by Quinn White
I began in my car. Summer. I was under few obligations and had time for sunshine, music, current events and my friends’ discussions of current events. More rancor than usual rang through their talk of social issues. On days of court decisions and death, days which were every day, I witnessed diatribes, litanies, incantations. Less than a week would pass when photos of cats, babies, and ornately plated dinners buried these passions. I knew people remained upset. I believed their dissent belonged to a space sturdier than that provided by social media. I began in my car, in the strong July light, wondering if an anthology of protest poetry could provide such a space.
I asked around to gauge interest in the anthology and was greeted with enthusiasm and offers of support. Now we’re building an artifact of diverse voices of dissent. We’re placing our words before the world as a marker to say we believe, we don’t accept, we speak against the noise of a rolling feed of commercials for bigger sandwiches, of gavels over gavels over gunfire, gunfire and bombs we’ve heard through our various radios, heard so often that war is played in restaurants and people continue eating and chatting about car parts. We write against the silence the noise presses us to assume.
What do we write? Protest poetry is aimed against an authority’s wrongs. It is written in a rhetoric whose intent is to excite readers to action. Protest poetry is a genre of wild indignation. Yet it can mourn simple as a lily. Protest poems are loud. Yet they whisper rage. Some shout like spotlights in interrogation rooms. Some tear language, slice tongues to rip issues. Many ask why without posing questions. The moves of protest poems are varied, surprising.
Working on the anthology has expanded my concept of protest poetry in ways I didn’t anticipate. In Martín Espada’s poem, “The Soldiers in the Garden,” a dying Pablo Neruda is interrogated by a lieutenant and Neruda says “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.” The soldiers, contrite, leave through the garden. Espada writes, “For thirty years / we have been searching / for another incantation / to make the soldiers / vanish from the garden.” The Neruda in Espada’s poem does not shout. The soldiers apologize. The lanterns in the trees dissolve. The poem is a wish against occupation. A wish for words. It does not shout. Yet it protests.
A rowdier protest poem comes from 2300 B.C. The writer is Enheduanna. In A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken Books, 1980) Enheduanna’s work is described as “highly politicized.” Consider her poem, “Appeal to the Moongod Nanna-Suen to Throw Out Lugalanne, the New Conqueror of the City of Uruk”
O Suen, the usurper Lugalanne means nothing to me!
Tell An: “Have An release me!”
If you will only tell An
and An will release me.
This woman Inanna will carry off this young cock
Mountain and flood lie at her feet.
This woman is powerful as he.
She’ll make the city expel him.
Surely she will forget her rage against me.
Let me, Enheduanna, pray to her.
Like a sweet drunk let me cry freely for holy
Let me call to her!
Enheduanna’s poem shouts “NOW!” It demands the reader, specifically Inanna, to take action. Enheduanna writes in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is perhaps the earliest known protest poem.
Looking to the twenty first century, I see in Mazen Maarouf’s “S.O.S,” a speaker who does not shout, but says, “My voice / Is plain bread / I dream / of distributing it / among my exhausted enemies..” Empathy belongs to protest. Even as the poem later mentions violence: “a dog’s throat / whose soft barking / was run over by a tricycle.” “S.O.S” hurts. Yet what does it protest? In order to enter the political realm of a protest poem, one needs context, knowledge of the author and his or her circumstances. However, the best protest poems shake their readers with and without such context. From B.C. to A.D., the strongest protest poems share an ambidexterity.
Due to such shifts in manner and content, composing a definition of protest poetry is difficult. I searched for the right words and decided on wound and exhibit. In “Passport,” Mahmoud Darwish writes “my wound was an exhibit.” But if I stuck with wound and exhibit, I wondered how protest poetry would be represented as different from confessional poetry? The difference, I concluded, is that the protest poem inspires its readers to action against a wound. On purpose. The poem asks, however obliquely, for change. The poem needs its audience. Urgently. So three words belong to a definition of the protest poem: wound, exhibit, and call. The wounds are often political. The exhibits take many forms. The calls belong to different voices, different pitches, and different volumes.
I began in my car. I was listening to Stevie Wonder. Maybe the song was “Sir Duke” or “Higher Ground.” I don’t like telling this story. I wish I had a dramatic event to recount, that a comet’s tail set my house on fire and I believed then that I would die and that I must do something with my life. But, no. I was thinking of music. How albums protest. A book should exist, I thought, a mixed tape or a playlist of poems that make cases, a book that ensures voices are not forgotten among reels of donut innovation and purring squirrels*.
In her introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes that “monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal. It becomes easier to forget than to remember, and this forgetfulness becomes our defense against remembering—a rejection of unnecessary sentimentality, a hardheaded acceptance of ‘reality.’ […] These poems will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.” The protest poem injures with its injuries. It is not the sound of marching. It is not, as Forché puts it, “an aerial attack […] One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.”
For a long time, I did not read, listen, or write much about social issues. I felt helpless, small, and travesty was du jour. While working on the anthology, I wondered how I traveled here, how I became involved with protest poetry. I remember now. How simple. I began by listening.
*no offense is meant to donut innovation or purring squirrels.