Protest Poetry

Protest poetry is exactly what it sounds like – a poem or poems where the main theme is uncovering and shining light on issues of social justice or capturing an emotional response to injustices. The natural flow of poetry makes the creative expression of emotion easy to follow, channelling the emotions of the poet to elicit new ones from the reader. 

Poetry, as with music,  can take on different themes and emotions. In his famous quote, William Wordsworth states, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." However, protest poetry has the ability to take on something altogether different and although it is a peaceful form of protest, the use of poetry to respond to injustice can often be anything but tranquil. Poetry can be an empowering tool to inspire action or a change in thought, but this isn’t to say it can’t also offer a stillness and time to reflect during moments of high tension and riot. The flexibility of poetry as a tool for protest is what makes it so powerful, as it can be adapted and changed to inspire different responses.  

I’d like to draw on some community poetry I was involved in writing last year when I helped to organise a ‘theatre for democracy’ project (see ‘Theatre as Protest’ for more information). This involved working with various different community groups to create a piece of theatre, which was then performed to councillors and decision-makers in the hope of inspiring change. One form of poetry we created together was a media poem, which is a poem placed with video and music to get across the key points of the group. A media poem can be an effective way to deliver messages and to understand groups quickly because it uses multimedia and interdisciplinary arts to display clear narratives. They also have the ability to be shared and spread through social media, allowing the messages to spread further.  A great example of the power of social media in sharing political poetry is the UNHCR’s poem What They Took With Them, written by Jennifer Toksvig, based on real testimonies from refugees and asylum seekers and shared exclusively on Facebook.  

Often, political speeches can become poetry, as when they are delivered they are brought to life by the speaker. An example of this is Ain’t I A Woman by Sojourner Truth, a speech that has been regarded as poetry since it was delivered in 1851. Born into slavery, Truth became one of the most powerful advocates for human rights at the time.  After gaining freedom in the early 1820s, Truth became a well-known speaker against slavery. In Ain’t I A Woman, a speech given at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, she explores the issue of equal rights for women, and the difference in treatment between black and white women. Although not always considered a ‘poem,’ the repetition and rhythm of its delivery means it is not out of place in discussions and books on poetry. We can see a similar rhythm and repetition in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’. There is a rhythm and motif which repeats to form poetry, a point emphasised by Jackie Kay et al  who suggest that the rhythm and structure allows King to use his power as a preacher to call an audience together, giving the speech a “circular nature like a lyric...It’s sayable, it’s memorable, it’s an argument you can’t say against.”.  

The beauty of poetry is its ability to twist and mould language to create rhythm and art, and as such poetry offers  the chance for those with little or broken English to share their thoughts and reflections without a pressure that what is being said should fit within the strict bounds which can be placed on the English language. For example, last year I worked with a charity that helps refugees and asylum seekers, and together we created a small performance with a short poem at the end. The poem was simply a collection of words participants had used to describe cooking together (as this was the theme of the performance), and  when arranged and delivered the poem came alive. It didn’t matter that some people only had a couple of words to describe the experience, because that was all they needed. Poetry takes what we expect from ‘literature’ and forces us to re-imagine and re-think how we use it. We can begin to see it as an ever-developing, ever-changing landscape. 

Di Great Inssohreckshan is a poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson which reflects on the Brixton riots of 1981 in  Britain. In a time of great poverty, the country was divided, with many black and working class people feeling the effects the worst. There was a high unemployment rate, racial tensions and, in many places, the country's black population had poor relationships with the police. Many young black people believed that police officers treated them badly, particularly using the new ‘stop and search law’ unfairly. Written in Patois, Di Great Inssohreckshan allows the poet to align himself with the black community of the time. He recognises it as a turning point in history as he writes ”I wish I ad been dere”. His words capture the emotion and events of the time, building in rhythm so that it almost becomes a rap. I encourage you to listen to the words out loud, because you’ll hear its meaning deeper than seeing the words on the page. Using Jamaican-English or Patois, we can begin to appreciate how subverting traditional forms of English can be itself a form of protest. It requires the reader or listener to reimagine and readdress how they see ‘traditional’ poetry.  

Jesus at the Gay Bar by Jay Hulme is a poem I should have read earlier on in my life. The poem placing Jesus in the heart of a queer setting, and not just being there because it is ‘on the fringes’ but dancing in it and finding joy in it is a powerful image. In particular the final line declaring there is nothing to be “healed” in a boy who grabs the hem of his robes, is an image I hope all young queer people can hold onto. Jesus in a gay bar is not an image I ever thought about picturing before this poem, but I find a lot of joy in doing so- why shouldn’t he be there dancing, celebrating and joining in this element of queer culture? In Jay Hulme’s latest interview with SCM in our most recent Movement magazine, he explains how all his poems are “inherently queer”. Allowing queer narrative to lie not just alongside but embedded within Christianity is something which can be seen as extremely political, and using poetry to do this captures the love and emotion of this narrative perfectly. I went to a theatre festival a couple of years ago where the theme was ‘Queer Joy is a Protest’. It is a narrative I have been running with ever since. Although we sometimes would rather living as our true, happy selves was not considered a protest, there is something incredible about ‘joy’ being a form of revolution. This joy I feel is captured in Jay Hulme’s poems and is a narrative I also encourage you to run with.   

We cannot also avoid the intrinsically linked nature of prayer and poetry, as often one becomes the other. One of the most famous prayer-poems which comes to mind is the Magnificat, which has been added to music, moulded into song, delivered in its poetry like form to congregations around the world and even re-written into a modern setting. Even in knowing it as ‘Mary’s Song’ we can debate if song and poetry are the same thing- I’d argue they are, but please feel free to disagree with me! The Rev. M Barclay wrote a modern version of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55) in 2019. Written in verse, the poem explores issues which are at the forefront of modern society including gun violence, hunger, resource scarcity, greed and wars. The poem draws from the Magnificat we’re all used to hearing and contextualises it into social issues we are continually and repeatedly seeing.  

Engaging with political poetry is an easy way to combine arts and protest, and the  impact of poetry is one which is multi-faceted. Not only is there an emotional reaction inspired in the reader, but also an effect which is created during the writing of poetry. In art therapy this  is known as ‘process over product’, where taking the time to craft something is as important as the end craft itself. Poetry is similar, because it allows the writer time to explore their reactions to injustices, and move forward with how to respond. Then, when this poetry is shared, it affects the next circle, those who are reading the works. Using poetry as protest is particularly important in creating change because, as with all art, it offers the ability to spark emotional reactions to social injustices. Often, when injustices are rooted in legislation, law, politics or, statistics , we can lose the emotions of the people underneath it all. Poetry allows us to pull out these threads, and humanise the injustices and who they affect.  


Call to action: reading list- 

Aint I Woman – Sojourner Truth 

Still I Rise – Maya Angelou 

Refugee - Brian Bilston 

Checking Out Me History- John Agard 

Protest- Ella Wheeler Wilcox  

Poetry Collectives from Good Chance Theatre 

Di Great Insohreckshan – Linton Kwesi Johnson 

Jesus at the Gay Bar- Jay Hulme