“I feel the only thing you can do about life is to preserve it, by art if you’re an artist, by children if you’re not.”
― Philip Larkin
There is an innate responsibility on every poet to oppose human rights atrocities. The greatest of poems concerns itself with the human condition. Between words, the silence reaches for a better version of the current moment, for a better version of the current self, for an “improvement on the blank page”. The purpose of poetry becomes even more defined as human rights continue to come under threat globally. We watch it play out in poems about the Rohingya, about the slaves in Libya, about the political persecution in Nigeria, and Zimbabwe and Uganda. Poems about the mismanagement of public funds down by Luthuli house. Poets venture where no coward dares. They fetch the ugly and hold it up to our faces. They dive deep to explore the hidden rot and unearth the soiled truth. They warn and plot, spit and soothe. They heal and attack and remind us to be present, always in the moment. For me, poetry has become a tool to interrogate self, the political, philosophical, and social mechanics of my world.
How does poetry possibly impact the world? I am so glad I asked. I always have this answer ready in the barrel: Diana Ferrus’ poem “I’ve come to take you home” is widely reported as the catalyst for the repatriation and reburial of Sarah Baartman’s remains. A Poem did that.
The practical application of poetry as a tool to campaign for human rights – especially now, in this fast-paced society that is already saturated with so much noise- is not an easy task. But it is happening in real-time if you look closely.Here in South Africa, poet and theatre-maker Koleka Putuma‘s poems became the conscience speaking back to the scourge of gender-based violence during protests. Vangile Gantsho‘s “I expect more from you” is a popular and striking poem directed at those in power, lamenting how they have failed the people. Dr Stella Nyanzi used her poetry to politically mobilize a whole country at its wits’ end with President Yoweri Museveni’s antics. Mo’Afrika wa Mokgathi‘s poetry collection “My tongue is a rainbow” explores language and identity and serves to remind us of the basic right to self-expression. Xabiso Vili’s poetry examines masculinity and the lived experiences of black men while Makhafula Vilikazi‘s visceral take on the social politics of township life has made him one of the most revered poets in the country. And most recently Siphokazi Jonas used a televised moment to celebrate human resilience and speak against the violence metered out by police and armed forces during the lockdown. All these poets are actively campaigning for the respect and acknowledgement of human rights. Whether they know, like or accept it. Their poetry intrinsically generates empathy and also doubles as a call to action. They are at the core fundamentally advocating for the recognition of basic human rights.
One of my biggest joys is watching the students in the University of Johannesburg’s Arts Academy poetry programme go from “I am not a poet”, to taking to stage confidently at the end of the year. Full of faith in their words and their ability to share it with a full theatre. To see how poetry works its therapeutic magic on an individual and their story is such a pleasure. To witness a young poet slowly recognize their agency, the value of their words and the importance of using their voices is to me the perfect example of how poetry changes the world.
To be a poet is to assume the role of a reporter and historian and healer and spirit guide, and social worker, and activist and cynic and optimist and realist. To be a poet is to be concerned with humanity and its betterment. In the words of Vus’umuzi Phakathi-“Anything else is frivolity”.