Poetry on the Picket Lines


Emily Warner (she/her) reflects on the power of protest poetry and considers its place today.

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Image by Emily Warner

By Emily Warner

Language is everywhere. Words emerge, evolve, transform; they link arms and form sentences only to break apart moments later. They borrow from each other and intermingle, like singles at a mixer party. Words from the English might flirt with the Spanish, or engage in a stumbling two-step with the French. They cannot be contained or owned. Tetherless, they exist in a state of eternal potentiality, waiting to be harnessed.

Throughout history, language has been manipulated as a tool for control, oppression, propaganda and deception (think 1984 and Orwellian ‘alt-facts’). Countless dictatorships were fuelled by literature, serving to carve the landscape of the world into a particular shape. However, the beautiful versatility of language also lends itself to revolution. Protest poetry is an old, enduring tradition. A carefully manufactured plucking of words from the ether to oppose current circumstances. Words contain power, and poetry has proven to be equally as effective at challenging discourses as it has been at creating them.

Since UCU called on members to participate in 18 days of strike action in February and March, there has been a flurry of support, distress, varied opinions and controversy; I am not going to delve into that (don’t panic, you didn’t come here for an Arts article only to have politics and current affairs slung back at you). In response to these strikes, the English Department ran a ‘Poetry on the Pickets’ event, to share protest poetry and consider the long-standing power of words to rally, inspire and enact change. As I stood on the picket line on 9 February, apprehensively bundled up in a coat and scarf, sporting my ‘The Union Makes Us Strong’ sticker (because who can say no to a sticker?) I considered the history of protest poetry and the place it might still have in today's society.

Perhaps one of the earliest examples of protest poetry is Sappho (630-570 BCE), who wrote during the time of the Sicilian Wars. The progression of time means that much of her poetry is lost to us, only contained in dust, wind and myth. However, some remnants of Greek civilization retain fragments of her work on papyrus and shards of pottery. Sappho's legacy is fractured and scattered across the world, but its influence remains. Some fragments are delicate, beautiful and undeniably a protest against war; Sappho was the ancient precursor for our modern ‘make love, not war’ slogan (coined in the 1960s as part of an entirely different protest).

‘Warriors on rearing chargers,
Columns of infantry,
Fleets of warships:
Some say these are the earth’s most beautiful visions;
But I say-
My beloved…
[...] the most beautiful thing
upon the black earth is whatever it is you desire.’

John Ball recycled the language of protest in 1381, in response to The Peasant’s Revolt. Some of his ideas were taken from the poem ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, and the speech he delivered, ‘Cast off the Yoke of Bondage’, contains many affinities with poetry; the use of rhyme, sophisticated language and the ability to provoke a revolution. Language doesn’t seem so innocent now, does it?

Protest poetry hasn’t just been used to inspire change, but also to heal in the aftermath of tragedy. Wilfred Owen is just one example of protest poetry that emerged from the First World War (cast your mind back to GCSE English). His horrifying, despondent portrait of the war is a direct attack on jingoistic propaganda of the period. The meaning of “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori [It is sweet and proper to die for one's country]” disintegrates in the wake of such suffering, portrayed viscerally in language.

I don’t have the time or space to recount the whole, vast history of protest poetry. It spans every culture and every period; wherever there has been conflict or oppression, poetry can be found. Words that heal, oppose, inspire and rally, imprinting themselves into history and asserting their tangibility. More recently there have been protest poems written in response to every major movement; poems that address Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo Movement, the war in Ukraine, climate change and the UCU strikes in UK universities. We all own language, and within us all is the potential for protest poetry. Use words to address your own battles, the personal everyday. Write words on signs, shout them into space, stand up and recite them or just record them in a journal for yourself. Use words to assert your voice above the crowd, or use them to join with the crowd.

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Victory to the UCU!’

Percy Bysse Shelley would be proud.