The Protest Poem

Like the patriotic poet, the protest poet knows that freedom taken for granted is apt to be taken away. But the protest poet expresses that notion differently. Instead of praising a nation's potential, or taking a nation back to the principles on which it was founded, the protest poet criticizes policy so our leaders do not become complacent. Such poets believe that debate is good in a democracy —the more controversy, the better —because truth thrives when people have access to all manner of ideas.

It is often easy for the masses to dismiss revolutionary poetry. In general, people feel confident that their government or way of life will continue. But protest poetry threatens the masses because it challenges basic concepts about such issues as equality or justice. Moreover, it doesn't seek to overthrow government or to disavow culture but to change it.

That's why practitioners of protest verse often are called unpatriotic. The label means that protesters lack faith in their country or culture or are too quick to abandon principles about freedom or government. As proof, critics often maintain that protest poetry emphasizes only the cynical or negative.

And to some extent, this is true. The idea was best put forth by the late Robert Penn Warren in his Jefferson Lecture of 1974, which appears in book form as Democracy & Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975). Warren observed that "we are driving toward the destruction of the very assumption on which our nation is presumably founded. A bearer of ill tidings — and that is what our poetry, in one dimension, is —generally gets regarded as the guilty perpetrator of the disaster reported."

In other words, the protest poet often reminds us what the government stands for and what, at times, it stoops to in carrying out policy. The poet is deemed traitorous because he or she delivers a message of bad news.

News is the operative word in a country that embraces free speech. This freedom sets a high standard for protest poetry, for not only must it enlighten or challenge us, it must compete with other messages in the media — a cacophony of opinion! Unlike revolutionary verse, whose message lives or dies by the clock, protest poetry contributes to an ongoing debate and has to rise above other messages to be heard. So while your first impulse may be to express your opinion in a protest poem, you'll have to use all your skills as a poet to interest readers in your topic or agenda.

Let's illustrate. This poem protests commercialism, comparing dissident lists compiled in Russia by the KGB (security force) with direct-mail lists compiled in the United States by corporations:

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