Poetry Project

How to write a protest poem

What is poetry which does not save/ Nations or people?

Czeslaw Milosz

All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful.

Wilfred Owen 

for in truth/ We have no gift to set a statesman right


Art is on the side of the oppressed. 

 Nadine Gordimer

 This month’s poetry project is devoted to the idea of freedom of expression.  I am inviting poems that protest against the Protection of Information Bill, but you may, as usual, interpret this brief in any way you wish.

How do you write a protest poem?  First of all, you need to have strong feelings against something.  Then you need to steer clear of mere polemic, pamphleteering, blurting.  To avoid obviousness, you need technique.  Here are just a few suggestions as to how to proceed:

Construct your poem around a catalogue or list of some kind, giving it the effect of a litany or prayer.  See ‘Night in Al-Hamra’ by Saadi Youssef, where each line begins in the same way:

A candle for the hotel crowded with refugees…

A candle for the broadcasters in the shelter

Adopt a tone of defiance.  Say, in effect, you can pass this legislation, but I won’t abide by it’.  See Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘Conscientious Objector’ 

Have a specific title, but let the poem itself be oblique.  See James Fenton’s ‘Cambodia’.

Be nostalgic about what life was like before the heinous thing happened. Read ‘What were they like?’ by Denise Levertov.

Adopt the voice of an object or thing that does not normally have a voice.  Read Carl Sandburg’s ‘Grass’.

Adopt the voice of the enemy – send it up, parody it.  Read Robert Lowell’s ‘Women, Children, Babies, Cows, Cats’ or Harold Pinter’s, ‘American Football’.

Speak from the point of view of the dead.  Read Thomas Hardy's ‘Channel Firing’.

Be subtle and indirect.  See Czeslaw Milosz's ‘A Song on the end of the world’.

Ask questions.  See John Greenleaf Whittier’s ‘Stanzas for the Times’

Use repetition to create an incantatory effect.  Listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.

Direct the poem to a ‘you’. Read ‘To the Tyrants of the World,’ by Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi.

If you have Michael Chapman’s The New Century of South African Poetry, you might like to check out the protest poetry of Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala, Clinton du Plessis, Andre Letoit (Koos Kombuis), Nise Malange and Chris van Wyk.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP December poetry workshop to the SLiP editor pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Sunday 4 December 2011.  Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few for publication here.

Submitted Poems


Graham Dukas


If you lost a finger, waking one morning

to find your left hand had only four,

you’d get by, I suppose.

Losing a whole hand would be

more problematic I guess, but imagine

waking to find more than a hand gone,

like a beggar I’ve seen

who’s lost both an arm and a leg,

and who hops around like a pogo stick

between cars at the traffic lights,

a half man with the full memory

of being whole.

So, when censorship

snips a little something from your body,

take notice, because soon

you’ll not have a leg to step off,

a hand to raise, or a tongue to speak.


Guardian Angels

Michelle Betty


Eleven guardian angels

cup in their hands

your heartache

Ahmed Timol

Joseph Mduli

Imam Haron


Eleven guardian angels

cradle to their chests

your sorrow

Steve Biko

Neil Aggett

Simon Mdwane


Eleven guardian angels

mark to their memory

your agony

Mathew Goniwe

Fort Calata

Sparrow Mkonto


Eleven guardian angels

stand vigil at the door of

your truth

Bram Fischer

Isie Maisels

Vernon Berrange


Eleven guardian angels

bow to the headstone of

your courage

George Bizos

Arthur Chaskalson

Sydney Kentridge


Eleven guardian angels

salute the passing of

your cavalry of ideals

Nelson Mandela

Walter Sisulu

Oliver Tambo


Eleven guardian angels

we will -

let your wings waft open and






Pam Newham


The crocodlile saw it. He remembers it still.

How the great beasts came to the water-hole that day

flattening the grasses at the water's edge,

bringing with them noise and disarray,

frightening fish and mallards and fat little frogs.

