Poetry is so much more than putting down flowery expressions and obscure words. It is so much more than indignant rants and melancholy dirges. Contrary to the beliefs of many, poetry is not solely for the recluse; it is not always a means for the introverted to express their views. Poetry has a tremendous social and environmental purpose as well.
I suppose the greatest virtue of poetry is its accessibility. As long as one understands the nuances of a language, nothing can stop him or her from grasping the true meaning of a poem. Reading and understanding a poem is a wonderful way of emotionally connecting with a social or environmental issue; I noticed this when I read the winning poems of a competition organised by From the Bow Seat. The aim of the contest was to raise awareness about the effects of ocean pollution on the environment—and the competition certainly succeeded in that vein. It is difficult for a scientific paper or dire news report to actually raise awareness about environmental or societal issues—because it tends to be bogged down by specific details that mean very little to the masses. The main way to initiate a change is by appealing to the emotions of the population; and what better way to do this than by writing a poem about it? Another example is the Save the Earth Poetry Contest, which aims to evoke humanity’s awareness of the natural world. And somehow, reading the heartfelt poems of young students of different cultures made me realise the universality of environmental deterioration—and definitely inspired me to contribute to the environment in every possible way.
But what about poetry and social change? I distinctly remember a time when poetry opened new avenues to global and cultural awareness in my life. I had heard about an international, human rights poetry award organised by the Universal Human Rights Student Network in 2015, which aimed to raise awareness about the plight of European refugees and their fundamental rights as humans. As an Indian teenager living a rather sheltered life, I would be completely unable to actually empathise with European refugees; although I’ve read news articles and watched videos, they only provide me with a statistical indication of what is really happening. So, I eagerly waited for the winning poems to be posted on the UHRSN website—and was rewarded when they were. The poignant voices of people who had been refugees, whose family members had been refugees, and social activists hoping to mitigate this issue rang out loud and true. Reading about the young Aylan Kurdi on online newspapers let me know about the issue; but reading a passionate poem about him, and about how fortunate most of us are, truly brought the pain of the refugees to life. The winners of the poetry award were of different nationalities and spanned over a vast range of ages—which shows the extent to which poetry helps people across the globe connect on a deeper, emotional level. There was one poem that touched me in particular: “For Aylan”, by Laura Taylor. It started off like this: “I just wanted you to know your lovely bones have not been wasted […]”.
In a particularly intriguing article published by The Huffington Post, Tammara Fort talks about the prevalence of human trafficking—and how Sarita Callender, a victim of international trafficking, used poetry as her means of speaking up 5. Sarita’s poem, “Fus Ro Dah”, aims at breaking the stereotypes surrounding modern-day slavery; moreover, it expresses the agony and horrors of trafficking, and how it can happen to absolutely anyone. I have been exposed to numerous books and articles regarding modern slavery. And yet, it was this concise, powerful poem that left an indelible mark on my memory. Perhaps because a haunting poem is impossible to forget, or because its simple, honest words can be understood by all. Here are a few lines, which vividly describe the horrors of human trafficking:
I am woman torn from home, from all that was known. I was a child in innocence, lost at their hands. I was mother, sister, daughter, cousin, friend .... all gone. But through it all I never gave up.
Furthermore, this incredible poem induces other victims to speak up against the atrocities they’ve been forced to accept. Its language is simple, yet inspirational—and has the ability to let a sheltered person stand in the shoes of another, physically distant person. It helps raise awareness about an incredibly serious and widespread occurrence, which is the most crucial step to initiating social change. Its straightforward language unites people across the globe—which is, after all, what poetry is all about.
I would like to conclude this post by quoting a poem I read several years ago, sent to me by my grandfather. It was the poem that exposed me to the resentment Africans experience regarding racism. In fact, it was probably the poem that cemented my love for poetry—and made me realise that poetry is synonymous with social change. This is a poem written by an African child; it was nominated the best poem of 2005 by the UN: