I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange sun rays
And dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through
The sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
More human rights poems here.
Suicide in the Trenches, by Siegfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy…..
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
More human rights poems here.
The Baghdad Zoo, by Brian Turner
An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man
on a streetcorner, dragging him down an alley
as shocked onlookers cried for it to stop.
There were tanks rolling their heavy tracks
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil.
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse.
Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes
looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks
too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century.
Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals
flew over, frightened by the rotorwash
of blackhawk helicopters touching down.
One baboon even escaped from the city limits.
It was found wandering in the desert, confused
by the wind and the sand of the barchan dunes.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad zoo was completely destroyed.
For their own safety, zoo workers suspended feeding the animals in early April 2003, when Fedayeen Saddam troops took up defensive positions around the zoo as U.S. forces began the battle of Baghdad. Out of the original 650 to 700 animals in the Baghdad Zoo only 35 had survived to the eighth day of the invasion, and these tended to be some of the larger animals.
During the absence of zoo staff and officials, the zoo suffered from severe looting. Cages were torn open by thieves who released or took hundreds of animals and birds. Zoo staff claimed most of the birds and game animals were taken for food as pre-war food shortages in Baghdad were exacerbated by the invasion.
Many animals were found roaming the zoo grounds. The remaining animals were found in critical condition, dying of thirst and starving in their cages, including Mandor, a 20-year-old Siberian tiger that was the personal property of Uday Hussein, and Saida, a blind brown bear.
Several lions escaped from the abandoned zoo and were rounded up by American soldiers in armored fighting vehicles. Four that would not return to their cages were shot by the soldiers. (source)
What Work Is, by Philip Levine
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
O what is that sound, by W.H. Auden
O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.
O what is that light I see flashing so clear
Over the distance brightly, brightly?
Only the sun on their weapons, dear,
As they step lightly.
O what are they doing with all that gear,
What are they doing this morning, this morning?
Only their usual manoeuvres, dear,
Or perhaps a warning.
O why have they left the road down there,
Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling?
Perhaps a change in their orders, dear,
Why are you kneeling?
O haven’t they stopped for the doctor’s care,
Haven’t they reined their horses, horses?
Why, they are none of them wounded, dear,
None of these forces.
O is it the parson they want, with white hair,
Is it the parson, is it, is it?
No, they are passing his gateway, dear,
Without a visit.
O it must be the farmer who lives so near.
It must be the farmer so cunning, so cunning?
They have passed the farmyard already, dear,
And now they are running.
O where are you going? Stay with me here!
Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?
No, I promised to love you, dear,
But I must be leaving.
O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.
This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State than this?
More human rights poems here.
Excerpt from The Cure at Troy, by Seamus Heaney
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.
The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Once in Awhile a Protest Poem, by David Axelrod
Over and over again the papers print
the dried out tit of an African woman
holding her starving child. Over
and over, cropping it each time to one
prominent, withered tit, the feeble
infant face. Over and over to toughen
us, teach us to ignore the foam turned
dusty powder on the infant’s lips,
the mother’s sunken face (is cropped)
and filthy dress. The tit remains;
the tit held out for everyone to see,
reminding us only that we are not so hungry
ogling the tit, admiring it and in our
living rooms, making it a symbol of starving
millions; our sympathy as real as silicone.
September 1, 1939,* by W.H. Auden
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
* September 1, 1939 was the day Germany invaded Poland, and the day WWII started.
I, Too, Sing America, by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes. But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow I’ll sit at the table
When company comes
Nobody’ll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen”
Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed,–
I, too, am America.
Go slow, by Langston Hughes
Go slow, they say-
while the bite
Of the dog is fast.
Go slow, I hear-
While they tell me
You can’t eat here!
You can’t live here!
You can’t work here!
Don’t Demonstrate! Wait!-
While they lock the gate.
Am I supposed to be God,
Or an angel with wings
And a halo on my head
While jobless I starve to dead?
Am I supposed to forgive
And meekly live
Going slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow, slow,
Militant, by Langston Hughes
Let all who will
Eat quietly the bread of shame.
Without complaining loud and long.
Tasting its bitterness in my throat,
And feeling to my very soul
For honest work
You proffer me poor pay,
for honest dreams
Your spit is in my face,
And so my fist is clenched
To strike your face.
Sow Flowers, Rahman Baba
Sow flowers so your surroundings become a garden
Don’t sow thorns; for they will prick your feet
If you shoot arrows at others,
Know that the same arrow will come back to hit you.
Don’t dig a well in another’s path,
In case you come to the well’s edge
You look at everyone with hungry eyes
But you will be first to become mere dirt.
Humans are all one body,
Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.
A classic, but well worth rereading:
First they came…, Martin Niemöller
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Bypassing rue Descartes, Czesław Miłosz
BYPASSING rue Descartes
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,
A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.
