Sunday, 21 March 2010

Still we rise – protesting and poetry

Time for our next poem for TFE's Poetry Bus. Let's start with a song about words from a band well-known for their protesting:





Next – an extremely hefty intro to a fairly short poem. Some of you might want to skip this bit (long...rambling...edited about a hundred times) and please feel free to go straight down to the poem if so. Do I even agree with everything I've written in the paragraphs below? Well, sometimes...

So our brief for TFE this week was to write a protest poem. He made it clear that, as ever under his reign, this was a loose term and that we could protest about something silly, something deathly serious or indeed anything we liked in between. There are a lot of people and places that talk about being open-minded but many of them mean 'open-minded if you think and write like me' - happily TFE is a long way from that kind of delusion (though I'm sure he has plenty of other delusions, eh Peadar?).

For me there was little decision making to do about what kind of poem to write. Serious, arrows-to-the-heart protest poems (also known as political poems) are one of my big poetry loves so I was more than happy to try something in that area this week (in fact I'm more than happy to try pretty much all subjects and styles but this zone is definitely one of my favourites). Though political poetry can cover a wide range of work (like 'protest' political is a word that can mean many things) it is unashamed out-and-proud political poetry that is one of the styles of writing that moves me most of all. I can enjoy lots of other genres within poetry too... I like lots of humour and wordplay and weirdness and beauty and careful little considerations...but a good, strong political poem...is there anything better made with words? And while we're on the subject I might just say (loudly!) that I like lots of the big, famous political poems (poems that seem to embarrass a lot of the people who hang out in the blogs and backrooms and poetry magazine HQs these days...). I like Adrian Mitchell's 'To whom it may concern', I like Maya Angelou's 'And still I rise' and I like them for many, many reasons. I like them because of their power and because of what they've meant to so many people. I like them because they are poems that said loud and clear what other people thought but could not quite express in such startling words and I like them even more because they are such strong poems that they speak loudly still (sometimes years later). They are not involved in the boring old 'either literary or performance' considerations because they are so far beyond those kind of silly categorisations. They are fighters, these poems, and they are frontline...because someone has to be.

This is a subject I think about quite a lot (like every time some genius says “of course, most political poetry is dreadful...”) but it was on my mind again this week partly because I was exchanging words with someone about it...on facebook (I know...I know...). Partly the disagreement arose, I suppose, because political poetry means different things to different people (a bit like the neverending 'this is good', 'what's good?', 'everyone knows what good is', 'no, they don't' etc.). So what might we all agree on when it comes to political poems? That a political poem has a message (almost a dirty word, it can seem, in serious poetry circles sometimes...)? That message might be big or small and it need not be all the poem is about but it must be there (musn't it?). It can take many forms – it might be a comment on something or a subject that has not been tackled previously in poetry or a triumphing of a certain way of living perhaps. There are poems like the ones mentioned in the above paragraph but then there are slightly less rabble-rousing poems too (like Carol Ann Duffy's 'Warming Her Pearls' – that tackles sexuality, class...some of the biggest traditional unsaids in our world). It's not necessarily a simple matter of course - the poem might have one message or it might have a few (it might even have lots and lots if it's really clever). Like Duffy's 'Pearls' it might not be about an obviously political subject either - in fact I would say that some poems that think they are political just because they're tackling a big political subject are not, in fact, coming out with any truly political messages at all (but that's when we get into the nitpicking I suppose...probably not very helpful...). One of my feelings on this subject is that a political poem can be subtle, for example, but if it goes too far into subtlety I think it often weakens, or even loses, any political ambitions it may have. No matter how beautifully made some poems are they are unlikely to have much effect on an audience or readers if subtlety wins the day too completely (and please be clear on this – I am not saying 'no' to subtlety as a general rule – just that you can't have everything...what you win on subtlety you may lose on effect, power or message). A political poem (to be doing its job perhaps) needs to speak to an audience, to communicate with them and if it doesn't I'm not sure to what extent that poem can be said to be protesting or working in any kind of political way. Might the poem in question, for example, help someone understand something or change someone's mind (other than the poet's loyal best friends and admirers who probably already agree with that writer already anyway)? Might the poem stir anyone to, say, go to a demonstration, do something about change in the wider world or even just think about changing something in their own lives (I've been reading a lot of Mark Steel this year...I am filled with revolutionary fervour!)? Could that poem be read aloud, for example, to a crowd (not just a crowd of poets...) and stir hearts in that crowd to the point where those hearts (and minds) seriously want change in some form (and this is my deciding question, I suppose)? Does it really make people think? There are small moments in politics (many of them) but political poems need to be moving more towards the big moments, don't they (or at least thinking about them)? They are surely not about a poet ticking off something on a list (“jolly good, there's my anti-war poem done, next stop poverty!”) but what they are about, I think, is the poet feeling insanely anti-war in every bit of their being to the point where if they don't write that anti-war poem they will explode! Does that sound too crazy? To me it doesn't. Political poems are about feeling over form, ideas over reputation, the subject over the writer (although maybe poetry's about that a lot of the time...) and for me this kind of poetry is one of the areas where poems can really excel. To me it seems such a wasted opportunity if we don't keep hold of this style in some form, if we dismiss it as a thing of the past ("I mean, it was OK in the 1960s and '70s but really, no-one's being that obvious these days..."). Not everybody can write a good political poem that's for sure (though that shouldn't stop them trying, I don't think) and certainly a major earth-shaking political poem is not something you can write week in, week out but that doesn't mean the aim should be abandoned altogether. Poetry is not just about subtlety and pat-each-other-on-the-back cleverness and if we limit its potential to subtlety alone then I think we are doomed to be part of the big proverbial problem. Up in the poetry premiership it seems that poets are allowed to be more free and political (if the mood takes them) but down here in the lower leagues there is a silly tendency to put political poems (and indeed anything that speaks directly to a listener) into a file marked 'bad' or 'performance' or 'not to be taken seriously' and I worry about this knee-jerk reaction. I worry that because of it we are going to somehow abandon proper stirring, heart-grabbing poetry in this era simply because it is something like embarrassing and because it is felt that showing our motives and thoughts too clearly is wrong. I feel ridiculously strongly about this. I may make placards.

