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Audre Lorde quote at Women's March
via Wikimedia Commons

11 poets share their favourite political poems

For World Poetry Day 2019, we asked Fatimah Asghar, Inua Ellams, Sophie Robinson and more to muse on what makes poetry political for them

Absorbing the endless, 24-hour cycle of politics in 2019 can feel a lot like being smashed over the head by never-ending waves. Over the last few years, the empathic potential of art has felt more important than ever before, as it provides ways to connect – and to figure out what the hell is going on. Across a multitude of forms, artists have been stepping up where politicians haven’t – responding to the world around them with humanity.

With more diverse voices appearing in books, zines, spoken word, and social media, poetry has leapt forward as one of the most exciting and accessible contemporary art forms. While music or film take time to come together, poetry’s ability to be instantaneous means that it can react with immediacy, bottling an emotion at a specific moment in time.

For World Poetry Day, we asked eleven of the most exciting contemporary poets working globally what the political power of poetry means to them, and to share with us some of their favourite political poems.


Rebecca Tamás: “Poetry is political, sometimes, in what it doesn't do – make a meaning that's clear, commodifiable, empiricist, exchangeable. In late capitalism, a thing that slips away from the rational and the sellable is political indeed; a brief space outside exchange-value, outside binaries, where we might have a moment to question and fracture the rigidity of our conceptions. That is the political power of poetic language, a power that keeps me coming back to the form, over and over again.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Rebecca Tamás: “My two favourite political poems are 'The Revolt of the Peasant Girls' by Anne Boyer, and 'Boy Breaking Glass' by Gwendolyn Brooks; poems where people who are held down and oppressed inventively shatter their bonds, and re-write the possibilities of being.”

Rebecca Tamás’ debut collection WITCH is out now.


Ijeoma Umebinyuo: “What is political poetry? It is every poem that dares to reveal truths against tyranny. That dances in the face of grief to reveal even more life. Throw a political poet in prison and her fingers will write poems in concrete, cut her hands and her voice will scream her poems, shut her mouth and the people will respond in her poems. A chorus of freedom.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Chinua Achebe, “Refugee Mother and Child”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Stanza”

Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s Questions for Ada is out now.


Marjorie Lofti Gill: “To me, the power in political poetry is how it connects the personal with the political world, shows us how we are part of those systems of inequality and oppression (even implicated in them), and asks us to take action to bring about change.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Marjorie Lofti Gill: “Two of my favourite political poems are Adrienne Rich's ‘Inscriptions’ from Dark Fields of the Republic and Nadine Aisha Jassat's ‘Life in the UK’ from Let Me Tell You This. Also, all of Nazim Hikmet's body of work.”

Marjorie Lotfi Gill’s pamphlet Refuge is out now.


Andre Bagoo: “When the modern state’s might is such that it commands a military arsenal of unimaginable force, a surveillance apparatus of unfathomable reach and a bureaucratic network outside of which no person can exist, what does it mean to speak of the political power of the individual, of poetry? Poetry fights. Like David facing Goliath, it stands for the dignity of the human being in the face of overwhelming odds. It knows resistance is futile. It carries on anyway.

“In the end, every poem, whether the poet wants it or not, positions itself in the world. Poetry is its own nation. It allows me to cross boundaries. It lets me speak truth to power and reclaim suppressed rights.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Martin Carter, “Who Walks a Pavement”

Carolyn Forché, “The Colonel”

NourbeSe Philip, Zong!

Jameson Fitzpatrick, “I Woke Up”

Andre Bagoo’s book, The City of Dreadful Night, is out now.


Fatimah Asghar: “Poems are urgent – they're a way of slowing down a moment, of providing gentleness in an un-gentle world, of providing rage or a punch to the throat in a society that needs to be shook awake. Poems have helped me give space to the feelings inside my body that I didn't have words for, have helped me to normalise vulnerability, have helped me to build solidarity between groups of people that I am different from.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Fatimah Asghar: “These two poems do so much work in carving out spaces that are needed, of providing both gentle-ness and rage in an incredibly violent and unjust world.”

John Murillo, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, By Gunfire, of Three Men In Brooklyn”

Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact”

Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us is out now.


Salena Godden: “My favourite poets are mostly outsiders and marginalised. And it occurs to me, and not for the first time, that the outsider is who we all want to be, that the outside is the cool place. Outsiders document our times and narrate our present from a clear perspective that is unsullied by fashion and trends and always ahead of the zeitgeist.

“I love the writers and poets that fit in no category, the trailblazers and the pioneers, these are the voices of resistance, these are the poets of protest. These poets are mostly DIY and indie published. They are brilliant and broke. Often they are not stocked in the high street shops. And in my experience, these poets write the times, they make the books that stay in your heart, the timeless anthems that lift a movement and poetry that beats with the spirit of rebellion and uprising.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Salena Godden: “My number one all time favourite historical favourite favourite would have to be: Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. My favourite political poets are Toria Garbutt, Lisa Luxx, Kat Francois and Joelle Taylor.”

Salena Godden’s latest book Pessimism is for Lightweights is out now.


