Poetry is politics. You may scoff at that now but, trust me. Shakespeare’s declaration of love in Sonnet 130? Mark Doty’s Tiara? Read any poem and politics is in there. All poetry is politics. It isn’t simply entertainment through syntax and rhyme but a platform for critiquing socio-political issues in an engaging way, and an art to humanise and verbalise society’s flaws.
Despite poetry being on the margins of public discourse these days, throughout the centuries, poetry, like political language, is seldom spoken without powerful meaning and intention.
Some of us may have been taught or will learn about the Peterloo Massacre. This event saw a peaceful assembly destroyed by the cavalry brutally charging through the crowds, killing an estimated 18 innocent protestors (sound familiar to recent times?). It is this event that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s penning of The Mask of Anarchy that championed radical social action and non-violent resistance. Poetry expresses a voice for change.
So just how politically fuelled is our poetry?
If you see me lost on busy streets,Outsider
my dazzle is sun-stain of skin,
I’m not naked with dark glasses on
saying barren ground has no oasis:
it’s that cracked up by extremes
I must hold self
together with extreme pride.
The poem ‘Outsider’ by James Berry is influenced by his own experiences of racism and urgently seeks action for equality. Each stanza questioning ‘If you see me’ is direct criticism and evokes pathos at the lack of education, acknowledgement, and action against the racism embedded in the UK. Poetry hands a microphone to black people to voice their feelings of isolation and frustration at being ignored.
James Berry’s bitter melancholic expression ‘wild dogs’ sheds light on the endless oppression, degradation, and dehumanization faced by black people. This image of discriminating malice has continued over the decades with black people wrongly feeling inferior, as discussed by William Jones, ‘Treated like animals. It’s not easy’. Unlike facts and statistics that are impersonal, poetry uses metaphors to capture the poet’s emotions, helping readers to have a clearer understanding by using striking, unforgettable imagery. In this case, it is a stark reminder to readers that black people feel utterly and unfairly inferior, calling on readers to think and act to make that change. Everyone should be equal regardless of the colour of someone’s skin.
The outsider draws attention to the drought of hopeful feelings, describing their spirit as a metaphorical ‘barren ground’ that is ‘cracked,’ baring ‘no oasis,’ with reference to the Windrush scandal during 1948. Emigrating to England during in 1948, Berry explores the tensions between those who emigrated and those who threatened them with deportation and denial of NHS treatment, describing them being left with nothing. The arid imagery symbolises the shrivelled up British movement to end racism.
Do you see it yet? In all poetry politics is present. There is an argument that older poetry tends to be more politics associated but, even in 2020, the prominence of politics in poetry is just as potent.
Jermaine Wong’s powerful spoken poem, ‘Red Porridge,’ expresses disgust; an outraged outcry at the murder of George Floyd, and the lack of political change to end racism. The title alone, ‘Red Porridge,’ is political. A symbol of blood and the police brutality.
Wong explosively condemns racism and slates politics which favours policemen abusing their power to carry out racially motivated attacks. It speaks volumes.
Jermaine Wong refuses to let people think racism is only an American. Living in London he knows all too well the racism that exists in Britain. He uses his poetry to enlighten people that Britain isn’t innocent. Britain too had a Bus Boycott and race riots in 1981. John Hawkins, an English Elizabethan naval commander, was considered the first slave trader, capturing African people all across the Guinea Coast. Watching the video Wong created as part of his spoken poetry, we see reference to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The public inquiry, the MacPherson Report, into Stephen’s death declared the UK police ‘institutionally racist’ when they failed to give first aid to Lawrence and failed to follow obvious leads to get Stephen Lawrence justice. Britain isn’t innocent and Jermaine Wong stresses this. He uses poetry to educate us on something we might not have initially considered. With media coverage in Britain so heavily criticising America and not looking in the mirror to see its own history, the poem frames racism as rather a global issue.
Exploring poetry unlocks a world of political criticism. The similarities between poems, despite being decades apart, stresses the deep-rooted racism imbedded in the UK still existing and showing that politics and poetry will forever go hand in hand. Wong calls for everyone to ‘fix the broken lens’ just as desperately James Berry searches to make the circle of cultural coherence ‘whole’. Poetry provides a documented development of voices expressing malcontent and demanding a change in politics.
With so many petitions, websites, books, podcasts, and documentaries to read to educate ourselves with, it can be overwhelming and daunting, not knowing where to begin. Poetry is a great start at giving an introductory overview of political affairs and to begin gaining an understanding of such a large subject.
Yes, a recent surge of political activism has surfaced and inspired penning poetry surrounding politics, but poetry has always been this political. Even the ones that at first glance don’t seem it. It is used as a platform to entertain and to enlighten us on subjects we may not have been educated about or heard about in the news. By satirising politics, perhaps those more reluctant to engage in politics would be more inclined to read a short, emotive, or satirical poem than to watch politicians avoid answering questions properly for hours.
Poetry is a call for justice in politics. It is used as a unique way to make discussing politics more accessible, and ultimately less ‘taboo’.
By Caitlin Grigg-Williams
Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon