How poetry fuelled the Arab Uprising

‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words’, like all great maxims, this musing of Robert Frost may seem on the face of it too suspiciously beautiful to hold any real truth. But with recent events in Egypt, the world watched as a nation which had long suffered from suppression of expression fought back through the written word.

During a regime of controlled press and, in its later stages, restricted use of social media etc. fears and criticisms had been left to lie unarticulated from fear of repercussion. Crucially, this year a poetical revolution accompanied that of politics; with the former lending itself to the wider social change in pivotal ways. We felt it through the pulsating beat of sharply rhymed couplets chanted in Tahrir Square. We saw it in the neat stanzas which accommodated the Twitter generation’s need for brevity. We see it now the employment of the heroic couplet as Egypt examines the legacy of what it has lost. Throughout the last six months, new permissions with the written word and poetic form in particular have gushed forward.

Poetry’s new role in the Arab Uprising was sadly recognised last month when a Bahraini woman was sentenced to a year in prison for reading a poem which included the direct plea to the king, “We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. Don’t you hear their cries? Don’t you hear their screams?”

 It’s ripples are still being felt throughout the Arab World as Palestinian poet Tamim al-Barghouti  argued that in Tunisia the use of poetry had “widened people’s imagination, changed their perception, increased their self-confidence and showed them how fragile their tyrants are”.

The London Mayor’s Office is finally acknowledging the work of such poets (including that of al-Barghouti himself) through the ‘Poet in the City’- a festival of poetry of the Arab Spring at events throughout London this week.

In our culture where the idea of poetry most often conjures up the image of gushy sonnets in teenage diaries or the dusty artefacts of ancient writers, the importance of poetry in this context is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate.

To really get an insight into how this new permission with the written word is affecting Eygpt, one has to watch the remarkable video of Hisham el-Gokh ( as he strains to articulate the experiences of his nation. The intensity of what he feels being present not only in his words but in a physically visible ache and shiver flowing through him as he speaks through his tears. Palpable too is the sense of catharsis emanating from his audience; many of whom can be seen to writhe with pain as they journey through his thoughts together; whilst at the same time enthusiastically willing him on. In the new transition phase whereby Eygpt can reflect upon what it has lost as well as gained through recent events, perhaps it will learn of the cathartic effect of poetry in examining trauma and loss- of which fellow poet John Donne spoke when he wrote, “Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce/ For he tames it that fetters it in verse”.


Poet In The City is holding events until 20th July as part of the London Mayor’s Office festival- ‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’

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  • Munsterview

    Limerick City through it’s University and Hospital has a significant Mid-Eastern and other Islamic population, some among them are poets who regularly attend the White House usual wednesday ‘Live Mike’ poetry nights.

    Months back in solidarity with the Mid-Eastern poets and insurgent freedom seeking peoples and the expatriates from that society, Barney Sheehan who hosts the ‘Live Mike’ and the White House management held a special night where the theme was Poems For Freedom’ and on the crowded night with as many Mid-Eastern as locals present, Irish and Islamic and other poets had hours of poetry with poems delivered on the theme.

    The fact that poetry is to the fore in the Mid-East political upheavals has little to do with ‘brevity’ and everything to do with the fact that the poetic art is part of a living culture with the poets as people who are concerned with what the late Peter Russell of Irish descent referred to as “those universal norms without which we cannot really live” articulating and upholding these universal and timeless things before God and man.

    The fact that Western Society ‘culture leaders’ should see this as something remarkable or novel just shows how much these self same, well subsided culture leaders have departed from poetic norms or indeed relevance. However some Irish poets and poetry still have a bite : some years back a major poetry prize was won by a local White House poet with a poem lacerating corruption.

    The same poem was passionately delivered ‘viva voice’ last night to prolonged applause after the poet concerned had prefaced the poem by highlighting and condemning the duplicity of FG and Labor mainstream politicians for promising to keep regional hospitals open while seeking election only to cynically renege on their word once in Government !

    Poetry can still have a relevance to contemporary issues and not all poets peruse their craft with one eye on Arts Council Grants and the other on publication opportunities ‘across the pond’ with nothing done to question, much less upset the status quo apple cart !

    Many years back during the Eastern European protests for Democracy a certain Irish literary festival ran an event with a theme ‘ Irish and Eastern European Poets, Victims Of Joint Oppression’ or some similar sounding inanity. The foreign dissenting poets came expecting to find fellow poets involved in the Irish Revolutionary struggle. Some chance : the home gutless wonders concerned probably did not even have a parking ticket between them never mind having been ever arrested for anything, least of all participation in a political demonstration.

    These dissident poets, all at risk of prison or worse for their home activities in supporting freedom, came to Ireland only find the event organized and their platforms shared with the same brass neck, bought off and paid for, State ‘house trained’ defenders of the status quo as their own safe ‘State Poets’ at home.

    Liz The First and the Tudors knew what they were doing when they put the same bounty on the head of an Irish poet as that of a wolf ! In the elegant words of Irish American, Joyce Kilmer ” a poet must go where the greatest songs are singing” and poets ” must carry in their soul the courage of their song” !

    Joyce did just that himself, he could have comfortably sat out the First WW involved as he was in literary affairs and editorial duties in NY. Instead volunteered, not as an officer as was his entitlement, but as a foot soldier with The 69th, ‘Fighting Irish’ and died in combat just as the war was about to conclude. He knew the power of true poets and poetry to influence events. Post 9116 he challenged Yeats with a poem on 1916, one verse of which went….

    ” Romantic Ireland is not dead,
    O’Leary lies in fertile ground.
    poems and spears, throughout the years
    Spring up where patriot graves are found ”

    Mid-Eastern poets like their Eastern European counterparts a quarter century before are too out for freedom and in the front lines of the struggle where their lives are in danger and ‘ The greatest songs are singing’ .

    Here in Southern Ireland while the very fabric of society is being torn apart and the least financially resourced, blameless and vulnerable section of society are forced to carry the ‘cut back’ monetary burden for the excesses of the Celtic Tiger by a small establishment minority
    where are the poets articulating the wrongs inflicted on the innocent people ?

    These same poets should be upholding values and lacerating our Establishment leaders for their broken promises to the electorate. Instead they are embedded with that same Establishment and are quietly banking their Arts Council grants with each bought and paid for ‘Name’ leading a camp of ‘wannabes’ poets for the grants and publication gravy train.

    Just like all during ‘The Troubles’ and the silence and support Arts Council Grants bought for the ‘Government line’, these current monies too may yet prove to be the wisest spend by the Establishment to buy off articulated concern and protest potential leadership !