The activism of poetry..

Ever since I’ve been old enough to grasp the nuances of life, it has always seduced me, enticed me, and had me returning to it again and again. I felt a sheer depth of emotion within its words. It is one form of literature that I consider to be something of an outlier when compared to its peers. I believe the inherent non-commerciality of poetry is what sets it apart from fiction, prose, even drama. Let’s be real, there’s probably only a handful of people who got rich off being poets. And even they had other stuff going for them.

Prose is written to be read, yes, but very often it is also written to be sold. I know I risk sounding elitist when I say this, but I truly feel, in my heart of hearts, that poetry is written merely for that – to be written.

I feel that emotion is at the core of poetry. Sometimes, I read a piece and it feels like the emotion underlying it is almost a living, breathing thing also occupying space within me. Performance poetry, for me, elevates this to another level. Whether merely said aloud or truly performed, the confessional tone of the content, the dissolution of that barrier of page between the audience and the speaker – that’s what reels you in. You’re there with the poet, you’re in the moment with them, you’re hanging off the edge of every word they say. When they pause, your breath pauses with them. For those few minutes, you feel synchronized within the rhythm of words.

It’s no wonder that these poets, very often, are prominent figures in the sphere of activism. When I think of politically relevant literature, I think of Audre Lorde. I think of Langston Hughes, I think of Allen Ginsberg and I think of Maya Angelou. All of them, in at least one way, belonged to a social minority. And while not strictly performance poets in the contemporary sense of the word, I’m pretty sure I’d be hard pressed to find a single person who hasn’t gotten the chills hearing Ginsberg’s recital of Howl.

There’s no other form of literature, no matter how much more accessible, that’s had as much of an impact on social and cultural politics as poetry. People have rallied together in the combined conviction of a single poem, there have been movements and revolutions that have ignited the imagination of the masses because of the words of a poet. This is not limited to only the global sense – there is a wealth of literature, especially poetry, that has emerged and continues to emerge from Dalit voices, who are fighting a battle that is still a long way from resolution.

Over and above it all, I’ve been fascinated with one question – why? Why is it that poetry seems to be that one form of literature that reaches out and clasps the soul with enough power to raise a rebellion from the ground up? One that inspires the imagination like no other has seemed to be able to?

While considering the matter, I’ve repeatedly been led back to the same detail – honesty. Apart from that ‘emotional core’ is an aspect of what I consider to be brutal honesty in poetry. Of course, I don’t mean this in the literal sense – the hyperbole, after all, is a mainstay of poetic rhetoric.

When I say honesty, I’m referring more to the direct, organic connect between reader and poet. Good poetry makes me feel like I’m looking through a periscope that leads directly into the poet’s brain, into their innermost thoughts, feelings and experiences. On the whole, I see poetry as a fictionalised form of non-fiction. Therefore, brutal honesty.

I feel that this is the kind of medium that fits best into the activism sphere. Performance poetry develops this even further, with the added fervor of the poet becoming a tangible part of the poem themselves. Activist poetry is passionate, it is revolutionary, and above all, it is honest. And it is that honesty that holds a mirror up to humanity to force it to reckon with the ugliness of itself.

I’ll leave you with a passage from one of my favourite Ginsberg poems, one that’s been at the back of my consciousness lately, given the current global atmosphere. I think it succinctly demonstrates the power of poetry as a political force.

America by Allen Ginsberg

America you don’t really want to go to war. 

America it’s them bad Russians. 

Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.   

The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages. 

Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations. 

That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.   

America this is quite serious. 

America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.   

America is this correct? 

I’d better get right down to the job. 

It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway. 

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. 


-Tanvi Kanchan



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