I have been thinking a lot about poetry that is prophetic– not in the sense of telling our fortunes, but more something that tells what we are- warts and all. Poetry that is an honest, engaged, hopeful critique of culture, and encourages us to think deeper.
There is a horrible danger of poetry like this becoming propaganda in the cause of whatever politics/theology/hermeneutic that we espouse. Poems like this are masturbatory- they pleasure only ourselves. No matter what skill employed they are empty poems, blind to other perspectives. They claim to have answers to questions that are always nuanced.
I posted a poem yesterday entitled Welfare State which was my attempt to write poetry of protest.
I had been increasingly angered by the actions of the current government in the UK, as they bring in sweeping changes to our welfare system. It all feels so unjust- making the poorest most vulnerable people pay for the excesses of the richest, and justifying this by vilifying poor people as work shy, feckless. I wanted to use this anger to write something.
What I found though is that angry political poetry easily becomes exactly the kind of poetry I have described above- shallow self serving propaganda.
How then can we write the poetry of protest, of prophetic engagement, of challenge to empire in the face of injustice? I wonder if some of these principles might be of use (particularly for followers of Jesus);
- If we are going to fight a cause, let it be for those who are the victims of power- the small people, the outsiders, those who the system has forgotten
- It has to be honest. It has to be based on engagement with real people, real situations
- It has also to start with ourselves– examining all that is beautiful and all that is broken in us, so that we can see it too in others
- I think there is still a place for anger at injustice- but this anger needs to be yoked to love, or we become prophets of the clenched fist, not of the open hand
- Perhaps the best approach is always to seek to humanise- and never to dehumanise (no matter how tempting this can be in relation to enemies of our cause)
- It should not flinch from looking at ugly things, or be tempted by simplistic romanticism
- It should be brave, because any protest will involve confrontation of those in power
This is a work in progress for me, but one that I feel keenly. I have this conviction in me that if we have a voice, we should use it – not just for saying pretty things, although there is beauty in this – but also to saying hard things, difficult things.
Art with nothing to say is simply wallpaper.