The first protest poem I ever heard was about Vietnam. It was 1966 and Adrian Mitchell was performing it in a ground-breaking show called US, produced by Peter Brook for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mitchell had first performed it in 1964. It started:
I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
I had by then heard Bob Dylan sing ‘The times they are a-changin’ and Joan Baez singing ‘We shall overcome’. I was 17 at the time and Vietnam was the first major war to impinge on my all-but-adult consciousness. Mitchell read the poem with real attack. It was witty and striking and urgent.
We knew we were against Vietnam because we were against war generally. The operative lines in the four I quote above were the first and fourth, which, however, would have been nothing without the extended conceit of having legs in plaster. I don’t actually remember anything of the rest of the show. There was truth and there were lies: that much was clear.
That clarity helps a great deal in protest poetry, but so does the wit. The truth was a matter of seeing it. As Nicanor Parra, the Chilean poet, put it much earlier:
I close my eyes to see more clearly
And I sing with rancour
A song from the turn of the century
Rancour helps too because it is a more subtle emotion than those usually invoked, such as rage and despair, however intensely these might be felt. Rancour brews and blossoms: the rest explode.
Think of the verse that got Osip Mandelstam arrested and eventually killed, his famous Stalin epigram:
Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
The poet wriggles free of the chains that bind him by indulging in a surreal piece of portraiture that hangs together with great brio. Language and imagery continues to excite him. The poem makes a new thing. It is far from his best poem but you can sense the poet dancing.
Mandelstam’s was a dangerous dance but what the poem dances is full of life not death. It doesn’t simply have what Keats in a letter called ‘a palpable design on us’, the thought of which Keats hated; it doesn’t advertise its views, it dances them. The dance may be bitter, like Mitchell’s, but it remains a dance.
Not only does it dance, it juggles too if it can. It juggles with the instruments poetry has to offer, such as rhyme, as in the Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés’s long single sentence poem written in the Fifties, ‘One Sentence on Tyranny’. It begins:
Where tyranny exists
that tyranny exists
not only in the barrel of the gun
not only in the cells of a prison
not just in the interrogation block
or the small hours of the clock
the guard’s bark and his fists
the tyranny exists
not just in the billowing black fetor
of the closing speech of the prosecutor,
in the ‘justified use of force’
the prisoners’ dull morse
In 2012 an anthology of poems was quickly compiled in sympathy to the arrest and trial of the group known as Pussy Riot. I wrote the introduction remarking in it how the anthology, given its aims, was a political act as much as a poetic one. There was much passion and outrage and some good poems but what has stayed with me are four outrageous haiku by Alison Winch from near the end of the book. They are witty and powerful precisely because they are in haiku, that most meditative, least shouty of forms. They are properly fierce and feminist too. If you want to address a patriarchy like Putin’s which is part Mafia, part Russian Orthodox and part KGB, they are perfect. They are the Cunt Haikus.
This is how they go:
Capital of sex:
at the size of his wallet
she pursed her pussy.
Not a hole or lack,
but a fat profiterole.
Come here. Eat me. Come.
Breakfast: spread them like
peanut butter. Take a bite:
salty, sweet – the nut.
Not penis envy
or clitoral shame, but our
Is this protest? You bet your life it is. The irony is funny but can kill. The poem dances its grave, ironic dance lightly while thumbing its nose. At least I think it’s a nose.
More information on English PEN’s partnership with Ledbury Poetry Festival, and how poets performing at the festival will be supporting poets at risk around the world, is available here.