Poets Online Archive
April 2008

The April prompt on Poets Online was poems of protest. They might be poems against the war or following a prompt from ProtestPoems.org or in protest of what is happening in Tibet or Darfur or any number of world situations. But Poets Online is not a political website. So, submissions can also be poems of protest against more abstract or personal concerns.

Back in February 2003, First Lady Laura Bush canceled her symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" because she learned that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend in protest against the impending war. A spokesperson for her said that t it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum."

From that event, Sam Hamill, a poet and the founding editor of Copper Canyon Press,was inspired to create the Poets Against the War movement. Since then, the group's volunteer editors has reviewed more than 22,000 poems. They can't feature every poem, but there is a monthly posting of poems and statements that have been recommended by poets and editors around the world.

The news last month carried a number of stories about the 5 year mark for the war in Iraq. Since 2002, at least 775 men have been held in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  A poetry collection was published in August 2007 that gives voice to the men held at Guantánamo. Available because a group of pro bono attorneys submitted each line to Pentagon scrutiny, Poems from Guantánamo has 22 poems by 17 detainees, most of whom are still at Guantánamo, in a kind of legal limbo. The poems, some originally written in toothpaste, others scratched onto foam drinking cups with pebbles and furtively handed to attorneys, may not be poetry of the highest quality, but they are a powerful use of poetry.

There's a line from an Auden poem that I have seen quoted out of context. It's the line, "Poetry makes nothing happen." It's often taken to be a negative comment on the effect, or lack thereof, of poetry on the world. But if you read his entire poem, titled "In Memory of W. B. Yeats", you see that the poem actually has two ideas in it. It starts with unrhymed verse paragraphs that suggest that poets can't do much more than create a way of being remembered. The second section is in stricter form and argues that poetry is more powerful than time or death. It's not a protest poem, but it makes you think about what impact a poem can or can't have on larger issues.

Poets Against the War would argue that poetry can matter - even when the poets don't show up.

Another group that you might might turn to for inspiration is called ProtestPoems.org. It is a writing prompt and protest letter project. They supply a prompt with a specific theme. You do the writing and they put them in the mail.They also post the compilations on the website, and all poems contributed to Protest Poems are considered for an associated site called Babel Fruit. Each issue of Babel Fruit presents an exiled or previously persecuted writer.  Most of these writers struggle with funding for translations, therefore many of the translations presented are provisional. One featured author is Nadeen - an International Cities of Refuge Writer. In her homeland of Iraq, she was persecuted for her journalism and poetry which addressed issues such as women’s rights. When Nadeen refused to keep silent or to wear the hijab, she received threats, and attempts were made on her life. Although living in safety in Norway, Nadeen continues to use a pen name so as not to further endanger her family. 

The founder of these projects is Ren Katherine Powell, a native Californian, now residing in Norway. She also helped to establish the International Cities of Refuge and worked as the project coordinator.

If you feel the need for writing prompts with more meaning, you can sign up for monthly poetry prompts at ProtestPoems. They have asked for "poems to fight censorship, satire against those who silence satire, acrostic poems to spell out support of free speech."

There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments on the Poets Online Blog.



When you shake your head
while I'm speaking
what I know is the truth
I suppress a scream.

I can feel a protest rising in my throat
but I've learned to smother it
with a pillow
and slowly push in a knife
to quiet my convictions
to avoid a follow up sit down
written out reprimand.

I think back to times
when I said to myself
"I love what I'm doing
I'd do this for free
I'll do this
for the rest of my life"

When we speak at each other
sometimes in gently increasing volume
and a sharpened tone,
raising our fingers
to note we'd like a chance to speak again
we're not listening.

We're just speaking.

We're not in a dialogue
but two monologues.

You remind us very often
that this is not a democracy
and that if we don't fit in here
we should leave
and my chest tightens when I hear it.

Having to leave would mean
starting over with
devils I don't know,
demons I don't care about,
daemons I don't run

You removed them from my care,
and it was of the greatest valence to me
in this work of service and bits.
And I have always felt
calm in this place,
until recently.

John LeMasney


The sacrifice in blood and treasure has been tremendous,
and the end seems not a whit nearer than it did a year ago.
- Elihu Burritt, letter to the Rev. Henry Richard, 1862

Early May. The sky’s black with stormclouds.
The evening news tells strange weather, wildfires
in Florida, global warming (“is it real?”);
bombing in a Baghdad market, a café in Tel Aviv;
coal mine disaster in China; a wall to keep out
illegals and wildlife migrating the Sonora.

How did you keep going, Elihu, as you watched
your causes crumble? The Union
picked apart by slave-labor at its endless
rows and acres and bales of cotton; Civil War
a “wilderness of sin”?
“Powerless and almost alone,” you wrote.

your pen and voice worth nothing. What can one
man do against great powers wishing war?
As you turned out your lamp, still
you could look up into dark
and call on the name of a single star,
and vow to start again tomorrow.

