Poetry and its Place in Politics and Revolution

Graphic by Richard Braine -PYMCA
Image by Richard Braine -PYMCA

Poetry has played a prominent role in revolutions. The history of wars and conquests is dotted with poetry. The history of upheavals and strife are communicated across generations in the electrifying language of poetry. From regime oppositions, labor movements, to agitations for emancipation of human race – poetry is found in the crevices of lives that seek to escape from conformity and oppression, it is found in the voices of wordsmiths in their affirmation of beauty, of mystery, of wonder.

Poetry is the background soundtrack of revolutions. It is the humanist song – the revel couplet in defense of a people martyred by tyrant thrones.

Many documentations of poetry and even oral transportation of poetry should be considered as extensions of actions in revolutions. That which have been [and is] done by words.

The 1952 Egyptian revolutions commemorate leading colloquial poets such as Salah Jahin whose verses became synonymous to patriotic chants. Ahmed Fouad Negm also secured a lyrical core of militant opposition voice in praise (madh) for relentless Egyptians to invective and mockery (hija) of patronized oppressors. It is not unusual how electrifying Sheikh Imam’s songs have spearheaded in protests by students, labor movements and the underclass dissident population in the North African country.

Writing on this borrows Nigeria’s Kugogho’s “What Can Words Do” : an anthology that has been described by many authorities as “poetivist” and if the foster of change is to go by, then the character given to poetry by the writer and echoed by spoken word poet Dike Chukwumerije,

“Poetry is not apologetic, it doesn’t mince words. Especially when the purpose is to inspire change, you must use words that poke the conscience. Being too soft is away to help your reader forget in a hurry.”

This resonates well with the impact of the politics of poetry in surviving the pillars of revolutions of any kind as many contemporaries would collapse their diverse arguments into. What perhaps could be seen as alternative to explicate the rich innovation of African poetry into, largely, social change forum and drive. The consciousness rings the bells in honor of many other rooted poets such as Chin Ce (An African Eclipse), Niyi Osundare (Song of the Season) and Fela Kuti (The Revolutionary Lyrics) among others. Last year’s arrest and unlawful detention of  young Kenyan poets around Jomo Kenyatta Mausoleum in Parliament Road is a case in point. One that reminds of the uneasy relation between politics and poetry.

History reminds us of the UK Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where a Calgary sent by magistrates dispersed the more than 60000 crowd who were protesting for political reforms. This incident is narrated by Thomas Love Peacock in a letter to his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. The potent consciousness among the gathering may have invited the wrath of the authorities, and must have, to an extent influenced “Masque of Anarchy” by Shelley.

The poem is a response to Peacock’s description of the event that claimed lots of innocent lives and left several others injured. Shelly advocates for both radical social actions and non-violent resistance.

“Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-
They are few.”

“Stand ye calm and resolute
Like a forest close and mute
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.”


Poetry can serve as the explosive oiled-splinters that rage the fires or the extinguisher of the violent flame.

Poetry also played a big role in the American Revolution. Consider the allegory of Blake’s American Prophecy as he fledges the birth of a great nation, the archetypal struggles and timeless themes have since persisted. Freneau celebrated American new-found freedom as he anticipated the spirit of expansionism and manifestation of great destiny:

“Happy some land which all for freedom gave
Happier the men whom their own virtue save
Thrice happy we who took long attacks have stood
And swam to liberty through seas of blood”

A discussion of poetry and revolution is incomplete without talking about Gil Scott Heron’s “The revolution will not be televised.” as placed against the background of Nixon era characterized by bloodbath and cold massacre. His searing satirical masterpiece defies odds to deliver airtight and wrought comic surrealism.

Just as Phillis Whestley poems of the slavery and brutal racism, resonated with subsequent generations, so has Gil Scott’s revolutionary voice diffused to the subsequent generations. For instance, Generation Y is particularly fascinated with cultural ephemera with the stretch of political recall reminiscent of the foundations laid. This can be seen and heard from Spoken Word Poets crushing and reprimanding in what symbolizes a sort of protest.