Will Harris: “I’ve been thinking about the word ‘vitrined’. In Threads (clinic, 2018), the poet and academic Sandeep Parmar describes coming back from the US to England, where she was born, and feeling like ‘an embodied other, an artefact vitrined alongside those with whom I shared a passing resemblance or some common history.’ It reminds me of the ‘Enlightenment Gallery’ in the British Museum, where plundered artefacts from the heyday of Empire are given pride of place: in one glass case, a red-faced wayang mask (used in shadow plays in Java, where my mum grew up) sits alongside two ancient Egyptian mummified heads – the fantastical and the real taken out of context, vitrined, defined by passing resemblance. Power can take the form of a glass case: it plucks apart and rearranges; it erases; it makes us forget who we were, or are, or could be. Which is why Threads is so necessary. An interwoven work of poetry and criticism – or criticism as poetry – by Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya and Bhanu Kapil, it grounds the self in ‘multiple angles’ and ‘shared resistance’.

“Another book that’s shaped my thinking on poetry and politics (recommended to me by Nisha) is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée. Cha was murdered a week after its publication in 1982, but it survives as an act of extraordinary remembering, piecing together family memory, Korean history and myth, featuring photographs, diagrams and multiple languages. It’s about being vitrined, but also – in reclaiming the past – about breaking free. Speaking freely.”

Will Harris’ poetry pamphlet, All this is implied, and essay, Mixed-Race Superman, are out now. His debut full-length poetry collection, RENDANG, is forthcoming in 2020.


Nadine Aisha Jassat: “I’ve always felt that poetry is about telling a story and opening minds, as well as giving power and solidarity to others who may share similar experiences to our own. In a time where many may feel silenced or alone, I feel poetry can help give permission to reclaim one’s own voice, as well as to help see and hear the story of another and to open our minds, learning and empathy.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Nadine Aisha Jassat: “My favourite political poems include Fatimah Asghar’s ‘If They Should Come For Us’ and Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’ the latter not traditionally understood as a political poem, but for me, a poem about finding your own voice and setting foot on your path is essential in any political poet’s reading list. My favourite political poet is Andrea Gibson – their work is fiercely intelligent, sharp, and full of heart.”

Nadine Aisha Jassat’s Let Me Tell You This is out now.


Inua Ellams: “I believe poetry's prime function is to bear witness, to say ‘This is the world as I see it, as I experienced it’. Political poetry serves the function and its power is in simplification; untangling an issue from the doublethink-jargon-forked-tongue of politicians and presenting it in plain speak before the people, and letting them interrogate their feelings and thus decide what is next to be done. If a political poem tries to convince or sell an idea, if a political poem has an agenda, it fails as a poetry and becomes propaganda.”

What are your favourite political poems right now?

Aharon Shabtai, “Rosh Hashanah”

Fatimah Asghar, “If They Should Come for Us”

Sarah Kay, “Jakarta, January”

Innua Ellams’ anthology, #Afterhours, is out now. His book, The Half-God of Rainfall, is forthcoming in 2020.


Joelle Taylor: “Political poetry is the act of turning walls into windows, of making cinema from our silences. The political poem is both the restless sea and the hand pulling us from it. It is civil disobedience, quiet uprising, the small things that make the big changes. All poetry is political at its heart, whether the poet chooses to write about flowers or the corrective rape of lesbians in South Africa; politics is about choices – and if the poet is not some kind of revolution then perhaps they are not a poet at all. And the authorities are afraid of the poet – in the Yeats poem below, it's worth noting that of the 16 rebels executed by the English in the 1916 Irish uprising, five were poets.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Danez Smith, “Summer, Somewhere”

Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times Are These”

Anthony Anaxagorou, “How The Sky Finds Us”

Salena Godden, “My Tits Are More Feminist Than Your Tits”

WB Yeats, “Easter, 1916”

Joelle Taylor’s collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me is out now. She also hosts Out-Spoken.


Sophie Robinson: “Poetry is political, at its best, because it can make the impossible possible and reveal the current order as a contingency, an option. Unlike narrative fiction, journalism, or most other kinds of writing, lyric poetry removes the need for story and character. What we have is speech transcending time and space, desire transcending subjectivity. 

“What a good poem fosters is an intimacy between the ‘I’ of the poem and the reader that has always seemed to me like a necessarily queer intimacy; it’s a form of intimacy that isn’t contained by traditional categories of affection and creates a wormhole in our ego’s need to separate ourselves out from each other and the world. When I read a poem, I become the voice that’s speaking to me, because I am adopting that voice’s perspective on the world, I am speaking their language as I read the poem to myself, out loud or in my head. Strange voices, rhythms, and images force me to confront and transgress the hard limits of my body and my world view.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Jameson Fitzpatrick, “I Woke Up

Eileen Myles, “I always put my pussy

Amiri Baraka, “Why’s/Wise

Frank O’Hara, “Having a Coke With You

Sophie Robinson's third collection, Rabbit, is out now.


Mary Jean Chan: “I was recently re-reading Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose (1966 – 1978), in which she writes:

“‘Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language – this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.’

“For me, poetry draws attention to how power works and circulates, as well as what power renders ‘unspeakable’. Such poetry is inherently political, since it grapples with issues that have everything to do with key political questions – who is deemed a citizen; whose lives are considered to be more grievable than others; which societal groups have access to legal protections under the rule of law.”

What are your favourite political poems?

Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”

Solmaz Sharif, “Look”

Chen Chen, “Poplar Street”

Emily Berry, “The Remains of the Day”

Anthony Anaxagorou, “After the Formalities”

Mary Jean Chan’s pamphlet A Hurry of English is out now. Her debut book Flèche is forthcoming on 4 July 2019.