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
You can find links to everyone else's protest poems this week here.
San Juan and Masca
1 hour ago