When the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) convened in Havana on January 28, proceedings began with a huge torchlight procession in tribute to the poet José Martí, born 161 years ago on that day. The celebration has been held every year since the revolution of 1959, but to have the participation of so many representatives from across the continent was a moment laden with meaning.
Hosting the summit has been a significant achievement for Cuba, which still suffers from the economic blockade imposed by the US in 1959. Founded in 2011 in Venezuela in opposition to the Washington-dominated Organisation of American States, CELAC specifically excludes the US. Contrary to predictions from the State Department, Latin American countries flocked to Havana in such numbers that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon felt obliged to attend.
But why the tributes, from so many leaders at the summit, to Martí? He is a national hero who, like Simon Bolívar two generations before him, transcends national boundaries. He died in 1895 at the age of 42, killed in the fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Lines from his Versos Sencillos have become the national song Guantanamera. A journalist and essayist as well as a poet, a citizen of the world who had lived in Spain, New York, Mexico and Guatemala, he was a voice for liberty for all of Latin America.
One of his lesser-known works, to me a marvel, is a magazine for children he began in 1892 – The Golden Age. It contains an essay about heroism in which, discussing Bolívar, he wrote: “A man who hides what he thinks, or dares not say what he thinks, is not a man of honour. A man who obeys a bad government, without working to make it a good government, is not a man of honour… The child, from when he can think, must think about everything he sees, must feel for those who cannot live with honour, must work for all to be treated with honour…”
What a wonderful antidote to the infantilisation of our young, whom the conservatives would like to keep from thinking too much about the world around them.
A Burns Night to remember
Scotland too has its poet hero, Robert Burns (1759-1796). On a recent visit to Sydney I had the great pleasure of attending a Burns Night organised by my son Scott Donald Mitchell. A dozen young Scots, Scottish Australians and fellow thinkers brought wonderfully authentic food and enacted the full Burns Night ritual – the Selkirk Grace, a reading of Burns’s Address to the Haggis, an impassioned host’s speech by Scott about the “people’s poet”, a hilarious Address to the Lassies and an even better Address to the Laddies.
Writing in Scots language and dialect, taking as his themes liberty, equality and the life of the common folk, and living life to the full in defiance of church and convention, Burns won the hearts of his compatriots and has stirred the imagination of people the world over. In 1956 he was honoured by the Soviet Union with a commemorative stamp – ten years before the British did the same.
In a Scottish TV poll four years ago he was voted the greatest Scot ever, coming ahead of even William Wallace. In the year of the referendum on independence, Scottish hearts still beat to the rhythm of his poetry and the blood stirs when they hear the words:
Scots, wha’ hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie.
A point of honour
If Scotland and Cuba can honour their great poets as national heroes, why can’t Australia? Are we still cast in the mould of England, where the ruling class shunned the funeral of Lord Byron and denied him burial in Westminster Abbey, giving him a spot in Poets’ Corner only 145 years later?
Poets, like painters, capture intimate moments of our shared human experience. Those who reach the imagination of whole peoples elevate us all. Perhaps we will only have grown up as a country when a government can pay an appropriate tribute to our own.
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) has fair claim to being a people’s poet, with his profound humanity, his sympathy for the downtrodden and contempt for class privilege. Banjo Patterson evoked similar sentiments. Today Tony Abbott would probably say they weren’t on the side of “Team Australia”.
In more recent times Judith Wright (1915-2000) famously said: “Without a vision a nation perishes,” and she didn’t pull any punches about John Howard, writing in an open letter to him on Australia Day 1997 that his government was “both weak and corrupt”. An environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights, she never received official government recognition for her outstanding body of work. But she measured up to Martí’s standard for a person of honour.