We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which nobody here should ever be told:
The clapping for servants, barefooted girls hurry in,
Dividing food with incantations,
Choral prayers recited by master and household together.
I had left the cloudy provinces behind, I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes .
Soon enough, their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.
Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,
Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,
Baking long breads and pouring wine into clay pitchers,
Buying fish, lemons, and garlic at street markets,
Indifferent as it was to honor and shame and greatness and glory,
Because that had been done already and had transformed itself
Into monuments representing nobody knows whom,
Into arias hardly audible and into turns of speech.
Again I lean on the rough granite of the embankment,
As if I had returned from travels through the underworlds
And suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of the seasons
Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead.
There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.
The Orphan, Muhammad al-Maghut
Oh! The dream, the dream!
My sturdy gilded wagon
Has broken down
Its wheels have scattered like gypsies everywhere.
One night I dream of spring
And when I woke
Flowers had covered my pillow.
I dreamt once of the sea
And in the morning
My bed was full of shells and fins of fishes
But when I dreamt of freedom
Spears were surrounding my neck
Like the morning halo.
From now on you will not find me
In ports or among trains
But there … in public libraries
Falling asleep over the maps of the world
(As the orphan sleeps on the pavement)
Where my lips touch more than one river
And my tears stream
From continent to continent.
Since this blog loves statistics, I couldn’t resist writing about this: China’s National Bureau of Statistics has launched a call for submissions of writings celebrating the creation, 60 years ago by Chairman Mao, of the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, the campaign is intended to boost the public’s confidence in its national statisticians (source) – and some boosting seems to be necessary (see here as well).
One entry is a “poem” titled “Love the Homeland, Love Statistics”, apparently from one of CNBS’s own employees, and it reads like this:
Some mock me for doing statistics
Some loathe me and statistics
Some don’t understand what statistics are
Why is it that statistics
Put a calm smile on my face?
Because of statistics
I can solve the deepest mysteries
Because of statistics
I will not be lonely again, playing in the data
Because of statistics
I can rearrange the stars in the skies above
Because of statistics
My life is different, more meaningful
I love my life, my statistics.
Man, are you serious…? More about China.
Mary’s Song, by Sylvia Plath
The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.
Sacrifices its opacity. . . .
A window, holy gold.
The fire makes it precious,
The same fire
Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the Jews.
Their thick palls float
Over the cicatrix of Poland, burnt-out
They do not die.
Grey birds obsess my heart,
Mouth-ash, ash of eye.
They settle. On the high
That emptied one man into space
The ovens glowed like heavens, incandescent.
It is a heart,
This holocaust I walk in,
O golden child the world will kill and eat.
Warsaw, Robert Service
I was in Warsaw when the first bomb fell;
I was in Warsaw when the Terror came -
Havoc and horror, famine, fear and flame,
Blasting from loveliness a living hell.
Barring the station towered a sentinel;
Trainward I battled, blind escape my aim.
ENGLAND! I cried. He kindled at the name:
With lion-leap he haled me… All was well.
ENGLAND! they cried for aid, and cried in vain.
Vain was their valour, emptily they cried.
Bleeding, they saw their Cry crucified…
O splendid soldier, by the last lone train,
To-day would you flame forth to fray me place?
Or – would you curse and spit into my face?
I had no time to hate, Emily Dickinson
I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.
Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.
(source, Peter Nicholson, The Australian, Sydney, Australia)
The Development Set, by Ross Coggins
Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!
The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.
In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.
We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.
We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution -
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.
The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like “epigenetic”
“Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”
It pleasures us to be esoteric -
It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.
When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”
Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
It doesn’t work out in theory!”
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.
Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.
Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.
No one can accuse me of being insensitive to the plight of the poor. I regularly blog about poverty and development aid, and I believe that poverty is an important human rights violation. However, I also believe that we shouldn’t forsake our sense of humor when contemplating the gravity and seriousness of human rights violations in general and poverty and development in particular. And neither should we lose our sense of criticism, especially when it concerns our fellow travelers. Hence this “poem”.
For the Grave of a Peace-Loving Man, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
This one was no philanthropist,
avoided meetings, stadiums, the large stores.
Did not eat the flesh of his own kind.
Violence walked the streets,
smiling, not naked.
But there were screams in the sky.
People’s faces were not very clear.
They seemed to be battered
even before the blow had struck home.
One thing for which he fought all his life,
with words, tooth and claw, grimly,
cunningly, off his own bat:
the thing which he called his peace,
now that he’s got it, there is no longer a mouth
over his bones, to taste it with.
More on violence.
A Conversation, Margaret Atwood
The man walks on the southern beach
with sunglasses and a casual shirt
and two beautiful women.
He’s a maker of machines
for pulling out toenails,
sending electric shocks
through brains and genitals.