Taylor Graham


Your sister spreads her arms and whirls. She is an angel. You want
to do nothing but laugh, you want the neighbors to wonder what
has made you both so crazy. You want to be certain of love

forever, to be separate, but not lost. All morning the clouds
over Barnegat Bay have stayed there. You are thinking about
how you must do well in college, about how Spanish almost

killed you, about how your boyfriend hated your A in English,
his emasculated C limp as a hiccup. It is dusk,
the end of a post beach day in Sea Isle, no guests this weekend,

quiet, your parents out for drinks with neighbors and then Henny’s
for oysters and steaks, 1967. The amethyst
sky, the chalkboard road to the beach, behind

you the tall grasses of the marsh, house like
a cocoa bean. In your pocket a letter from your boyfriend,
who doesn’t understand your loneliness. You can hear the wild

sea birds calling, faint as crickets, the roar of the sea’s grieving
engine. You are wearing your mother’s silliest clothes over
your suits, pink foam blouses, sea horse earrings. The dunes cleave. You think

of your mother bending over you once to wipe the sand from
your forehead. You grab your sister’s hand, which is plain and hard. Last
Easter your father told you you were forbidden to believe

in reincarnation and now you are trying to imagine
the God who made all this so quickly, and then rested. You should
have worn your shoes. The road is still hot, still furious. Something

tastes like strawberries. At school your desk faces three tall windows.
You can see most of the world as you bend to your translations,
confused, unable to navigate in a foreign language.

Mary Florio


News of war
whirls around me
without a hint of ecstasy.
I escape in this courtyard
to a chair in the quiet center
with a book of poems aged 800 years
to find the some firmness of truth.
The sun passes from behind a cloud
and shines on the book, so my eyes
lift and trace the edges of this circled space
of students reading and talking.

When I was their age I discovered
Gandhi who said
patience means self-suffering.
A language I could not understand.
Truth is vindicated
not by inflicting suffering on your opponent
but on oneself.
One self.
Truth force.
A foreign country.

Younger than these students
I was told to read Thoreau.
Civil disobedience,
refusal to obey certain laws
and the commands of a government,
without violence.
That, in the time of an earlier war,
was in a language I should have understood.

But what I wanted was the cabin in the woods
and not the night in the jail.
Classroom conversations
and not the gunfire in the jungle.
The poem, not the essay.
The sunlight and not the dark cloud
that was again casting a shadow,
making all of us here wonder
if it was time to seek shelter.

Ken Ronkowitz


I find I have no call to thwart God's work;
he has alone succeeded well enough -
in peopling Paradise with Adam and Eve,
the worst of his vain and odd creations.
Surpassing every other imagined folly,
he has let loose an oncoming devastation.

The spore of Adam, most covetous of beasts,
having plunged into the bowels of this green earth
in mindless quest of Promethean power,
have drawn back to the surface of this sphere
the foul black poison once distilled from it.

Blighted now is verdant Paradise,
where neither Adam, Eve, nor my own serpent
could or would for long endure this brew,
this hellish broth of which I had no clue.

Best suited to such pall of heat and fumes,
with stench of searing sulfurous torment,
are some heirs and kin of Adam and his mate,
rightly condemned to Lucifer's estate.

Ben Copito


Protest too much,
says the queen of the lady
and they will suspect the opposite
of what you are saying.

So much the writing of a man
who thinks our No is a Yes
protestations are really agreement
complaints are but compliments

this poem is light and funny
I'm laughing so hard that
I can't stop.
Me don't ever think.

Pamela Milne


Pros and cons.
I question what you say
and you shoot back.
I defend
so you offend.
The boycott
the embargo
the sitdown strike,
molotov cocktails from
casual mixed drinks,
slogans taken from placards
that I hurl at you
cross smoky bombs that tear
my eyes. Sirens, alarms,
bystanders turn and run.
Someone we don't even know
takes a photograph
that I will see eleven years later
and wonder at how young I was then.

Lianna Wright


The only protest going on is going on internally, the guts
churning with each new televised outrage that the authorities
mishandle and that news commentators prattle on about
with a handful of carefully screened experts in the Situation Room
between commercials touting products promising to raise
a flaccid prick to attention for hours, control acid-reflux disease,
shrink an enlarged prostate, or lower your monthly car premiums—
if you can believe the pitch delivered by a cartoon lizard
or a stigmatized Neanderthal—by simply switching to Geico.

This is what passes for reality these days. Is it any wonder
that no one is storming the barricades or marching in the streets
of the fantasyland we nostalgically call America? The only protest
going on is going on inside our heads, as imperceptible as the drone
of a Predator searching out targets to annihilate in foreign lands
to keep us safe at home. The United States Air Force—over all—
just another slogan to justify oppression. Tibet? A little blip
on the radar screen amid the exploding flak of psychopaths and
celebrities and rising oil prices. Thank God for our magic pills—
Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Serzone, and Effexor . We can live

with the side effects—nervousness, insomnia, headaches, nausea,
sweating, sexual dysfunction, and mood swings—ignore
the body’s protest in favor of sedation. The only protest going on
is going on in the fitful dreams of broken sleep. The old Hungarian
women in their headscarves and black shoes flashing me
the peace sign as I march in a silent procession down Harvey Street
still haunt me after forty years and images from Tiananmen Square
still surface once in a while, like whales at the edge of extinction
in a distant depleted sea.

Steve Smith

back to home page