No Worse than Owen?

Now here’s a sentence I didn’t really expect to read during Remembrance Week:

“In her defence, her lawyers claimed her poetry was no worse than the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen.”

That is from a Telegraph report of the trial of Samina Malik, a young woman who has been on trial for writing political poetry. In literary terms, her work seems a great deal worse than Owen’s:

In one poem, called “Raising Mujahideen [holy fighter] Children,” she recommended indoctrinating children from the age of seven, adding: “Show the children videos and pictures of mujahideen and tell them to become strong like them.”

“Explain how the Mujahideen fear no man – they fear Allah alone, and for his sake they are able, willing and capable to do anything in defence of Islam.” Malik joined an extremist organisation called Jihad Way set up to disseminate terrorist propaganda and support al-Qa’eda.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think this is rather a long way from being in the same class as Strange Meeting, and not even nearly as good as the writing of Jessie Pope, the warlike poetess that Owen skewered in Dulce et Decorum Est.

On the other hand, I’m really bothered that these days someone can risk jail for writing poems. Ms Malik is young, and sounds a bit naive:

She started writing love poetry while at Villiers High School in Southall, Middlesex and in early 2002 began writing “rap poems” in the style of US rappers Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent, using the name Lyrical Babe.

In 2004 she became more interested in religion and started wearing a hijab, changing her writing name from Lyrical Babe to Lyrical Terrorist because she thought it was “cool.”

If everyone who had written bad political poems in their youth got put in chokey – well, then there would be a real overcrowding problem in the prisons. I was youngish in the late sixties/early seventies, when wild political extremism was everywhere, but in those days you didn’t get locked up for what you wrote, only for things you did – so radical magazines supporting groups like the Angry Brigade could print all sorts of wild stuff.

It was a time when the most fashionable play in town was David Hare’s Fanshen, a lyrical tribute to Mao Tse Tung, probably the most evil ruler of the twentieth century – a play as naive as Ms Malik’s poems, though better written. Now Hare is Sir David, darling of the slightly-left-of-centre establishment, and regularly producing sanctimonious preachy plays for the National Theatre, his youthful stupidities quietly forgotten.

But Ms Malik is facing jail for her bad verses. The justification, I suppose, is that these are dangerous times, and the govenment needs to be tough. As so often these days, I’m reminded of an exchange from Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I’m quoting from memory, but it goes something like this:

“My government will take strong measures.”

“Yes, that is what weak governments always do.”

In Remembrance Week, it is worth remembering that during the First World War (a time that many feel themselves able to condescend to as naive and jingoistic) nobody got prosecuted for writing a poem. The British government prided itself on maintaining the liberal tradition even during wartime, and there were remarkably few prosecutions of literary works of any kind. There were other pressures on writers, certainly, and dissident writing could find it hard to get published or distributed, but you didn’t face jail for your verses.

Ms Malik has been found guilty, doubtless at huge public expense. Lawyers in sleek suits have profitably argued the merits of her strident and silly verses, and solemn jurors have found her guilty. She has not been sentenced yet, and I hope that the judge shows the sort of clemency that the Army showed to Siegfried Sassoon ninety years ago. When he blurted out his impassioned protest against the War, the authorities could have had him court-martialled, and potentially shot as a traitor. Instead, they recognised a man under extreme pressure and sent him to Craiglockhart, with the implicit message that he shouldn’t be silly again.

I hope the judge has shows as much common sense when it comes to sentencing Ms Malik. The Daily Mail prints some of her verse in full:


  1. treebs
    Posted November 9, 2007 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Yuk..what a lack of respect for life shown in this silly womans’ words.
    Enough to give Islam a bad name…the problem is not enough of its’ followers are speaking out against such atrocious sentiments.
    It’s easy to appear heroic when one has a sharp sword and a defenceless victim.
    Sadly,the victims of such mindless butchery won’t get the chance to write a poem in reply describing their feeling of terror…at least not in this life!!

  2. Genghis Cohn
    Posted November 9, 2007 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Cinna got killed for poetry that can’t have been this bad. In fact, it wasn’t her poems but owning such goodies as guides to poisons and bomb-making instruction books that got her convicted. Dubious enough, but not quite that absurd.

  3. Posted November 9, 2007 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as someone with an extensive and varied collection of books, some of which have been labelled dangerous by various people at various times, I’m not in the least reassured by the apparent fact that someone can be prosecuted because of the contents of their library.

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