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Something happens when we go to the theatre, visit an art gallery, or hear music in the company of others, and it’s good for us, whatever our background, whatever the socio-economic indicators that mould our perceptions and expectations of art. That’s the contention – and, in part, the conclusion – of Daisy Fancourt and Alan Steptoe in their paper on Cultural Engagement and Mental Heath: does socio-economic status explain the association? (1982). But Fancourt and Steptoe leave important questions unanswered: what is the difference between the social and the personal experience of art, and how do we measure our collective interest in the kind of art – some poetry might be a good example – that has, over time, exchanged social ritual for individual contemplation? How does this less popular “engagement” with the world of art, music or literature affect our relationship with class, our sense of belonging and obligation, all things that can affect our mood and prevent our interests finding expression in the first place?
Maybe all art involves an exchange of self-consciousness (including class consciousness) for imaginative awareness. An actor discovers the intoxications and responsibilities of presence, we speak of being liberated by music. Those autonomous qualities – presence and the feeling of liberation – are what make artistic activity difficult for authoritarian regimes, and necessary for the artists (and audiences) who must try to survive them. They’re also signposts on the way back from personal contemplation to social significance. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021) wrote lyric verse, but its beautiful vigilance is disturbed by the shadow-side of watchfulness, the presence of the censor, and by his own urgent requirement for what he called “non-naive realism”. In the two poems discussed here – “Night is a Cistern” and “Tierra del Fuego”, both wonderfully translated by Clare Cavanaugh – the poet speaks to us directly and we become his ambiguous political witnesses, at once refugees and bystanders; also, perhaps, spies.

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