We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.
The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.
The reason for this is two-fold.
Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:
“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”
Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:
“[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”
If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.
And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.
Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:
“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.”
Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.
Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.
The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.
This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.
Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.
Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.
More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:
“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”
Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:
The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.
Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.
Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.
This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:
“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”
Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:
“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”
The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.
Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:
“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”
Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.
So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our ‘Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?