Poetry of protest from the Middle East…

Al Khandra

Image from Aljazeera, here.

The poetic tradition is perhaps strongest of all in the Middle East- central to its telling of history, its spirituality, its love songs. Remember that the Bible too is a Middle Eastern document, which explains why (despite the efforts of the translators) around one third of its content was written in poetic form.

We might expect then that the recent troubles within the region might be reflected in poetry- the so called Arab Spring uprisings in Jordan and Egypt, the wars shattering Iraq and the on-going oppression of the Palestinian people.

If so, we hear little of it here in the West. The stories told of the region here are of violence, extremism, and the heroism of our troops.

However, I came across a series of films from AlJazeera called Artscape;Poets of Protest. This how the series describes itself;

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.

Ever since Tunisians chanted Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s If the People Wanted Life One Day poetry has been a key weapon of the Arab Spring, used to taunt regimes’ refusing to see the writing on the wall.

As the revolution spread to Egypt, it turned out that the writing on the wall was also poetry – graffiti by young artists painting the works of poets like al-Shabi or Egypt’s Ahmed Fouad Negm.

Poets of Protest focuses on the writers, their political and artistic struggles, and their work, with beautifully filmed visual interpretations of the poems.

As a matter of interest- this is the poem referred to above that the Tunisians chanted as a protest to their oppressors. Can you imagine a popular movement using poetry in this way in the West?

 “The Will of Life” Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s done bySargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton
Life’s Will
When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.
Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.
This I was told by the secret
Voice of All-Being:
Wind roared in the mountains,
Roared through valleys, under trees:
“My goal, once I have set it,
And put aside all caution,
I must pursue to the end.
Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountain
Lives out his life in potholes.”
Then it was earth I questioned:
“Mother, do you detest mankind?”
And earth responded:
“I bless people with high ambition,
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.
No horizon nurtures a dead bird.
A bee will choose to kiss a living flower.
If my mothering heart
Were not so tender,
The dead would have no hiding place
In those graves yonder.
(Translated by Sargon Boulat and Christopher Middleton)
This poem appeared in English translation in Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s anthology “Modern Arabic Poetry” (Columbia University Press)

 Here are a couple of the films- you can view the rest here.

National Poetry Day…

Today is national poetry day in the UK. I thought it would be rude to let that one slip by unmarked…

Firstly, a wee thanks to all of you who sent poems for consideration for our up and coming collection via Proost. It has taken me longer than I thought to gather and sort them for the dreadful job of making final selections. I am still hoping that we will have a finished product out this year however. The delay has in part been because I am still getting submissions- which I have wanted to squeeze in. No more however please- I will now have to formally send them back with an apology…

On this auspicious day, lets celebrate the achievement of a friend of ours, who is the winner of the Hume Poetry Prize 2013; fellow Dunoon resident Marion McCready. She has submitted some poems for the book mentioned above and they are simply wonderful.

Her book will be published by Eyewear in the Spring of next year. I look forward to getting my copy.

marions book

Marion is a proper poet- someone who has spent years honing her craft. By comparison, I am a scribbler of a few snatched lines in the edge of another confused day. However, this being National poetry day, here is something that I wrote today after last nights storms;


Storm, October


Last night the rain fell like anvils on the old house

Hammering me like pewter

And this morning the peninsular is an island again

High roads wearing half a hillside like ragged hats

The white-toothed burns bite at tree roots

And spit out stones like gristle


I fear what is to come;

Just over the dark horizon the troops are massing

Guns lowered in this direction


waterfall, pucks glen

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013.) A great voice is silent…


Seamus Heaney, perhaps the greatest living poet, died yesterday. I thought it appropriate to post some of his poetry…

Firstly, let us hear him read something- it gives some idea of the warmth and humour of the man;

Next, here are a couple of poems in word form. Almost always the best way to catch a poem in the soul. The first one about the process of writing (and so much more)

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney,

“Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.

Next something far darker;


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

Next, something of Heaney’s courage in the face of the violence in Ireland;

Funeral Rites

I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out

in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled in rosary beads.

Their puffed knuckles
had unwrinkled, the nails
were darkened, the wrists
obediently sloped.

The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiting it all

as wax melted down
and veined the candles,
the flames hovering
to the women hovering
behind me.
And always, in a corner,
the coffin lid,
its nail-heads dressed

with little gleaming crosses.
Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice

before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away.


Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:

the temperate footsteps
of a cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
I would restore

the great chambers of Boyne,
prepare a sepulchre
under the cupmarked stones.
Out of side-streets and bye-roads

purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming

of ten thousand engines.
Somnambulant women,
left behind, move
through emptied kitchens

imagining our slow triumph
towards the mounds.
Quiet as a serpent
in its grassy boulevard

the procession drags its tail
out of the Gap of the North
as its head already enters
the megalithic doorway.


When they have put the stone
back in its mouth
we will drive north again
past Strang and Carling fjords

the cud of memory
allayed for once, arbitration
of the feud placated,
imagining those under the hill

disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound,
though dead by violence

and unavenged.
men said that he was chanting
verses about honour
and that four lights burned

in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon.

Finally, something that makes us live a moment with him in wild places;


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly.  You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Proost poetry collection, closing date for submissions!



Thanks to all of you who have sent in poems for this collection! We will now formally close the submission gateway on SUNDAY THE 18th AUGUST 2013- so if you are going to submit something, get on with it!

We now have poems from about 100 poets from all over the world and I have had a quick scan of most that have come in, and there are some great poems. Some have reduced me to tears- in a good way.

The next task is to break this down with the dreaded yes/no, then categorise it all to see what chapters need more material. We will then possibly need to go back to the people who have written poems we have chosen and ask them if they want to write something else for the categories that need more stuff.

So, we will be getting in touch over the next few weeks.

Just a word again to those whose poems we will not be including in this collection. Please remember that this is not a vote of no confidence in your writing- far from it- please write more! It is simply that we did not feel that your work quite fitted in with the collection. As we said previously we are simply not able to give any more feedback than this about work submitted- for obvious reasons of time, but also because we are not poetry critics – just fellow writers, with all the subjectivity that this brings to bear.


I do not agree…



A bit of fun this- although laboured and rather too worthy.

I am still trying to write what I am calling ‘poetry of protest’ as mentioned here. This one might be more or less within the rules I set for myself then, but only just. Here it is anyway;

I do not agree


I do not agree with economists

Who monetise success

I do not agree that pounds or pence

Ever show us at our best


I do not agree the skin we’re in

Should make whom we’re becoming

I do not agree that some are born

To only test the plumbing


I do not agree with generals

Their guns can rot to rust

I do not agree, their meat machines

Cause in me disgust


I do not agree when those in power

Line the pockets of their friends

I do not agree that might is right

When the poor are thus condemned


I do not agree that we should comply

We are formed in evolution

I do not agree that nothing turns

This worlds in revolution

Poetry collection- still looking for submissions…



I am gathering poems for a collection of poetry to be published by Proost.

This collection came from the idea that poetry could and should be a valid expression of our spiritual journeys, our protests, our pain, our longing and our hopes. It also came from a conviction that many people write poems, and even the best of these often have no outlet- no way of connecting with other people.

I had no real way of knowing what people would send, but all I can say is that I already have some fantastic writing. I sat on the train coming back from London reading poems that made me cry- one of the best measures of a poem in my opinion!

However- if you are hovering and wondering whether or not to send something in- please do.

The best poems for this collection are not necessarily the ones written by ‘poets’- rather they are ones written by people who have been opened up by something deeper, and are suddenly able to express this on paper.

There are also some of you who I am waiting for content from. You know who you are – don’t make me come and fetch them!


Light obscured

Not in the ‘other worldly’ sense, the God who is removed and distant. For me, Transcendence means something hyper-real, something that saturates the ordinary, but which somehow connects us with the divine.

in a previous post I tried to define it like this;

… I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.

Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.

They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.

They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.

They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.

They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.

I have been thinking about what all this might mean to us again, and wrote this;




In the corner of my gaze something moved

I blinked

Reminded of almost imperceptible stars

Sky all black like bruises

Pricked with harsher things


Did I form you out of some ancient river bed?

Did I raise you up on poles?

Are you just déjà vu

For the deluded last few

Will science yet prove us all fools?


Then the night whispers

Like an unknown breath on puckered skin

Like the scent of sea to a sailor

Like a poem whose words are not yet spoken

Like an unpainted painting

Or a song still yet to be sung

Like a reed still yet to be fluted

Or a string that was never strung

Like the silence when echoes have faded

Like an unpregnant womb

Still waiting