He doesn’t test or witness,
he only sells. My dear lady,
he says, You don’t know
those people. There’s nothing
else they understand. What could I do?
she said. Why was he at that party?
Female Product, by Taslima Nasreen
Would you like a woman, a woman?
Various kinds of women are in stock
White, tall, knee-length hair,
Slim waist, well-endowed body,
No fat, no salt,
There’s no crease in her skin,
She has the right perfection
In the nose in the ear
Also in her digestive system,
Check for yourself with your own fingers
That there are no other holes
She is a virgin, still unbroken.
She is unsmelt,
Would you like such a woman, a woman?
Give her meals three times a day,
Give her sari, jewelry and a good soap,
For her face and body
She won’t look up, she won’t raise her voice,
She is indeed a shy person,
She can cook seven times in one noon.
This product can be used in any way you like
If you like you can chain her feet,
Her hands or her mind.
If you like, you can divorce her;
Just say, “I divorce thee,”
And get rid of her.
Somoza Unveils the Statue of Somoza in Somoza Stadium, by Ernesto Cardenal
It’s not that I think the people raised this statue to me
because I know better than you do that I ordered it myself.
Nor that I have any illusions about passing with it into posterity
because I know the people one day will tear it down.
Nor that I wish to erect to myself in life
the monument you’ll not erect to me in death:
I put up this statue just because I know you’ll hate it.
And this is him, and what happened to (one of) his statue(s):
(source, Image by © Patrick Chauvel/Sygma/Corbis)
More on Nicaragua here.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, by Bertolt Brecht
Like one who brings an important
letter to the counter after
office hours: the counter is already closed.
Like one who seeks to warn the
city of an impending flood,
but speaks another language. They do not understand him.
Like a beggar who knocks for the
fifth time at the door where he has four times been given
something: the fifth time he is hungry.
Like one whose blood flows from
a wound and who awaits
the doctor: his blood goes on flowing.
So do we come forward and report that evil has been done us.
The first time it was reported that our friends were being
butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred
were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered
and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, no body calls out
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When
sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer
heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.
You Who Wronged, by Czeslaw Milosz
You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honor,
Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
Translated by Richard Lourie
(source, photo by Joanna Helander)
Explaining the Declaration, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
It starts in the pub, in the back room
where seven drunks are gathered together,
war; it smoulders
in the crèche; the Academy
of Sciences hatches it;
no, in a delivery room in Gori
or Braunau it flourishes, on the net,
in the mosque; it sweats
from the small brain of the patriotic poet;
because someone is offended, because someone
has tasted blood, in God’s name,
war rages, on grounds of colour,
in the bunker, for a joke, or by mistake;
because there have to be sacrifices
to save mankind, and these
especially at night, because of the oilfields;
for this, that even self-mutilation
has its attractions and because there’s money
war starts, in a delirium
because of a football match;
for no such thing, for heaven’s sake; yes, then;
though nobody wanted it; aha;
just like that, for pleasure, heroically
and because we can’t think of anything better to do.
Translated by David Constantine
Reveille, by Primo Levi
In the brutal nights we used to dream
Dense violent dreams,
Dreamed with soul and body:
To return; to eat; to tell the story.
Until the dawn command
Sounded brief, low
And the heart cracked in the breast.
Now we have found our homes again,
Our bellies are full,
We’re through telling the story.
It’s time. Soon we’ll hear again
The strange command:
Translated by Ruth Feldman And Brian Swann (“wstawac” means “get up” in Polish)
More on the holocaust.
The True Prison by Ken Saro-Wiwa
It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell.
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in.
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation’
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing in her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral ineptitude
Lending dictatorship spurious legitimacy
Cowardice asked as obedience.
Lurking in our denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash off our urine
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison.
Revolution, F. Spagnoli
Gunshot lullaby, rest in peace.
Animals scream like people
And people escape to prisons.
No hatred goes unwasted while
the homeless dress in white,
eat stolen chocolate and frozen kaviar.
And the rich taste defeat dressed in tar.
No one is evasive anymore.
To the point means stabbed in the heart.
People give their lives away to each other,
As if an ending could ever be a start.
Oh stay at home my lad and plough, AE Housman
Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough
The land and not the sea,
And leave the soldiers at their drill,
And all about the idle hill
Shepherd your sheep with me.
Oh stay with company and mirth
And daylight and the air;
Too full already is the grave
Of fellows that were good and brave
And died because they were.
The laws of God, the laws of man, A.E. Housman
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
Grenadier, A.E. Housman
The Queen she sent to look for me,
The sergeant he did say,
‘Young man, a soldier will you be
For thirteen pence a day?’
For thirteen pence a day did I
Take off the things I wore,
And I have marched to where I lie,
And I shall march no more.
