When we have lost the ability to speak, poetry still knows how to scream. When we have become overwhelmed with the world and its unkindness, poetry still offers a haven.
No, these poems of protest won’t fix the world. But if words didn’t carry some measure of power, they wouldn’t be censored. These 15 poets burn the page (and the screen) with their poems of protest.
“Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, Author of The Beauty
Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.
“Dragons” by Sarah Kay, author of No Matter the Wreckage
My father and brother were born
with cannonball fists. Avalanche tongues.
They know how to light flame to the
smallest injustice. How to erupt into
fireworks from the inside. The silent
anger too. They are capable of keeping
the engine humming, the deep vibration
of fury warm underneath. Me- I was
not born with enough fuel. My anger
often melts into sadness, it will just
disintegrate into shame or fear, my
clenched teeth release into chatter,
But you have found the right mix of
arrogance and alcohol. Place your hands
on me one more time, then again, exhale
the cigarette into my eyes, tell me again
how I’m just not understanding the point,
remind me how you are an expert, touch
my knee, my thigh, my lower back, ignore
me twice, three times, continue talking over
me with the man to my right. There is a
beast in my veins that was birthed by my
father. It is quiet, it sleeps through most
nights. Tonight, sir, my tail twitches in
the darkest caves. Be careful, darling.
Your footsteps land heavy here. Your
racket will wake the dragons.
“How To Fight” by Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent
My favorite part of class
was always the spelling bee.
One by one children would
slip on syllables until there
were only a few of us left.
We weren’t allowed to write
anything down as we stood
in front of the class, so I used
my fingers to trace an outline
in the air of words Mrs. Roberts
read from her blue dictionary.
We didn’t say certain words in
my home because we were told
they could hurt people,
but words were the only
way I ever knew how to fight.
Spelling bees were a battleground
where teachers trained me
to wield language as a
tool & fist & weapon & warning
to those who would rather
make an outline out of me.
“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, author of The Well Speaks Of Its Own Poison
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
By Rupi Kaur, author of Milk and Honey
10 Poems of Protest To Read Later
And since poetry is something you have to hold singly, bookmark this post and come back later to read ten more poems that speak of fighting, equality, injustices, and protest. I’ve given a taste of each below.
“especially the ones where blood sprints / from a black chest to color the earth / a darkened brown / the color of a black mother’s skin”
“The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.”
“I feel most colored when I am
the punch line. When I am the trigger.”
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”
“But she squeezes her fists until knuckle-white
hands become walls her pride can lean on.”
From “Revenge” by e.c.c. poetry:
“We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,”
From “Somewhere In America” by Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, and Zariya Allen:
“You never told us what we weren’t allowed to say
We just learned how to hold our tongues
Now somewhere in America, there is a child holding a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and there is a child holding a gun”
“we used our science and our god
to make a woman less than
the wombs that first housed us”
“What we don’t say
we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils.”
“What is your face?
A house, of sorts.
What is your foot?
A chipped stone blade.”
The most rebellious act can be sharing words. Let’s do that. I’ve only covered 15 here. Share your favorite poems of protest in the comments below, and make sure to include information for where we can find the poet’s work.