Poetry and activism have long intertwined. This article explores that history and analyzes the techniques of activist poetry.
We’ll start with more recent history. If you’ve been on social media, you’ve seen the surge of activist content around BLM, Pride Month, and other important social issues like climate change and voting. The drive of activism is not only to enact change in unjust systems, but firstly to expose people to injustices they are unaware of. Poetry is an accessible art form, and has been detailing injustice for centuries. Poetry does three things well: Reaches an audience, Expresses emotion, and Draws attention to existing inequalities.
Amanda Gorman spoke at the presidential inauguration in January of 2021. Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” inspires peace and unity. Listen to the poem here. My favorite line she speaks is “victory won’t lie in the / blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.”
Ideas in “The Hill We Climb” are connected through internal rhymes, or rhymes within lines instead of at the end. In the following lines, I’ve bolded the words that rhyme so you can see this structure.
we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that
doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
Choosing to end the second and third lines with a near rhyme draws emphasis to the ideas Gorman communicates. America still needs work and we need to work together for a brighter future.
Spoken word has been a huge part of activist poetry because the emphasis of the speaker can supercharge its meaning. There are many other poetic devices Gorman uses in her poem. Again, you can listen to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem here.
But as I said, activism through poetry isn’t new. Much like Gorman’s poem, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Song: ‘Men of England’” has a call to action. It was published in 1839 by Mrs. Mary Shelly (yes, that one) and can be read here.
The narrator asks questions to the reader: Why
feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
Questions like these are written in the hope that the reader will question their society.
The poem shifts in tone, switching from the hypothetical to calls to action. “Forge arms—in your defence to bear.” The call to action is very common in activist poetry.
Shelley’s poem calls out social norms like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Instead of a call to bear arms, however, Owen points out “the old Lie” that society accepts. Read “Dulce et Decorum Est” here.
The Latin phrase dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori is at the end of Owen’s poem. It translates into “it is just to fight for your country.” Owen details a gruesome mustard gas attack while fighting on the front lines and how bodies are carried away. You can’t help but pull away from the visceral imagery. It is meant to shock the reader and show the injustice of war, and further imply that one shouldn't die for their country simply because it is expected.
Activist songs often begin as poetry. The song “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem by Abel Meeropel and was sung famously by Billie Holiday in 1939. “Strange Fruit” is in response to the lynching of Black bodies in America and uses fruit and trees as symbolism. The natural imagery is in contrast to the “fruit” hanging from the trees; this kind isn’t natural at all, it’s “strange” as the title suggests. You can listen to the song here, and find resources about Black Lives Matter here.
Nellie Wong’s poem “Can’t Tell” exposes xenophobia towards Chinese Americans during WWII. You can read it here. The poem is composed of short lines like a quickened heartbeat. We feel the fear of the narrator, and her helplessness. The young narrative voice and the repetition of “we are Chinese” make the reader feel worried.
Like other poems in this article, Wong’s poem calls out injustices of her society. “Can’t Tell” reminds us of the xenophobia Asian Americans have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The poem is a historical account, and reading it today reinforces the need for equity and acceptance. Click here to view resources about Stop Asian Hate.
The beginning of the second-wave feminist movement (1963—the mid-1980s) is marked with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963). Many feminist works came after, including the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. Poetry helped make women's issues and politics approachable, created connections between women, and strengthened communities. Poetry circles were also popular during the movement.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1963. She didn’t live through the second-wave feminist movement, but her frustration and attack of gendered stereotypes rings true for the movement. Read Plath’s "Lady Lazarus" here.
Poetry during the second-wave feminist movement was used to inspire others, and was an active way to address the passivity of women in their struggle and men in their willingness to participate in patriarchal society.
I encourage you to read more feminist poetry of the movement, and continue to question how society treats disadvantaged groups like women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. Further authors I suggest are Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, and Maya Angelou.
Poetry and activism have a long history together, and poetry is often the foundation for activism. As Janice Lobo Sapiago writes for SVCREATES magazine, “poetry is dangerous and enticing” for its ability to “inspire, provoke, or move people.”
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.