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What It Means to Be Free: Liberation in Performance and Verse

By Nicholas DiSabatino

Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons
Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons

On Monday, October 5th, I had the privilege to join Helene Atwan, our director, and Tom Hallock, our associate publisher and director of sales and marketing, at Boston Symphony Hall for the Terezín Music Foundation’s 2015 Gala, “Liberation: A Concert Honoring the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Nazi Camps.” This celebration perfectly timed with the release of Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets, a poetry anthology edited and introduced by Mark Ludwig, the executive director of the Terezín Music Foundation. 

The concert, featuring works by composers commissioned to set poems from the collection to music, began with a candle lighting to honor the liberators and survivors with members of the Hawthorne String Quartet beautifully playing in the background. The Boston Children’s Chorus performed two pieces, “The Day of Light,” composed by David Post and dedicated to Hanka Krasa, and “The Song About the Child,” composed by Sivan Eldar.

Beacon Press author and U.S. Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco gave a powerful recitation of his original poem, “Leaving Limerick in the Rain” commissioned for and included in Liberation. Coro Allegro, which features LGBT members from the greater Boston community, performed a piece based on Blanco’s poem to great success.

Helene Atwan, Richard Blanco, and Tom Hallock
Helene Atwan, Richard Blanco, and Tom Hallock

For me, the most moving component of the evening was hearing members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Partita for Chamber Orchestra by Gideon Klein, a Czech composer deported to Terezín concentration camp. Klein, who was only twenty-six years old when he died in 1945 after being deported from Terezín to Auschwitz and then to Fürstengrube, would have definitely continued to have an illustrious and long career. It’s only fitting that the Terezín Foundation continues to honor his memory and his work. 

Overall, Mark Ludwig’s Liberation celebration was an inspiring, at times somber reflection of what it means to be free. 

For the anthology, Ludwig asked poets to write on the theme of liberation and how it inspires them. He brought together eighty-two poems from sixty-three of today’s top poets, including Richard Blanco, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, and many more—plus a foreword by Ha Jin, shared here to give you a taste of what’s in store in the collection.


This engaging volume has gathered recent poems by more than sixty poets across the world. Many of the poems were translated from other languages, and together they represent a spirit that confronts what has damaged and still endangers human existence. Some of the poems are rooted in historical happenings, to which the poets give nuances and their own perspectives. Some are based on human drama, mostly metaphorical, without specific temporal reference. Yet one way or another, they all shed light on the theme of liberation.

On the other hand, the theme of liberation creates new interpretive possibilities for these poems. As I was reading, I kept wondering how the poems could be read in such a light. How can a poem about Whitney Houston be associated with the idea of liberation? At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. However, I soon realized that poet Kwame Dawes’s perception of Houston’s life and death showed a lot of relevance and acute insight—even though she was a celebrity, her freedom was conditioned and limited, shaped by numerous social forces hostile to liberation. A poem like Han Dong’s “Story” is about a couple parting ways. By nature, such a poem is metaphorical and atemporal, but if we think about it from the perspective of liberation, we can see that the couple’s separation, temporary or permanent, is indeed a kind of liberation. But who is liberated? Maybe the one who stays? Maybe the one who leaves? Or maybe both? Interpretive opportunities like those can be mind-opening and delightful.

One feature shared by these poems is a serious engagement with the world. In this regard, the poems demonstrate a willingness to oppose what has debased and violated humanity. Conventionally, poetry is supposed to remember so as to preserve, and in a conservative sense, it is also supposed to reconcile conflicts and inspire confidence. Many of these poems, however, break those norms and seem to perform more urgent functions. They remind us of injustice and warn us against the violence that continues to spread.

Robert Pinsky’s lines in “Poem of Disconnected Parts” refer to the cycle of deadly forces embodied in a few women’s lives:

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving

Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2005

Still nothing finished among the descendants.

LiberationIndeed, facing such perpetual “falling” and “dying,” poetry must first make people aware of them. It’s essential for a poet to stand aside from the collective and speak in a dissonant voice that reminds people of reason and human cost and to warn them against the destructive hands that operate overtly, often under the aegis of grandiloquent rhetoric. I would say that the strength of these poems lies in the fact that they do not avoid being useful or serving a purpose. In truth, poetry ought to be more useful nowadays, so as to become more relevant in our diminishing reading culture.

While sounding strident, some of these poems still give a lot of pleasure and celebrate our existence. They remind us of the joy of being alive and able to work and do something decent. They compel us to appreciate the possibilities of life while commiserating with those who are deprived of them. They are moving partly because they show that we still can dream and sing. These lines from Anita Endrezze’s poem “There Is No Cure for MS” exemplify an imagined happiness:

If there was a way to liberate my body

from disease, I’d dance across lily pads,

balanced between sky and water.

If I knew the abracadabra that cures,

I’d follow the sun across mountains,

laughing at the magic of walking.

I’d quicken my veins with lightning.

If if if I could be healed,

I’d sing of the shining paths

hummingbirds trace

in the fragrant air          O Joy!

and strum the spell-bound moon

with my slender fingers.

Lines like those display an indomitable spirit in confronting the adversary forces that diminish humanity. That is a kind of triumph.


About the Author 

Nicholas DiSabatino, associate publicist, graduated from Kent State University and has an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College. He joined Beacon in 2012.