Six poets who fought against oppression

Art has always been used as a form of resistance and as a means to express dissent. Contrary to the notion that art is a kind of escapism, no piece of art exists in a vacuum; everything is framed by its political context. To view the world as a creative artist is not only to see its beauty, but also to be aware of its atrocities, and moreover, to envision a better world. As such, many poets have historically wielded their words as a tool to criticise discrimination and stand up to oppressive powers. Here is a collection of poems by poets who fought against oppression.

Bertolt Brecht

(Source: Spiegel)

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet and playwright who used his work to criticise the Third Reich extensively. Best known for having advanced the concept of “epic theater,” Brecht’s plays featured Marxist themes and used techniques to allow the audience to develop a critical perspective, often drawing their attention to current social and political issues. During the Nazi period, Brecht lived in exile, travelling to different countries in the western world. His vast collection of poetry touches upon various themes, among which are nazism, capitalism, sorrow for his home country, and even the natural world.

Song of the Storm Trooper

From hunger I grew drowsy,
Dulled by my belly’s ache.
Then someone shouted in my ear,
Germany awake.

Then I saw many marching
Toward the Third Reich, they said.
Since I had naught to lose
I followed where they led.

And as I marched, there marched
Big Belly by my side.
When I shouted “Bread and jobs,”
“Bread and jobs” he cried.

The leader wore high boots,
I stumbled with wet feet
Yet all of us were marching
To the selfsame beat.

I wanted to march leftward,
Squads right, the order was.
I blindly followed orders
For better or for worse.

And toward some new Third Reich,
But scarcely knowing whither,
Pale and hungry men
And well-fed marched together.

They gave me a revolver
And said: now shoot our foe.
But as I fired on his ranks
I laid my brother low.

It was my brother, hunger
Made us one, I know,
And I am marching, marching
With my own and my brother’s foe.

So I have lost my brother,
I wove his winding sheet.
I know now by this victory
I wrought my own defeat.

***

Nâzım Hikmet

(Source: Sozcu)

Nâzım Hikmet was a Turkish writer who furthered leftist views in his life and work. After studying in Moscow and returning to Turkey post its independence, he began working on a leftist literary magazine, which resulted in his arrest. He managed to escape to Russia, and later returned to Turkey where he continued to write before being imprisoned for his subversive political views; many of his poems draw from his experience while in prison. In spite of repeated arrests, he remained an active force of dissent and is now hailed as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

A Sad State of Freedom

You waste the attention of your eyes,
the glittering labour of your hands,
and knead the dough enough for dozens of loaves
of which you’ll taste not a morsel;
you are free to slave for others–
you are free to make the rich richer. 

The moment you’re born
they plant around you
mills that grind lies
lies to last you a lifetime.
You keep thinking in your great freedom
a finger on your temple
free to have a free conscience. 

Your head bent as if half-cut from the nape,
your arms long, hanging,
your saunter about in your great freedom:
you’re free
with the freedom of being unemployed. 

You love your country
as the nearest, most precious thing to you.
But one day, for example,
they may endorse it over to America,
and you, too, with your great freedom–
you have the freedom to become an air-base. 

You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being–
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged. 

There’s neither an iron, wooden
nor a tulle curtain
in your life;
there’s no need to choose freedom:
you are free.
But this kind of freedom
is a sad affair under the stars. 

***

Federico García Lorca

(Source: Literary Hub)

Federico García Lorca was an influential Spanish poet who lived in the early twentieth century. As a young man he interacted with avant-garde artists and surrealists including Salvador Dali, which greatly influenced his work. His poetry drew from Spanish folklore, celebrating the culture of Granada and South Spain, and he is known for developing the concept of duende in art. He was outspoken about his leftist views, in spite of growing fascism in Spain. In 1936, he was arrested by soldiers and executed a few days later.

from Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias

The Spilled Blood

I will not see it!

Tell the moon to come,
for I do not want to see the blood
of Ignacio on the sand.

I will not see it!

The moon wide open.
Horse of still clouds,
and the grey bull ring of dreams
with willows in the barreras.

I will not see it!

Let my memory kindle!
Warm the jasmines
of such minute whiteness!

I will not see it!

The cow of the ancient world
passed har sad tongue
over a snout of blood
spilled on the sand,
and the bulls of Guisando,
partly death and partly stone,
bellowed like two centuries
sated with threading the earth.
No.

I will not see it!

