Poems have the power to move, disrupt, challenge, reform and create.
Check out these five poets and read excerpts from some of their works to celebrate their revolutionary voices.
- June Jordan (1936-2002)
“I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name. My name is my own my own my own and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this but I can tell you that from now on my resistance my simple and daily and nightly self-determination may very well cost you your life.”
June Jordan is the rare poet who imbibes her quiet words with great power. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, raised in Harlem, Jordan was intensely aware of being an outsider; she attended prep schools and colleges where she was often the only black person. Much of her work, especially her poetry, inhabit this outsider status and then transform them into spaces of power. She writes in free-verse, maintaining a deliberate vernacular style. Her poems are angry (Poem About My Rights), marvelling (Poem For My Love), and filled with the tricky joy of everyday living (It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean).
- Meena Kandasamy (1984-)
“Centuries into servitude how does a language taste and tabulate another mighty one? Does this tongue feel under stubborn flesh, the haste and hardness of the other? Learn to fight its reflexes against force?”
Meena Kandasamy’s poetry is inextricable from her politics, and that is how she likes it. Kandasamy began writing poetry when she started translating Tamil dalit fiction into English. The dearth of female dalit voices in English Literature from India meant that simply by the act of writing and translating, Kandasamy was waging war against these forms of systemic oppression. Kandasamy’s deliberate misspelling and focalizing of herself as the author in her poems is part of this challenge. Kandasamy is not afraid to offend hegemonic powers. In This Poem Will Provoke You, she writes blatantly about systemic violence, by naming and blaming the misogyny in Hindu epics, the casteism in contemporary India, and even the takeover of marginalised voices by the forces of capitalist publishing. This anger and direct challenge pervade through all her writing.
- Tracy K. Smith (1972-)
“Men who let her Bean into their faces, watching her shoulders rise, Her astonishing new breasts, making her believe It was she who gave permission. They plundered her youth, then moved on. Those awful, awful men. Those ones Whose wealth is a kind of filth.”
Tracy K. Smith is, in many ways, one of the most well-renowned poets of the contemporary moment. Serving as the current American poet laureate, Smith has won the Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 TS Eliot Prize. Her poetry has haunting imagery, drawn from spaces both tangible and imagined. Frequently, she turns to time and memory to find selfhood manifest in the present moment. It is this search that she turns into the elusive dance of womanhood in Duende. She uses her words to ask the big questions: what it means to live a full life, as in My God, It’s Full of Stars; or why we are born The Universe as Primal Scream.
- Gloria E Anzaldua (1942-2004)
“To live in the Borderlands means the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart; pound you pinch you roll you out smelling like white bread but dead; To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras be a crossroads.”
In many ways, Gloria E. Anzaldua was (and continues to be) one of mot significant voices in poetry. As a woman at what she called the “borderlands” of several identities—queer, female and Chicana— Anzaldua powerfully rallies for the voice to exist as is. Poetry, for Anzaldua, becomes a liminal space of self-creation, where she can theorize, legitimize and fight for her own identity. In her seminal work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, she fluidly moves from anecdotes, literary prose, theory and poetry to reveal the contradictions and power of selfhood. Her voice, which speaks power, has reverberated with generation after generation of women.
- Kim Hyesoon (1955-)
“That woman walking ahead, tearing through her cold shadow with her red body. That woman walking insider her is a white mirror like a freezer with a sticky wave of slow, red blood. It is filled with swimming infants like a morning sea, teeming with fish.”
While delving into a poem by Kim Hyesoon, the first thing one notices is her striking imagery, and the power she has of creating unknown worlds nesting within known worlds. This is a deliberate action on her part—her English translator, Don Mee Choi finds that “Kim’s poetics are rooted in her attempt to resist conventional literary forms and language long defined by men in Korea”. Kim uses her literary power to create magnificent worlds, built autonomously, which the reader is invited to visit. In Grief, she mourns the exploitation of beauty and knowledge by crafting herself as a thief of blue cows, forced to eat what she loves, “covered in blue mold… in sub-zero weather”. In Red Scissor-Woman, she crafts birth-giving in the unsuspecting modes of horror and power. These juxtapositions make her voice distinct and resounding. Quite a bit of her work has been translated and can be accessed in different European languages.
I hope the words of these incredible women have inspired you. (I could have easily made a list of 10!) Who are some of your favourite poets? Leave a comment below, or tag @soasuni or #WeAreSOAS on our socials.
- Stuti Pachisia is studying for an MA in Comparative Literature at SOAS University of London. She is interested in culture, ecology, gender, society and policy, which means she spends most of the time feeling deeply troubled.