Do Poems Have the Ability to be Political?

Can poetry really be political? Should it be considered a form of social activism?

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Those who were taught poetry in high school may only understand poetry as a genre full of antiquated works all written by old white men hundreds of years ago. These poems can range from talking about how beautiful their mistress is to how a fall evening feels. But this common curriculum being taught in thousands of schools nationwide is only one small, Eurocentric outlook on the history and utility of poetry, specifically in the political sphere.

Many of us remember Amanda Gorman’s inauguration speech in 2021. Her appearance made her the youngest inaugural poet with the reading of her poem, “The Hill We Climb”. The poem recognizes the United States’ ability to continue working toward unity and its slow but patient and constant strive for equality and justice. The six-minute spoken word reading amassed millions of views as the nation listened to Gorman’s poem.

Amanda Gorman during the 2021 inauguration.

Gorman continues to recognize the presence of poetry within politics. In a TEDTalk from January 2021, Gorman says:

[Writing a poem without getting political] to me sounds like, I have to draw a square, but not make it a rectangle, or build a car and not make it a vehicle, it doesn’t make much sense, because all art is political. The decision to create, the artistic choice to have a voice, the choice to be heard is the most political act of all.

Poetry is political because it’s preoccupied with people. If you look at history, notice that tyrants often go after the poets and the creatives first. They burn books, they try to get rid of poetry and the language arts, because they’re terrified of them. Poets have this phenomenal potential to connect the beliefs of the private individual with the cause of change of the public, the population, the polity, the political movement.

This is the kind of poetry school systems can sometimes stray from teaching. Because Gorman is right – poetry has a long history with political activism. The reading of “The Hill We Climb” was not the first time poetry had been used to make a political statement. All over the world, poets have been using their writing to fight for what they believe in.

Political Poetic Forms

A décima poem by Pacho about identity.

La décima specifically follows a poetic pattern of ten octosyllabic lines in one stanza with a rhyme scheme of ABBAACCDDC. Décimas are often sung and even improvised at contests in Latin America. African poetic traditions met Latin American rhythms to birth the “décima”. The poem above is from 2015 and is used to confront racism against Afrodescendents in Venezuela. Many utilize décimas for this reason. The poet Pancho originally turned to décimas and oral traditions to stop his classmates from racially chastizing him, but now continues to use the form to gain political traction.

Like the décima, the kimondo uses a set form. Kimondo is a satirical Kenyan poetry form that directly attacks politicians. The kimondo has existed for a long time in history but recently was revived in the late nineteenth century by the Swahili people. Politicians often hire poets to compose a kimondo poem for their campaigns.

Women at the Forefront of Radical Political Poetry

Mexican soldaderas during the Mexican Revolution.

The female soldiers of the Mexican Revolution were not just soldiers, they were schoolteachers, labor organizers, journalists, essayists, and poets. While many women took arms to fight, many also turned to the pen as poets and journalists. Their works advocated for women’s rights, outlined battles, or kept morale high during the long fight.

Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza's poem title reading "For the land and for the race!" in Spanish.

Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza wrote about Catholicism, political corruption, and social injustices. Like many Mexican female poets, she was imprisoned for her work, but she continued to criticize the oligarchy of military men and spoke out for the people’s rights.

A photo of Zhang Zhixin reading.

Zhang Zhixin was another huge female poet at the center of a political uprise during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang used poetry to criticize the idolization of Mao Zedong and was imprisoned and sentenced to death for her words. Like Mao Zedong, she called herself a communist but claimed Mao Zedong had twisted the true meaning of communism. Even while in prison, she continued to write poetry and letters on toilet paper that she passed along to family members.

Political Poetry in the Present

Political poetry does not only exist in the past. Today we see works inspired by political movements in America, such as Emmy Pérez’s “Not one more refugee death” and Patricia Smith’s “10-Year-Old Shot Three Times, but She’s Fine”. The Poetry Foundation has a collection titled Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment, one of many political collections on the website and one I encourage those interested to read. There is also the literal Political Poem Collection, and also Bookstr’s own collections of French poems that are inherently political and female-empowering poems.

Many modern rappers are also considered poets through their exploration of thoughtful, sensitive topics alongside a musical beat. Oftentimes, these rappers discuss inherently political topics. Poems can be political; music can be political; art is political.

So, to answer the question of the article, yes, poems have the ability to be political. The act of poetry itself is political. A poet has something to say, to appreciate, to challenge, to argue, to embellish, and that in itself is a political power. When you read poems, you are learning about a specific and different perspective. I believe to write is to present your ideas to an audience. No matter how big that audience is – the entire watching nation, a slam poetry crowd, or even just your mother – it is still an audience that is listening and learning. Poetry makes platforms accessible to anyone who can write, which is the most powerful political form of all.

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