Poetry is Protest: Voice is a terrible thing to waste

Lesson Introduction

I think poetry is necessary, especially in times of struggle and crises. 

Pardon the mixed metaphors, but poetry trumps political discourse. We live in a time when political language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power.

This is nothing new. In fact the general population of earth has endured such rule for millennia. Be it Lords and Ladies seeking land tax via grain, robber barons deliberately crashing the US stock market in 1929 or brown shirts marching through towns, most conflicts erupt so few can thrive while the rest struggle and suffer.

And not surprisingly, cries against oppression are often silenced, mislabeled and minimized precisely because the impacted population lacks the tools to articulate an effective challenge. It is very difficult to change the terms of argument when our lives feel out of our own control.

Today, it is easy to blame the corporate ownership of news outlets (for example, 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK) and social media’s dark side. Instead of becoming the utopian highway for diverse and novel ways of thinking we hoped it would be, social media reinforces entrenched ideas, manipulates facts, and reduces our lives to likes and clicks. It is hard not to feel helpless and hopeless.

Enter the pure power of poetry.

Unlike political speech, poetry, by its very definition, is consciousness language, and thus does not (or should not) misuse its expressive impact. Should a poet do otherwise, they cheapen the very reason for a poem’s existence: to strip language of its affiliations and dogmas in order to reflect the pure essence of emotions and direct experience.

Pithy and powerful, poetry is a popular art form at protests and rallies. From anti-war rallies, civil rights and women’s liberation movements to Black Lives Matter and Maga gatherings, poetry gathers crowds in a city square and compact enough to demand attention on social media.

Ideally, poets meet hazy political and media rhetoric head on and “Speak truth to power” — and thus liberate the masses by liberating words from dark corridors of fear and despair. Poems call out and talk back to the inhumane forces that threaten from above. They expose grim truths, raise consciousness, and build united fronts.

Some poets insist, as Langston Hughes writes: “That all these walls oppression builds / Will have to go!” Others seek ways to actively “make peace,” as Denise Levertov implores, suggesting that “each act of living” might cultivate collective resistance.

Most of the poems in this lesson condemn complacency and show how poems have mobilized masses in times of crisis, particularly WWII.

Check out the examples then find me again on the “How to section” of this page.9

A look at  “Amandla!,” a  documentary about the role of music in the overthrow of apartheid — this is a song by a that accompanies the exhumation of the bones of Vuyisile Mini, who wrote a song named “Beware Verwoerd!” (“The Black Man Is Coming!”), aimed at the chief architect of South Africa’s racist politics of separation. Mini was executed in 1964 and buried in a pauper’s grave.

Protest for a mass against Nazi collaborators in Sarajevo
Self Quiz:
  1. Do you feel frustrated by the world? (Yes, No, Sometimes)
  2. What cause do you feel most passionate about?(environment, health, food, civil rights)
  3. Would you describe yourself as an activist? (Yes, No, Sometimes)
  4. Do you think there are things you can do to make a difference in the world around you? (Yes, No, Sometimes)
  5. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome of the current American divide? (optimistic, pessimistic)
  6. Choose all the creative things you are doing to make your immediate world a better place? (reading, meditating, dancing, playing music, having real conversations with friends, getting involved in social justice movements, creating art, volunteering?)

Directions for Writing Your Own Poem

Things to Consider:

How do you write a protest poem?  First of all, you need to have strong feelings against something.  Then you need to steer clear of mere polemic, pamphleteering, blurting.  To avoid obviousness, you need technique.  Here are just a few suggestions as to how to proceed:

  • Construct your poem around a catalogue or list of some kind, giving it the effect of a litany or prayer.  See Night in Al-Hamra’ by Saadi Youssef, where each line begins in the same way: A candle for the hotel / crowded with refugees…/ A candle for the broadcasters in the shelter

  • Adopt a tone of defiance.  Say, in effect, you can pass this legislation, but I won’t abide by it’.  See Edna St Vincent Millay’s Conscientious Objector’.

  • Have a specific title, but let the poem itself be oblique.  See James Fenton’s ‘Cambodia’.

  • Be nostalgic about what life was like before the heinous thing happened. Read ‘What were they like?’ by Denise Levertov.

  • Adopt the voice of an object or thing that does not normally have a voice.  Read Carl Sandburg’s ‘Grass’.

  • Adopt the voice of the enemy – send it up, parody it, enjoy the irony.  Read Beverly Rycroft’s poem below, or Robert Lowell’s ‘Women, Children, Babies, Cows, Cats’ or Harold Pinter’s, ‘American Football’

  • Speak from the point of view of the dead.  Read Thomas Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing’.