And now onto this week's poem. I've written quite a lot of what I would call political poems (in fact I have a suspicion that a huge number of my poems could fall into that category...I have a poem about dancing back here, for heaven's sake, that always seems fairly political to me in its way). But as for this one...I've had bits of this poem in my head for years and even now I'm not sure it's the one I really wanted to write (maybe that's still to come). It may not seem subtle...but I think it probably is more subtle than some people might realise (eh?). So am I now contradicting myself completely? No, no, no...here it is anyway:



The wrong sex


Will it ever end?

The men were beaten
And the women were raped


Will the stories ever stop?

The girl was dragged from the path
And raped by her assailant


That girl - where has she gone?

The accused raped his wife repeatedly
Because he could
Because he could


Do you dream of walking anywhere?

It's just a few - bad - apples

And the next crop?

We hold their hands tight
We speak of gentleness
We make them stronger




RF 2010


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You can find links to everyone else's protest poems this week here.

38 comments:

Totalfeckineejit said...

I read the intro, blogsare for sharing things particularly thoughts and ideas, sparks of creativity, catalysts for creation, i think.I'd never heard of Adrian Mitchell till i saw him on your blog.

This poem is direct and yet it is subtle, it is crystal clear and yet it is enigmatic.

I think it might be one of your best poems yet.(Good title too)

Bill said...

Powerful stuff- and I like the fragmentary structure of it!

The Solitary Walker said...

Well said, though I'm not sure I read quite to the end of it! That Adrian Mitchell poem you refer to I have always loved - it's so powerful. Check out some of Denise Levertov's political poems too. Not to mention some of John Lennon's songs. Yes, you can write political verse, of course you can, why must it be different?

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, and your poem - yes, it's good...

Rachel Fox said...

TFE - you are the king of sharing! I'm glad you think the poem is good. I'm not sure...it's such a tricky subject...but if you say so that helps.

Thanks Bill.

SW - I think you are lucky and don't read/hear/experience some of the stuff about, for example, political poetry that I do (because I try to keep up with the current poetry world...to an extent). I do this (online and off - just been to StAnza festival for a couple of events) because...I feel I should, I suppose, because I am a people person (or at least I used to be...). Some of it drives me crazy though and all in all I'm very glad I live out of the way and don't have to be part of any kind of poetry scene. Me and Emily Dickinson...we'll manage alright out on our limbs...

x

The Solitary Walker said...

Err... I think I understood you to mean that... some poetry is good and some is bad, right? Plenty of bad romantic/satirical/and-any-other-kind-of-verse too...

