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What Is Protest Poetry?

Jim B.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Protest poetry is any form of poetry which has, as one of its main functions, the objective of finding fault with some existing current event or circumstance. This kind of poetry often focuses on the misdeeds performed by a government upon its people. It can also be a reaction to some overriding societal ill, like war or racism. The most effective forms of protest poetry combine the qualities that make up any great poem with a genuine passion about the subject. Protest poems can stimulate a reader's interest and empathy, and sometimes spur him or her into action.

A poet may have many different functions in mind when sitting down to write a poem. The poet might be expressing love for someone else, lamenting the loss of a friend, or describing a beautiful scene. Although the topics change, all poems must have at their core something which engages the reader or listener in ways that only poetry can. Protest poetry sets all of the tools that a poet has at his or her disposal, including rhyme, metaphor, meter, vivid language, and much more, to the task of raising some sort of current issue and exposing its flaws.

In many cases, protest poetry is associated with dissatisfaction toward a specific governmental regime. Poetry need not be rigorously objective and, as such, can be utilized to show the actions of the ruling party in an unfavorable light. At times of great societal unrest, poems are often written by a single poet to reflect the views of the people at large.

Much protest poetry has also been written about more general social ills which have come to light at different periods in history. One of the most popular topics of protest poetry is war. As long as poems have been written, poets have used their skills to show the great tragedy of war and its effect on not only the soldiers involved but on all of civilization. Racism is another topic that has inspired the ire of poets for generations.

Although there can be many types of poems that are loosely classified as protest poetry, it is a genre that can be easily mishandled by less-skilled poets. Even though a poet needs to be emotionally inspired by some issue to write a protest poem, he or she cannot let those emotions overwhelm the piece: this can prevent the poem from shedding accurate light on the issue at hand. By the same token, getting bogged down in the facts of an issue can make a poem sound less like art and more like a news report.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Apr 30, 2012

The best kind of protest poetry is the stuff that's showing up in poetry slams all over the world.

These are poetry readings where the poets compete with each other to make the poem which resonates the most with the audience.

So using a protest poem that refers to issues that are currently facing the audience are really popular and if the poet can do this really well and help the audience to see the issue in a new light they are going to do well.

Some people don't like the idea of a poet pandering to an audience like this, but it's perfect for protest poetry which is always going to be about the audience, since it's usually trying to make a particular point or to influence people in some way.

By pastanaga — On Apr 29, 2012

@indigomoth - That's a common view for a lot of people with almost every kind of media, including poetry.

But really when you think about it, the poems we read from the past are the ones that have passed the test of time. This is particularly true of protest poems which, by their very nature, are rarely going to be universal. They are always going to apply to a specific situation, and a specific time period.

So if they are powerful enough to resonate with people in a different time, like Adrienne Rich's poetry does, then they must be of a particular caliber.

There are poems of that caliber in every generation, it's just that there are all the other poems there too, which aren't going to end up being universally appealing and which won't last.

By indigomoth — On Apr 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich was one of the best poets I've ever read and she wrote some lovely and powerful protest poems. Her most famous, which I would encourage anyone to read, is called "What Kind of Times are These?"

My poetry professor (who is a well respected poet herself) considered Adrienne Rich to be her most favorite poet and she was devastated when Ms Rich passed away.

I don't think that there are many young poets who are able to write such beautiful and powerful protest poetry, even though it seems like we need it more now than ever.

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
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