  • Be subtle and indirect.  See Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘A Song on the end of the world’

  • Ask questions.  See John Greenleaf Whittier’s ‘Stanzas for the Times’

  • Use repetition to create an incantatory effect.  Listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.

  • Direct the poem to a ‘you’. Read ‘To the Tyrants of the World,’ by Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi


  • Use detail and descriptive language (show don’t tell)
  • Do NOT use one word answers—elaborate!
  • Write in poetic form (not paragraph form) with short lines
  • Title your poem at the end. Make it a unique title and NOT something lazy like “Protest Poem”.
  • And most of all, have fun! 

Example Poem (written from the prompts above)

Like we did before

by Beverly Rycroft

Let’s keep secrets.
Let’s seal them off in vaults, like plutonium
to be managed by experts in chemical suits
who know how to handle them, who know  how
hazardous information can be.

Let’s transport them in blue -light convoys
scattering pedestrians and motorbikes that need
to be taught respect for concealment
its menace and magnitude.

Let’s detain the foolish and the brave who
should know better than to search
for what they shouldn’t see
in places the authorities have decreed : dangerous.

The rest of us can go shopping.  Or to the beach.
And if we happen to glimpse,  in the distance ,
vapour twisting from the crypts where our futures  burn
Look again and they’ll be somewhere else.   Moved away.

They’ve  got it all  in hand, so why not
just agree: let the government govern, so we
can get on with our lives , knowing

our secrets are safe with them.

****Now It is your turn****

I can't wait to experience what you write!

art is on our side
ruth weiss poem

Audio & Video Inspiration

on the road to enlightenment by Casey I Carter

Activist and poet Audre Lorde says:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Phyllis Wheatly poetry of social consciousness
Born in present-day Senegal, Phillis Wheatley was kidnaped and sold at age seven to a prosperous Boston family who educated her. She was the first Black writer of consequence in America and her writings were instrumental in educating the white population about the experience and immortality of slavery. She received her freedom and married a free Black man, John Peters, in 1778. She once had to stand in the middle of important White men to convince them that Africans could have the knowledge that Whites had and that the poetry she wrote was her work. Even with a letter from these important men, American printers would not publish her book, so Wheatley sailed to England to meet the King and to publish her poems. Despite her skills and fame, she was never able to support her family and died in complete poverty. Ironically, one of her handwritten/signed letters dated February 14, 1776 brought a record setting $253,000 at auction in 2005.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Songs from The Beggar’s Opera: Air XXVII-“Green Sleeves”
Act III, Scene xiii, Air XXVII—“Green Sleeves”
Since laws were made, for every degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree.
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men, like us, were to swing,
’Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn tree.
Men bent in prayer to god as the government airplanes arrive

Above image was created by artist Ardeshir Mohassess in 1977: “The men bent in prayer to God and the government airplanes arrived.” Courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard_The Swing
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1766, oil on canvas, 89x81cm


By Czeslaw Milosz

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.   
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.   
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.   
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.   
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,   
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;   
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge   
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;   
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave   
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save   
Nations or people?   
A connivance with official lies,   
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,   
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,   
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,   
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds   
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. 
I put this book here for you, who once lived   
So that you should visit us no more.   

Warsaw, 1945
“Dedication” from The Collected Poems 1931-1987 by Czeslaw Milosz. Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

These images can represent either side -- see how easy it is to misinterpret or fill in your own gaps?

Nazim Hikmet

The above video is an orchestra performing a poem written by Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), a Turkish poet and national hero, who spent much of his life in jail or exile. He wrote tirelessly of the need to be free from any form of authority and about lives of the everyday people of Turkey. His poem “Hiroshima Child” is about a child killed by the A-Bomb in Hiroshima, and it is is well-known in English as the song I Come and Stand at Every Door. Here is the original poem:

‘Hiroshima Child’

I come and stand at every door
But none can hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead for I am dead

I’m only seven though I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I’m seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow

My hair was scorched by swirling flame
My eyes grew dim my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to dust
And that was scattered by the wind

I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead

All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play

Wilfred Owen

This book is not about heroes.

English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
dominion or power,

Except War.
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
This is in no sense consolatory.

They may be to the next.
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last,
I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives
my ambition and those names will be content;

for they will
Have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.

Wilfred Owen
~ born March 18, 1893, Oswestry, Shropshire, England—killed November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice was declared, ending World War I) is an English poet noted for his anger at the cruelty and waste of war and his pity for its victims. He also is significant for his technical experiments in the poetic device of “assonance”, which were particularly influential in the 1930s