For political poetry read the Germans - Brecht (of course) but also Enzensberger and, oh, lots of other names I've forgotten...

Niamh B said...

Moving poem, Rachel - reminded me of this one...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kt_nWX7iEx8&feature=related

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Niamh. I've not seen those poets live but I have seen that clip online before (maybe via yours?) and some others of theirs.

I find their delivery difficult...so fast, sounding a lot like a lot of other US poets with the delivery style, being a bit hammy in places (though I can ham myself a little...it's hard not to sometimes) but I admire them very much - for being bold, for learning so much off by heart, for saying something, for that sense of rhythm and ambition. Above all I would heckle 'do it all again and this time a bit slower for the old folks...'

x

Liz said...

Good intro. Rachel, I admire your energy and sense-making talk.

And yes, a strong poem - title grabbed me and the different voices through-out. Impacting.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, thanks and thanks, Liz. We write so differently that I always particularly love it if you like one of mine!

x

Titus said...

Oh no, that's not a ramble, that's a very good argument.

Very impressed with the poem.

I met that Mark Steel once in a motorway services.

Will come back and comment more intelligently when it's not 2am.

And I thought the theme was anger, not protest. Oh woe is me!

Rachel Fox said...

I met, reviewed and interviewed a lot of comedians back in about 1990 when I was writing about comedy for a Leeds magazine. Somehow I missed Steel then though Titus so you are one ahead of me! I am a huge fan...he's a very good writer as much as anything else (all his books are great).

Protest...anger...there is an overlap. I've yet to see TFE throw a punter off the bus.

x

Enchanted Oak said...

Your poem is good whether political in nature or not. I vote for your notion of building more on it. At least, I would go farther with you on this subject. My version of a protest poem for TFE’s Poetry Bus is here.

crazyfieldmouse said...

I read and very much enjoyed your intro, I am coming to think that understanding the 'world of poetry' is every bit as important as understanding individual poems. I so agree, a good political poem should really open your eyes and stir you up, and about the subtlety thing, that sometimes you need to be a bit more in-your-face about a subject to get the idea across. 'Politics' can be seen a bit of a dirty word in lots of arenas.
I did not understand the ending of your poem?
thanks for sharing
cfm

Rachel Fox said...

EO - hello, you're new on the bus, aren't you? Yes, I'm sure I will be writing more on this subject. Wish I didn't have to, of course.

CFM - understanding the world of poetry? I suppose it is a varied place...bit of a jungle at times (while pretending to be a tea party...). I try not to spend too much time on all that kind of thing...but sometimes get drawn into things...often when I hear something I disagree with too much to ignore. One of my least favourite poetry world things is all the "well, of course we all know..." No, we don't. We don't all know anything!

As for the poem - I admire your direct question, mousie. Which bit do you mean by the end? The last 3 lines? Or the last 5? It is quite open-ended. It is about the future. It is about our children (future victims, future assailants, future protesters). It started off more about daughters (I have one) but then I remembered fairly swiftly that the daughters are not the only ones involved. It is complicated...but that is no reason not to try and write it out.

x

Rachel Fenton said...

I really like the shift in this that you make compared to some of your other poetry - the fracturing and I like the girl power - and the distancing from yourself which somehow makes it more a you poem...rambly comment - sorry - but I think this is going in a good direction!

Rachel Fox said...

Never apologise for a ramble, Rachel! They are complicated, multifaceted matters (both the poem's subject and the subject of poems...) and having simple clear feelings about it such things is hard. Look how many circles I went round in that intro...

x

Rachel Fox said...

Excuse that 'it'. A deletion overlooked.
x

Peter Goulding said...

Very moving Rachel. Somehow court reports or reports of war have developed a cliched anaesthetised language of their own. Your use of them accentuates the horror.
I have a political verse blog but its more'political' in the party politics style, and more satire than serious poetry.
Wish I could write a poem like that!

Pure Fiction said...

I really, really enjoyed this post. Tackling the big stuff is what writing should be about, and your poem does this - in a subtle way, maybe, but without leaving the reader in any doubt as to what you're trying to say.

There's been a lot of stuff written about poets removing themselves from the poem, or distancing themselves from their subject. But without feeling a poem ends up being a stylish collection of words.

I loved the intro, and the poem is great.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Peter. I'm sure you're capable of writing all kinds of things!

And yes, the media language. I was a journalist of a sort (though never news...I'm terrible with fact retention!) and so I often think a lot about that kind of thing. Plus there's the whole dilemma...we want to read news and be aware of what's going on around us...and then we read it and it makes us want to run in the opposite direction. And then there's the sensationalising of such serious subjects. I was in a supermarket yesterday and one of those stupid Heat-lite magazines had a huge headline 'I was gangraped at 10 by my Dad's friends' (or something like that). What is all that about? Horrors times more horrors. And all the kids seeing that whilst out shopping (luckily mine missed it so we didn't have to have that discussion yesterday).

Pure Fiction - I think you may be my new best friend. And I don't even know your name.

x

the watercats said...

The intro was pretty long :-)... but I think I know what you were on about.. Protest songs/poems are dodgy things... it's so easy to write a crass, cringy one. I think we can all get angry about atrocity in the world, but we can't really relate to hunger or abject poverty or war, there-fore, we shouldn't try to write about these things in a direct way, just portay our anger in a way we do get.

Your poem is quite scary... and slightly appocalyptic :-)
and I love the way it's written with so much space.

swiss said...

i liked the circularity. the ending seems redundant, hopeless ebcause if what we've rewad before makes sense the notion of hope for change seems useless. i feel genuinely depressed now. thanks rachel! ; )

Rachel Fox said...

Was it not just StAnza tired you out..?

But really...if you can find anything about rape (of men, women or children) that isn't depressing...then well, let me know when you do. It is one of the subjects that makes me most angry... and depressed... and beyond words. I've known so many people harmed by it and read about so many others.

x

Rachel Fox said...

And hope for change is a bit useless...but not completely...there are glimmers...that's the hope! Without that? We have nada, my friend, absolutamente nada.

x

Sorlil said...

I like it a lot! The funny thing is that I'd call this a subtle protest poem! I like it because it lets the voices speak without the narrator drowning them out with a big booming moralistic message.

Poetikat said...

"To dream of walking anywhere"

That is a wonderful line; it encompasses the whole thing, doesn't it? We have the "Take Back the Night" movement over here. Is that worldwide?

The last three lines have much hope in them.

(Strange verification: bardshie)

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil - yes, it does have some subtlety...in fact I think my poems are often more subtle than they appear (sometimes I don't even realise till some time after!).

I missed the Cats before too - yes, space can be good.

And other Kat - it used to be news ('reclaim the night' marches and so on) but you don't hear about it much now. I'm not looking forward to all the safe at night training I've got to do with our Girl as she gets older. I don't want to fill her with fear but at the same time I don't want her to be at risk!

x

Argent said...

I'm with the Watercats on the space thing. this was spare and lean which I love. I'm supposed to be working so can't read all the intro, but I'll be back for a proper rea dlater.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent poem, you leave the reader room to think which is important. I'm a great beleiver in the need for poetry to have something to say and for emotion in poetry (and gosh so much modern poetry just leaves me yawning). I thin though that protest needs to be balanced with either subtlety, humour or very clever wordplay as well as leaving the room to think that I mentioned at the beginning

swiss said...

wow, that was some bad typing, even for me! on the hope front, yes, precisely. but that's why i think it works. at the end the reader either hopes for the possibility of change or, in my case, doesn't.

and then the cheerlessness again!

Rachel Fox said...

Argent...youy may regret coming back to read that intro...

Juliet - we agree on a lot I think (and yet are very different too). We really might be friends!

Swiss - what you wanna be? A grinning fool? Don't answer that...

x

Brigid said...

Hi a powerful poem beautifully written.

Rachel Fox said...

Brigid - thanks so much. It's such a huge subject, isn't it?
x

Karen said...

Your intro makes me really think about the importance of poetry, of which, I am sorry to say, I seem to be losing sight.

The poem is painful, as it should be. Good work.

Rachel Fox said...

Karen - I think it can be very important and it can be very trivial...it's clever stuff...it can do so much! Well, sometimes...when we work hard.

x

NanU said...

A powerful poem, Rachel.
I very much enjoyed the intro, too. Excellent treatment of a difficult subject.
I too was looking forward to getting dirty with protest and anger and injustice for this week's prompt. Then I had the most wonderful weekend and hated to wreck the lightness with something so heavy. Perhaps next week!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I wouldn't say I'm comfortable with this poem in some ways...but that's as it should be, I suppose. Still, it feels odd...

x