Written Warning: The Poetry of Crisis

 
 

Art has always been the antidote to crisis, especially in contemporary times. Ezra Maloney discusses the writing that characterises times of crisis.


WHAT is the role of art in times of crises? Numerous people have puzzled over this for countless decades. It is certain that the role of poetry and literature, in times of huge change and upheaval such as war, political turmoil and societal problems, is to give a voice to the masses, who otherwise would remain voiceless. Art also serves as entertainment in times where the population are occupied with misfortune and disaster; it creates relief for the troubled soul. From the trenches of the first World War and the poetry of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas, to the contemporary spoken word artists of the Repeal and Black Lives Matter movements. Without art, the world in crisis would be a much more desolate place to inhabit.

War poetry has long been a feature of the literary scene, each and every war has had its memorable voices, often outspokenly anti-war. Many of the most well renowned poets of the 20th century feature indicting war poems amongst their oeuvre of work, whether it be the cynical humour of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry or the bitter, disillusioned tone of Wilfred Owen’s legendary ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

These poems speak of the brutality and futility of war: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/My friend you would not tell with such high zest/To children…The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori.” To a highly patriotic nation, Owen and Sassoon’s poems were considered shocking as ever since Roman poet Horace coined the phrase, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, it had been considered an honour to die for one’s country.

Yet the British war poets opened the eyes of many to the true nature of war, one which held no glory or romance. By the end of the First World War, a generation of European men had been wiped out and the optimism of earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke was long destroyed. War poetry was not only written directly from the trenches, though. Upon the outbreak of the World War II, ‘September 1st 1939’ was written by English poet WH Auden as far away from the trenches as New York City, proving that the effects of the war could be felt far and wide. Although many war poets such as Brooke, McCrae and Owen died at war, their poetry allows their legacy and anti-war sentiment to live on throughout history.

“Art has been a means for man to free himself of his troubles and it continues to be so.”

Since the time of Percy Shelley and William Blake in the Romantic period, poetry has criticised corruption in society and politics, as well as racism. In the early 20th century, writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright wrote about the growing prevalence of racism in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance was born from writings such as these and allowed African-Americans a space for their art, music and poetry without criticism or violence from the white population.

During the extreme difficulties faced by African-Americans during the 20th century, many memorable writings came about such as the historic, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Protest songs were also important to the Civil Rights movement in both the United States and Northern Ireland, often crossovers occurred in songs sung such as ‘O Freedom’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’. As police brutality and systematic racism continue to be a problem not just in the United States but across the world, poetry protesting racism still flourishes with such poets as Steven Taylor, Raven McGill, and Francis Duggan writing on the topic.

“Since the beginning of time, art has been a means for man to free himself of his troubles”

Since the beginning of time, art has been a means for man to free himself of his troubles and it continues to be so. Whether it be the war poets of the Great Wars, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance or spoken word artists such as Mercedes Holtry, Neil Hilborn and Sabrina Benaim who discusses issues varying from the Presidency of Donald Trump and OCD, literature continues to allow many to survive crises. The crises may be personal, national or international and all are valuable through literature, creating a legacy for writers who choose to voice their opinions during times of turmoil.

2017 is no less of a time of upheaval than any other with growing dissent towards abortion laws in Ireland, conservative politicians gaining power and the recent revelations of horrific abuse in so-called mother and baby homes. Undoubtedly, authors and poets have had and will have much to say about these issues, which will empower others to join forces against oppression and civil rights abuses.

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