Ignacio goes up the tiers
with all his death on his shoulders.
He sought for the dawn
but the dawn was no more.
He seeks for his confident profile
and the dream bewilders him
He sought for his beautiful body
and encountered his opened blood
Do not ask me to see it!
I do not want to hear it spurt
each time with less strength:
that spurt that illuminates
the tiers of seats, and spills
over the corduroy and the leather
of a thirsty multitude.
Who shouts that I should come near!
Do not ask me to see it!

His eyes did not close
when he saw the horns near,
but the terrible mothers
lifted their heads.
And across the ranches,
an air of secret voices rose,
shouting to celestial bulls,
herdsmen of pale mist.
There was no prince in Sevilla
who could compare to him,
nor sword like his sword
nor heart so true.
Like a river of lions
was his marvellous strength,
and like a marble toroso
his firm drawn moderation.
The air of Andalusian Rome
gilded his head
where his smile was a spikenard
of wit and intelligence.
What a great torero in the ring!
What a good peasant in the sierra!
How gentle with the sheaves!
How hard with the spurs!
How tender with the dew!
How dazzling the fiesta!
How tremendous with the final
banderillas of darkness!

But now he sleeps without end.
Now the moss and the grass
open with sure fingers
the flower of his skull.
And now his blood comes out singing;
singing along marshes and meadows,
sliden on frozen horns,
faltering soulless in the mist
stumbling over a thousand hoofs
like a long, dark, sad tongue,
to form a pool of agony
close to the starry Guadalquivir.
Oh, white wall of Spain!
Oh, black bull of sorrow!
Oh, hard blood of Ignacio!
Oh, nightingale of his veins!
No.
I will not see it!
No chalice can contain it,
no swallows can drink it,
no frost of light can cool it,
nor song nor deluge og white lilies,
no glass can cover mit with silver.
No.
I will not see it!

***

Audre Lorde

(Source: ThoughtCo)

Audre Lorde was an American poet who described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She worked in academia and contributed to feminist theory, queer theory and race studies. This perspective extended to her work as an activist; Lorde was a central figure to many movements, an advocate for feminism, civil rights, and the LGBTQ+ community. Her poetry is known for its powerful messages of protest, tackling social issues including racism, sexism, homophobia and classism. Her contributions to various communities in terms of both her art and her activism made her a formidable force in poetry in the late twentieth century.

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours; 

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive. 

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

***

Chinua Achebe

(Source: The Lit Quest)

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian writer, most famous for his novel Things Fall Apart. He dedicated himself to presenting an African perspective in his work, relating stories from the Igbo civilisation and writing about colonialism from a native point of view. His work provides an image of Nigeria spanning from pre-colonial times to 20th century life. Apart from his novels and poetry, Achebe’s essays examine questions of politics as well. With the threat of detention from the Nigerian regime in 1994, Achebe fled to Europe and then moved to America, where he died in 2013.

Refugee Mother and Child

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.

The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then –

singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this
would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.  

***

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

(Source: Herald)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a Pakistani poet who wrote in Urdu, often combining traditional forms with socio-political themes. Having fought as a soldier for the British during World War II, Faiz resigned from the army after the partition and worked as the editor of The Pakistan Times. In 1951, he was arrested and charged with involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, and spent four years in prison before being released. Many of his poems express outrage over the violence in the subcontinent, among other political issues. Faiz spent three years in Lebanon after the Bhutto government was overthrown, and returned to Lahore, where he died in 1984.

Faiz wrote a poem of protest titled ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (here’s a recording of the poem in the poet’s own voice.) A year after his death, in 1985, as part of Pakistan’s dictator Zia Ul Haq’s programme of forced Islamicisation of Pakistani citizens, he banned the sari, which is part of the traditional attire for women on the subcontinent for all communities. That year, Iqbal Bano, one of Pakistan’s best loved singers and artists, wore a black sari and sang Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ to an audience of 50,000 people at Lahore stadium, creating great public uproar against the dictator. The recording was later smuggled out and distributed in form of cassette tapes across the country.

Below is a Youtube recording of the same song. You can hear cries of “Inquilab Zindabad” (“Long Live Revolution”) and thunderous applause from the audience in it.


Read more:

‘Poetry is a balm, a battering ram’ : Srividya Sivakumar

Poetic and prosaic responses to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

In Pictures : #ArtistsUniteKarnataka: Resist. Reclaim. Represent


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