Poetry as a Method of Activism

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Human beings are the creatures of communication. There are a myriad of ways to communicate, but poetry continues to be one of the most impactful forms of discourse. It allows people to express their emotions and opinions creatively or explicitly. Poetry not only contains poets’ feelings and beliefs, it also acts as a prominent form of literary activism. Poetry inspires people to become social and political activists instead of bystanders and creates a voice for those who are unable to speak up through rhetorical means such as vivid imagery, ethos and logos, and diction.

Poets use vivid imagery to grab the attention of readers and provoke them to reflect upon the issues being discussed in the poem. Visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinesthetic, and organic imagery allow the reader to be in the moment and experience the events occurring in the poem. An example of visual and tactile imagery is present in Denise Levertov’s 1992 poem “Protesters.” Through the lines, “Living on the rim / of the raging cauldron, disasters / witnessed but / not suffered in the flesh” (Levertov 1-4), the poet is saying that in this world full of conflicts, where there are people so privileged that they don’t experience the dreadful things such as poverty, racial discrimination, or unemployment that are happening to underprivileged communities.

Levertov illustrates one of the challenges that some face throughout their lives: the challenge of speaking up and standing up for not just themselves but for others who are not given the opportunity to speak. Plus, Robert Bly, an American poet and activist, includes vivid visual imagery in his 1967 poem “The Great Society” in these lines, “The president dreams of invading Cuba. / Bushes are growing over the outdoor grills, / vines over the yachts and the leather seats.” (Bly 8-10). Bly concludes that the United States government is not doing anything about the issue of unequal socio-economic levels. This also suggests that due to the lack of resources, the wealthy people’s expensive luxuries cannot be sustained anymore. Throughout the poem, Bly critiques America and requests a call to action of the higher government to take care of the constituents who need it the most. These images give rise to new perspectives and ideas, further expanding one’s fixed mindset to become more inclusive and understanding.

Furthermore, poets use rhetorical appeals such as ethos and logos to persuade others to become champions of change. Ethos is the appeal to credibility while logos is the appeal to logic and facts. Rhetorical appeals are the primary strategies used to persuade the audience. The most effective form of persuasion actually utilizes all three rhetorical appeals. Robert Frost appeals to ethos in his poem “A Semi-Revolution.” Through the lines, “I advocate a semi-revolution. / The problem with a total revolution / (ask any reputable Rosicrucian) / is that it brings the same class on top” (Frost 1-4), Frost is supporting a revolution that only lasts halfway through the process because if the revolution is fully complete, then nothing would be accomplished since it will simply “bring the same class up on top.”

In other words, he is suggesting that political revolutions do not create lasting change in society, but rather end with the same social class still keeping hold of dominance. Another problem with a semi-revolution is that it can be manipulated easily. Frost establishes credibility by asking us to ask “a reputable Rosicrucian” if we do not believe what he is saying is correct. A Rosicrucian is a member of a society who believes in mystic religious principles and studies the laws controlling the world. The poet makes it clear that he does not want to go at full-throttle speed and overthrow a corrupt government in order to make a salient change to society.

In Marge Piercy’s 1973 poem “The market economy,” the poet appeals to logos by saying, “But where else will you / work? Where else can / you rent but in Smog City.” (Piercy 21-23). The poet concludes that when the market economy is becoming regulation-free, there is no longer a need for contracts including the fine print. In the quote, she asks the readers what are our alternatives to this new lifestyle created by capitalism. Piercy questions what other option do we have but to be a part of the market economy. By asking her readers these questions, the poet hopes to make them become aware of their surroundings. In addition, she uses “Smog City” as a metaphor to emphasize how capitalism is causing harm to people’s health. Here, Piercy is appealing to ethos to get her readers to understand the cons of a market economy that is constantly changing. Living in a nation full of factories that produce harmful, hazardous waste and contributes to pollution does not sound like an ideal option. These words serve as a subtle form of activism, fighting for an environmentally conscious world. Ethos, logos, and pathos activate discussions about the poem’s particular subject matter. Through the writer’s choice of words, he or she is able to make rhetorical appeals and get the readers to relate to the poem’s subject somehow.

Poets’ diction can positively affect the overall message they are trying to convey and inspires involvement instead of passivity. According to Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists, one should “use language as a tactic for social change; use language that brings about the world you are seeking, and use language that evokes your desired reality” (Del Gandio 106). If one adjusts the language to suit the audience, then he or she will be able to persuade them in an effective manner. A writer’s word choice conveys the writer’s feelings toward the literary work. Poets engage their readers through diction, speak from the heart, and reveal their passion by writing authentically. Referring back to Denise Levertov’s poem “Protesters,” she says “The choice: to speak / or not to speak. / We spoke. Those of whom we spoke had not that choice.” (Levertov 5-9).

Levertov uses the word “choice” to demonstrate how some people take things for granted and do not care to think about those who are forced to remain silent. Therefore, others should take advantage of their freedom of expression and stand up for those who are marginalized and are treated as outcasts by society. The protesters mentioned in the poem who made the decision to speak are going to use words as a revolutionary weapon to fight for equality and justice for all. Valerie Chepp, assistant professor of Sociology and the director of the Social Justice Program at Hamline University, states that “poets use spoken word as a platform to advocate for issues, a mechanism to build allies and networks, and a means to engage and mobilize these networks” (Chapp 44). Poets promote political engagement and progressivism through their works. This includes getting people involved in social justice causes, encouraging them to raise their voices and contribute to the political discourse.

People use poetry as a means to ignite conversations and kindle the fire of activism. “Poetry therapy has been recognized for its ability to promote reflection in educational and community settings” (McPherson & Mazza 952). Poetry can be used as a method to encourage reflection and change. During times of tribulation, poetry can either spread the flame or cool down the tempers. Poets try to communicate truths that go against the fixed order of things. The mixture of powerful language and the culture of questioning is what gives poetry its political power. Poetry, one of the tools used by activists globally, guide people on the path to becoming more engaged in various movements and integrate politics into regular debates. Those who stand idle and refuse to speak up for those who do not possess the ability to speak will not contribute to the ongoing demand for change within the general public. The words of encouragement present in poetry transform onlookers into those who actually participate and vigorously advocate for a brighter tomorrow.


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Poetry as a Method of Activism. (2021, Sep 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/poetry-as-a-method-of-activism/

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