Alternatively, poetry on the page has also sufficiently documented the unfolding events of revolutionary moments. We can draw several roles from the fact that both our historically strong and the newly evolving poetic traditions politicizes and inspires us to think inquiry into the events and consequences of themes that stem as aftermath or progressively within the toll of unfolding events.

Poets operationalize language – the same medium that political phenomenon and concepts are derived, contested and deliberated. Coleridge and Southey were renowned active political journalists whose works have continued to revolutionize political theorization, in the same way Byron took the discussion of poetry to the House of Lords.

Shelley writes; “I consider poetry subordinate to moral and political science.” This reveals his interest in politics. Poets and poetry is therefore rarely apolitical. In “A Defense of Poetry” Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey are a generation of poets hailing from the era of French Revolution, their personal touch is well represented in their writings where progressive reforms had been seen as possible limits of realities.

Beyond recognized names are thousands other poets – all activists – who have protested brilliantly with couplet-slogans thus tooling a peculiar literary tradition that functions alongside political agitations. Being an act in and of itself, poetry of revolutions is irreducible to a text gallery and translated versions or even display features in articulating for demands and sharpening consciousness.

There is more behind the curtain that meets the eye. The recognition of equal rights for all, that equal and unrestricted opportunities is inalienable right to every individual, lies at the heart of every revolution. The prosody of revolts could possibly suggest a collectivist act of doing with words. It is in the hunt for resources and equitable allocation to all that poetry comes into play to shake the mass to induce a certain voice of assertion.

In Kenya, poetry and politics both have strong connections. Whether it is Uhuru Kenyatta quoting ‘Invictus’ in his inauguration speech or prolific young people engaged in what would be called the revolutionary socialization of politics and poetry in poetry, spoken word performances, and music bands.

It does not escape one that there is a conscious inclusion of political themes such as unemployment, education, health, youth empowerment in these performances. The high degree of alienation in the society makes poetry an occupation that not only provides essential eye for judging the environment around us, but also a source of personal and communal relief from chaos. In the celebrated song ‘Utawala’ by Juliani, the musician metaphorically satirizes political themes in the Kenyan society, communicates political misgivings, and laments the extent of rot in the society. He says:

Kuuza sura hawataki kuuza sera/Undugu ni kufaana/Sitasimama maovu yakitawala/

[They beautify deceitfully, but don’t act on good policies/ Brotherhood is in dire selflessness/And I won’t stand to watch evil rule us dead.] – (Author’s not official translation). The messages are remarkably captured by lyricism, are absolutely unapologetic, and are grounded in identifiable political philosophy. The voice is poetic and meditative.

Conversing with Kenyan poetry from Jared Angira to Mukoma wa Ngugi reveals the the rich characterization of literary revolution akin to Asalche’s that have found noble applause in modern African poetry. Other distinguished poets would include Micere Mugo whose works such as “Daughter of my People, Sing,” are a source knowledge of revolution in indigenous African culture and pan-Africanism.

In the ‘Function of Criticism”, Yvors Winters defines poetry as ” a statement in words about an experience.” It follows that the emergence of periodic urban poetry workshops and events in major towns around Kenya is an expressive lens that has expanded the personal aspects of poetry and political discussions to what is now a viable and viral channel in the social media plugging and events that stand out as huge reverberations.

This revolution is not the violent cataclysmic shifts but the penetrating thought of life in addressing various challenges affecting the modern man. Commitment to certain ideals is often retained in the tradition of the literary community. Even though poets may seem detached from politics, intentionally or unknowingly, this inherent drive to issue statements in words about their individual and collective experiences, is revolutionary in sense. The subtle way of saying the whole grain of words therefore becomes the internalization, identification with ease of access accorded to musicality.

Urban avenues such as Kwani? OpenMic, Hisia Zangu, Slam Poetry, and Fatuma’s Voice among others house young and promising poets, writers, and musicians and continue to shape the roots of what will become the voices of tomorrow. Those voices will not be tame, but will transport people and culture to new horizons.

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