Poetry and Social Change

Poetry and Social Change

by Richa Gupta


One day, a friend asked me why I like poetry so much. Because, in her opinion, poetry was just “describing nature and emotions… and using words people don’t really know and phrases people can never understand”. I was taken aback, and wanted to see how many people shared a similar view. Quite a few did. And then another friend of mine told me that poetry was only “a way for introverts to communicate with the world, since they’re too shy to shout it out. Oh, and a way to rhyme words or use words that make the rest of population feel dumber”.

I felt like yelling out: poetry is so much more! After all, poetry doesn’t solely have a literary dimension; it has a religious one, a social one, a cultural one. An often neglected aspect of poetry is the power it can have in initiating social change, or in raising awareness about different issues people would otherwise remain oblivious to. One example can be seen in the 2015 Human Rights Poetry Award, organized by the Universal Human Rights Student Network (UHRSN).  The theme was: Refugees and their message to Europe. Once I heard about the competition and its seemingly inaccessible theme, I could only look forward to the results, and to reading the winning poems. I was incredibly excited to find out how people would conflate poetry with human rights, and to see how they would connect beautiful language to social change.

My long wait was rewarded. The shortlisted poems were so powerful, so poignant, that I spent an entire day just inhaling word after word, emotion after emotion. There was one poem by Marion Osieyo, called “The Crossing”, which told me about the pain refugees go through, and about the agonizing anxiety of separation. It started off like this:

He heard stories about people,
in capsized boats,
swallowing small cups of salty water and
‘father, help us’
on their tongues.

I was amazed by the strong imagery these few lines evoked. Simple language, yet containing a wealth of meaning. There was another poem about Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The photograph of that little, innocent boy lying motionless on the shore upset me; but the poem I read, “For Aylan” (by Laura Taylor), did much more. While the photograph left me with a dull ache, the poem left me with a sharp pain. Here’s how the first verse goes:

I just wanted you to know
your lovely bones have not been wasted,
that your tiny little body in a picture on a beach
made the world sit up and notice that you’re there

This 2015 poetry competition also gave me a glimpse into the lives and aspirations of refugees. The poem “I am here, Europe!” by Sowjeya Joseph let me know about the myriad of hopes and dreams that trail behind the worries and sorrows of refugees. Written in incredibly and wonderfully accessible language, the poem emanates individuality, goals, and hopes for the future. No, refugees do not step into a new region taunted by only fear and trepidation; rather, they see it as a golden opportunity to assimilate themselves into society, as a chance to get back what adversity had stolen from them. As written by Sowjeya Joseph,

I am here, Europe!

I have nothing left,
no home,
no belongings,
not even a picture of me

but I have hope
to find peace, acceptance and a little happiness.

Many years ago, my grandfather—an avid reader of poetry himself—sent me a poem written by a young, African boy. It was a short poem, built of small words and peppered with passion, drowned by a will to make a change, to have the grievances of his culture brought to the notice of the world. It was even nominated as the Best Poem of 2005. His poem made me realize the sheer power of poetry in initiating social change, in bringing oppressed voices to light, and in raising awareness. Here’s the poem written by the young boy:

When I born, I black
When I grow up, I black
When I go in Sun, I black
When I scared, I black
When I sick, I black
And when I die, I still black

And you white fellow
When you born, you pink
When you grow up, you white
When you go in sun, you red
When you cold, you blue
When you scared, you yellow
When you sick, you green
And when you die, you gray

And you calling me colored?

And so, as we can see… poetry isn’t about using words half the populace will never comprehend or describing ideas and emotions no one can relate to. It’s about bringing people together and appealing to the humanity inherent in each and every one of us.

In Defense of Becky with the Good Hair: Why the Trope of the Homewrecker is Sexist

In Defense of Becky with the Good Hair: Why the Trope of the Homewrecker is Sexist

Why One of the Most Historic American Elections is Portrayed as a Joke

Why One of the Most Historic American Elections is Portrayed as a Joke