Protest Poetry

Revolutionary poet Maha Kavi Sri Sri (Srirangam Srinivasa Rao). File photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam  

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n.” John Milton

The belligerent mood is yet to pass. Perhaps, being a poet has something to do with it. You write about things you will not ignore and will not allow the world to, either. Mr Murugan is very much on our minds and in our writing. It’s heartening to see the growing clamour of voices and support for him. I was gratified to receive texts from friends and emails from strangers after my article last week.

Even before Salman Rushdie said that, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep,” there was the great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who said that, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A worthy sentiment and an apt one too. Shelley, the creator of classics such as Ozymandias, knew what he was speaking of – his revolutionary poems still pack a mean punch in sentiment and strength. The poet asks tough questions in Song to the Men of England; it is still relevant more than a century after it was written.

I always look to Walt Whitman for the truculent spirit. In To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire, Whitman says, “What we believe in waits latent forever through all the continents/Invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, knows no discouragement/Waiting patiently, waiting its time.”

It wasn’t just the men penning lines of revolt. In Protest, Ella Wheeler Wilcox starts with these powerful lines: “To sin by silence, when we should protest/Makes cowards out of men. The human race/Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised/Against injustice, ignorance and lust/The Inquisition yet would serve the law/And guillotines decide our least disputes. The few who dare, must speak and speak again/To right the wrongs of many.” This poem too, was written almost a century ago.

In her poignant poem, Children in Slavery, Eliza Lee Follen speaks of the happy children who play all day and are free spirited, unknowing of care and sighs. But the children who are enslaved, live and pray with fear. “When young hearts weep as they go to sleep/Then all the world seems sad:/The flesh must creep, and woes are deep/When children are not glad.”

One sees the voice of scepticism in the words of Telugu poet, Srirangam Srinivasa Rao. Sri Sri, as he was popularly known, uses the word, “Really?” as a refrain through the poem: “Really? Does the world laugh/happily forever? Does it overcome/its desire to kill? Does the time when chains/tighten on slaves/ end forever? Do friendship and brotherhood, their gentle ways, win the day?”

Telugu has always had its revolutionary poets. For instance, in Here Comes God by Tenneti Suri, the poet makes a very simple point. He says, “Hey, here comes god/lifeless in bronze/parading the streets/riding his wooden horse. Ask him about wages, fellows. Tell him we don’t have enough to eat.” In a world where we willingly give to religious causes but not to help those in need, the words are striking on so many levels.

Struggle is universal and timeless, as is protest. As is poetry.

Srividya is a poet. Read her work at

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 2:55:18 PM |

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