Poets, Shelley wrote, are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. There is no doubt, however, that many writers and poets were acknowledged diplomats, starting with the one most people forget, Geoffrey Chaucer. The ones we are more familiar with are the South American writers, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral, George Seferis, the Greek, and many more including a long list of Nobel Prize winners.
The Chilean poet-diplomat, Pablo Neruda, as a young man. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.
There was the secretary general of the French Foreign Office, Alexis Leger, the diplomat most hated by the Third Reich who fled 1940s’ France and reinvented himself as the poet, Saint-John Perse, in America and created for himself a new kind of reality through another set of words at the age of fifty-three—though he was careful not to merge the two.
If asked whether there was a similarity between poetry and diplomacy, most people would possibly vehemently disagree. Diplomacy, after all, includes a certain amount of pussy footing, a holding back of the truth in the interests of relations between countries. However, at one level both diplomacy and poets are game-changing in their own way. Diplomacy for the most part does not countenance revolutions. Poetry, on the other hand, is very often the tool of revolution without any pretence of diplomacy. What is common to them both is the fact that writers and diplomats place conviction in the power of words. Words are, in fact, the only things they have to change a situation or bring about new balance.
Seamus Heaney referred to it as the redress of poetry in a series of lectures in which he spoke about the ability of poetry to balance the hostility and oppression in the world. Diplomacy also challenges or attempts to challenge the dark side of politics, through the medium of words, but diplomacy has a more difficult task at hand since it exists for the purpose of change. Writing and poetry may suggest changes of a global nature but few poems have affected the world order in the way diplomacy does. And if it did, it would be a misuse of literature, turning it into a tool of policy.
However, doublespeak of a certain sort is common to both poets and diplomats. Poets choose their phrases as do diplomats but again for different reasons. Students of both poetry and diplomacy are aware of the doublespeak from which the true meaning has to be decoded.
The question, then, is why do so many diplomats write? Even though the age of the Nobel laureate diplomat is seemingly over, there are Indian diplomats who write following in this well-established tradition. The former Indian foreign secretary, M.K. Rasgotra, for example, or the Indian ambassador, Amandeep Gill, who confesses to have written through India’s nuclear discussions in 2016.
Amandeep Gill studied engineering in Chandigarh and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1992 and has since served in Geneva, Tehran and Colombo. He spent a year at Stanford University as a research scholar. Nuclear negotiations, and poetry, are his specialty.
Possibly it is an escape from one kind of ambiguity to another—poetic ambiguity, however, invites the reader to decode the central meaning from its various strands of imagery. In the long run, unless the poet is a dissident, the meaning does not really matter. For a diplomat, on the other hand, verbal pyrotechnics are designed with a more serious purpose, to mask the truth that cannot be revealed for fear of upsetting some kind of global balance of power. Though the diplomat may be able to reveal what is in his soul through poetry. Poetry can, therefore, indirectly help the diplomat in his quotidian functioning. It certainly must have helped Mao in his Cultural Revolution through poems like, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom…”
Anjana Basu is a novelist, poet, essayist and scriptwriter who was born in Allahabad, and schooled for a time in the UK. She has published seven novels and two books of poetry. The BBC has broadcast one of her short stories. She was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland in 2004 where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue (2007). She began writing for children in 2010 when the publisher, Roli, brought out Chinku and the Wolfboy. Her Jim Corbett series for The Energy and Resources Institute dealing with big cat conservation for children began in 2013 with In the Shadow of the Leaves, and added to the list were Leopard in the Laboratory in 2016, and Eighteen Tides and a Tiger in 2017. She has worked on the dialogues for the film The Last Lear (director Rituparno Ghosh). Anjana lives and works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta.