Message from Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the Occasion of World Poetry Day
22 March 2020
Just as the novelist Franz Kafka wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”, so Stanford professor John Felstiner asks in the title of his book, Can Poetry Save the Earth?
“Why call on the pleasures of poetry, when the time has come for an all-out response? Response starts with individuals, it’s individual persons that poems are spoken by and spoken to. One by one, the will to act may rise within us. Because we are what the beauty and force of poems reach toward, we’ve a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally.”
Arranged in words, coloured with images, struck with the right meter, poetry has a power that has no match. This is the power to shake us from everyday life and the power to remind us of the beauty that surrounds us and of the resilience of the human spirit.
This year, as we mark the end of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity and the beginning of the United Nations International Year of Plant Health, UNESCO is honouring past and present poets who stand for biodiversity and the conservation of nature.
If the conservation of biodiversity is a new societal theme, the call to the appreciation of the beauty of nature has been a constant for poets for thousands of years. Love, death and nature are perhaps the most common themes in poetry. Poets have long recognized and honoured the profound association between human emotions and the richness of the surrounding environment – from Garcilaso de la Vega to Victor Hugo, Alexander Pushkin and Sarojini Naidu.
More recently, poets have begun using their cultural memory and ecological concerns to stand as witnesses to climate change. Through their work, these ecopoets place natural and cultural heritage at the centre of political debate, as a question of survival. This link between indigenous knowledge and the protection of ecosystems is powerfully expressed by the contemporary Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf:
I then learn the names of the flowers and the plants
The insects perform their function
Nothing is superfluous in this world
The universe is a duality:
The good doesn’t exist without the bad.
The Earth doesn’t belong to the people
Mapuche means People of the Earth
Poetry lies at the heart of who we are as women and men, living together today, drawing on the heritage of past generations, custodians of the world for our children and grandchildren. By celebrating poetry today, we celebrate our ability to join together to fight for biodiversity as “a common concern of humankind” and an integral part of the international development process.