A DECLARATION OF POETIC RIGHTS AND VALUES

Welcome to our language
Taste
The Sauce

— Reesom Haile, Eritrean poet — translation by Charles Cantalupo

Preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all languages are created equal, endowed by their creators with certain inalienable meanings. These meanings are embedded in sounds and texts; in words, imagination, and the poems that bind them. Poetry is the distillation of language; the uproarious babble of human thought, and the engaging patter of consciousness itself—in all languages—all 6,500 of them.

As the Rosetta Stone encoded language, poems encode culture and world view. Both oral and literary poets are central to the ecology of consciousness, serving as transpondents of culture itself. As ways of identifying the features of a physical landscape, language is bound up with place; its loss marks an exile for the poets who express themselves in that language. And yet, across our fragile planet, poetry and poetic traditions are increasingly endangered as their vehicles of communication, the carriers of their art, the words that constitute their lines and
verses, are forgotten or misunderstood. Some estimates indicate that more than half of the world’s languages will cease to be spoken within the next century.

There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
—Earl Shorris, “The Last Word: Can the World’s Small Languages Be Saved,” Harpers, Aug., 2000

Declaration:

When in the course of human communication, cultures are confronted with
a. Loss of language;
b. Loss of dialects;
c. Loss of the ceremonial and artistic traditions of which the poetry is part;
d. Oppression of poets by governments;
e. Oppression by dominant cultural groups against minority or stateless cultures;
f. The trend toward a worldwide market in which communication is reduced to mere products and information;
g. The tendency of the media of dominant cultural groups to co-opt cultural expressions from traditional sources;
h. Increased emphasis on art forms disseminated by the broadcast media with the consequent distortion of those art forms and the concurrent devaluing of other forms of expression;
i. Media ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer, increasingly larger corporate conglomerates;
… these rights and values are necessary to protect the poetic expression of linguistic communities:

1. Every community/ethnic group and its constituent individuals are entitled to the means for preserving and perpetuating their own poetic traditions and poetries, which express their unique sense of identity, individual and collective world view.

2. Every group and its constituent individuals are entitled to the freedom to mix and transform poetry and poetic traditions as they evolve and change.

3. Every group and individual writer should be awarded the legal protection they need to share in any profits earned from their own creations.

4. The diminution of poetic expression, the loss of any poetic tradition, and the silencing of poetic voices are hereby seen as a loss for all of humanity which has invested its creative genius in poetic forms and poems.

5. The poetic traditions of endangered languages are often threatened in different ways so that particular strategies need to be devised to preserve and encourage the traditions in each individual culture.

6. Cultures with the means to document, preserve and disseminate cultural expression are encouraged to assure that poetic traditions of stateless and threatened languages are preserved and fostered, made accessible to their local communities, and preserved as part of the human record of creativity.

7. By poetizing in endangered languages, artists are engaged in a radical, creative, and culturally significant act that needs to be encouraged, not marginalized.

8 . People of every cultural background are hereby encouraged to be as multilingual as possible and to be vernacular translators in whatever competence is available. The linguistic and cultural diversity of the global community must be preserved and enriched.

To make indigenous literature is neither folklore nor a passing fashion; it is a dialogue of identities, of civilizations, of languages, of millenarian voices and perennial spirits.
–Juan Gregorio Regino, Mazatec poet

Written for The People’s Poetry Gathering and City Lore by Steve Zeitlin, Bob Holman, and Emilia Bachrach with assistance from Jerome Rothenberg, Mark Abley, and John Foley.
For the full text of the Declaration see
http://www.peoplespoetry.org/declaration.pdf.

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