My mouth is dry, my shirt is wet,
My blood runs all away,
So now I shall not die in debt
For thirteen pence a day.
To-morrow after new young men
The sergeant he must see,
For things will all be over then
Between the Queen and me.
And I shall have to bate my price,
For in the grave, they say,
Is neither knowledge nor device
Nor thirteen pence a day.
(Nguyen Dinh Dang, source)
The Invisible Poem, F. Spagnoli
This was an awesome verse,
enough to drive you mad.
Perhaps we might have known
exactly what it said
if white had not been used
as color of the ink.
It only shows itself
to those who never blink.
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Slave’s Lament, Robert Burns
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
For the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more,
And alas! I am weary, weary O!
Torn from &c.
All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O!
There streams &c.
The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And Alas! I am weary, weary O!
And I think &c.
The White House, Claude McKay
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.
Refugee (2), F. Spagnoli
I’m a stranger, like hope in a world that doesn’t change
or change in a world that doesn’t hope.
And like all strangers I wash my hands separately,
and I scratch my own back,
and I no longer wonder ’bout the double meaning of “asylum”
‘cos there is none:
you have to be a lunatic to try it.
A Pict Song, Joseph Rudyard Kipling
Rome never looks where she treads.
Always her heavy hooves fall,
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on–that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.
We are the Little Folk–we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the State!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the root!
We are the germ in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!
Mistletoe killing an oak–
Rats gnawing cables in two–
Moths making holes in a cloak–
How they must love what they do!
Yes–and we Little Folk too,
We are busy as they–
Working our works out of view–
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!
No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along,
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you–you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!
We are the Little Folk, we, etc.
I Sit and Look Out, Walt Whitman
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all
oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with
themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying,
neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer
of young women,
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be
hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and
I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who
shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon
laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these–all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.
The Elf king (Der Erlkönig), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the little one well in the arm
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.
“My son, why hide your face in fear?”
“See you not, Father, the Elf king?
The Elf king with crown and flowing cloak?”
“My son, it is a wisp of fog.”
“You sweet child, come along with me!
Such wonderful games I’ll play with you;
Many lovely flowers are at the shore,
My mother has many golden garments.”
“My father, my father, and do you not hear,
What the Elf king quietly promises to me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling the dry leaves.”
“Won’t you come along with me, my fine boy?
My daughters shall attend to you so nicely;
My daughters do their nightly dance,
And they will rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep.”
“My father, my father, do you not see there,
Elf king’s daughters in that dark place?”
“My son, my son, I see it definitely:
It is the willow trees looking so grey.”
“I love you; I’m charmed by your beautiful shape;
And if you are not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, now he has taken hold of me!
Elf king has hurt me!”
The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
He holds in arm the groaning child,
He reaches the farmhouse with effort and urgency;
In his arms, the child was dead.
You may be wondering how this is related to the topic of human rights. I’m not the first one to point out the undertone of this poem: although it was written ages before Word War Two, one can, without much effort, hear the story of nazism and the holocaust, and how the dangers were denied until it was too late. Denied by the German people in the first place, but also by the international community at the time.
(Photograph: Jane Bown)
Musee des beaux arts, W.H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The End and the Beginning, Wislawa Szymborska
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.
From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.
(translated from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)
The Solution, Bertolt Brecht
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Questions From A Worker Who Reads, Bertolt Brecht
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who
Else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.
On The Critical Attitude, Bertolt Brecht
The critical attitude
Strikes many people as unfruitful
That is because they find the state
Impervious to their criticism
But what in this case is an unfruitful attitude
Is merely a feeble attitude. Give criticism arms
And states can be demolished by it.
Canalising a river
Grafting a fruit tree
Educating a person
Transforming a state
These are instances of fruitful criticism
And at the same time instances of art.
Tortures, Wislawa Szymborska
Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain,
it must eat and breathe air and sleep,
it has thin skin and blood right underneath,
an adequate stock of teeth and nails,
its bones are breakable, its joints are stretchable.
In tortures all this is taken into account.
Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are as they were, it’s just the earth that’s grown smaller,
and whatever happens seems right on the other side of the wall.
Nothing has changed. It’s just that there are more people,
besides the old offenses new ones have appeared,
real, imaginary, temporary, and none,
but the howl with which the body responds to them,
was, is and ever will be a howl of innocence
according to the time-honored scale and tonality.
Nothing has changed. Maybe just the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of the hands in protecting the head is the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs give out, it falls, the knees fly up,
it turns blue, swells, salivates and bleeds.
Nothing has changed. Except for the course of boundaries,
the line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid these landscapes traipses the soul,
disappears, comes back, draws nearer, moves away,
alien to itself, elusive, at times certain, at others uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place of its own.
Shema, Primo Levi
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.