agenda on the part of the organizers, however well-meaning. On the other hand, there is also an argument for many such events, under whatever circumstances they are organized. They would be an interesting challenge within a university context.

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