Protest poetry: A call to arms
On Aug. 17, three members of punk feminist band Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism” after staging an unsanctioned performance of their song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” in Russia’s largest cathedral. All three women were sentenced to two years in prison.
Syrian poet Ibrahim al-Kashoush, famous for poems decrying the injustice of Bashar al-Assad, current President of Syria, was tortured to death. His throat fully removed.
Despite the threat of prison, exile and death, individuals in Russia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Iran are using words to fight oppressive governments. In the eruption of passion, phrases become slogans, slogans become chants and chants become change.
These citizens are fighting wars. It is gun against pen.
And yet Americans, whose free speech is protected, remain largely silent, discontented with our government, but unimpressed with the power of discourse. We undermine the influence of written and spoken word.
We have seen the power of phrases like “Yes We Can,” the campaign slogan that burrowed itself into the minds of our nation and won President Barack Obama his first term. Unfortunately, we have forgotten that authoritative governments fear the collective cooperation of the people toward a singular goal more than they fear guns, that with which we brandish with pride.
When we arm ourselves with guns, we lose power.
When we classify ourselves solely by party, sexuality, gender or religion, we lose power. Even at the risk of destroying our country, we vow to honor our partisanship by discounting our opponents.
Our refusal to work together for some common good, like economic recovery, weakens the nation. By channeling the collective frustration of our nation, artists can become mouthpieces for our generation, calling for restructured social orders and uniting a once divided people.
American groups like Poets Responding to Senate Bill 1070 realize the promise of unified effort. The movement’s leader, poet Francisco X. Alarcon, wrote the poem “For the Capitol Nine,” in response to the nine ASU students who chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol in protest to SB 1070 and were consequently arrested two years ago. Their group has exploded beyond 6,000 members.
The group is a work in progress. As exiled Syrian poet Hala Mohammed said, “Until now weapons have been stronger than us. Maybe they are faster but poetry will endure.” Poetry, terse enough for memorization, yet powerful enough to outlive its author is the cadence to which civil disobedience marches.
Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot stated in the closing statement that Putin has carefully hid Russia’s unhealthy social condition for years and that in order to spur a discussion, one needs an “impetus.” Alyokhina believes that her government has no interest in the opinion of the average citizen.
We have made similar complaints against our government. Yet, most of us are silent, allowing extremists on both sides to speak for us. All the while, a chasm grows, making dialogue between the right and left more difficult. This is our impetus.
As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”
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