"You have nothing to fear," the great beasts said.

"We are here to save you. For hidden somewhere

deeper than deep, lie noxious weeds that will choke

your children and destroy us all.

"We are here to root out this malevolent threat

and keep you free."


The crocodile saw it. He remembers it still

as he lies on his solitary rock next to water

brackish with slime

and blinks one sly all-seeing eye.


I remember

Deirdre Slemon


I remember Cape Town in the ‘80’s


-when articles were blacked out in Varsity newspaper

-Jeremy Cronin could not address us

-the marches we should not have attended,

I ran away when the riot police came,

Knew I could not do interrogation,

-T-shirts by artists with slogans- banned,

-friends’ phones were tapped,

the Military Police came looking for my housemate,

who had disappeared on a tip-off,


Moving to Jo’burg

I had revolutionary nightmares,

-stranded in Jeppe Street beside the blue-glass office block

en route to the airport,

-people with guns


I remember going to Tembisa

-my friend hid me on the floor of the car

and covered me in a blanket at a roadblock,

-we danced to Brenda Fassie and Condry Ziqubu

until the cocks and dogs awoke.


We paid R2 entry to Jameson’s,

listened to the dangerous, fiery lyrics

of The Genuines and The Cherry-Faced Lurchers

about what was happening

but could not be reported,


We felt free at Jameson’s in 1989.


Like we did before

Beverly Rycroft


Let’s keep secrets.

Let’s seal them off in vaults, like plutonium

to be managed by experts in chemical suits

who know how to handle them, who know  how

hazardous information can be.


Let’s transport them in blue -light convoys

scattering pedestrians and motorbikes that need

to be taught respect for concealment

its menace and magnitude.


Let’s detain the foolish and the brave who

should know better than to search

for what they shouldn’t see

in places the authorities have decreed : dangerous.



The rest of us can go shopping.  Or to the beach.

And if we happen to glimpse,  in the distance ,

vapour twisting from the crypts where our futures  burn

Look again and they’ll be somewhere else.   Moved away.


They’ve  got it all  in hand, so why not

just agree: let the government govern, so we

can get on with our lives , knowing


our secrets are safe with them.


Dominique Botha


neruda in lemon scented exile

his country a knife

serrated by andes

whetted by sea

severing her vowels

into the bay of Naples


the great kremlin lepidopterist

his many steel pins too few

in the drying yard of secrets


history is a poor writer


time flies and time stands still

is birdlime and flight

a lark mirror in the orchard

dismantling herself


she is not swayed by us


truth is always on a lowering rope

trees of knowledge stunted by the Highveld frost

still the moorhen glides

buried flowers in the darkened garden strain


soil subsides

we must not


The coming of the rains

John Eppel


Romantics like Rousseau talk nonsense

when they insist that we are born free,

though he’s right about the chains. See,

you didn’t know which side of the fence


you would end up attempting to climb.

You had no say in your spawning,

or the  biology of your thing,

or your complexion.  Yet time and time


again we are told of a free press,

a free state, free will, freedom of speech,

freedom to write what we like, to preach

what we like, freedom  to make a mess.


“It’s often safer to be in chains,”

says Franz Kafka, “than to be free.”

But safety is not the issue, see -

it’s the rains, the coming of the rains.


Law suit

Stephanie Saunders


They say a remarkable suit

has been fashioned by Mr Armani,

of fabric spun so fine

that only the virtuous see it.

A man, known as “The Big Man”

is wearing the suit,

only I dare not comment

on his obvious nakedness

in the press,

not because I fear exposing

my lack of virtue,

but doing so could land me in jail.

So I send messages to my friends

and these are sent on,

and this continues,

with embellishments,

the  web being woven,

with the weft and warp

of fact and fabrication,

veined with the lurid

gold thread of hilarity.

Thus is more harm done

to the Big Man’s dignity,

than with the original “Armani” suit.


To My Darling Freedom or: The Protection of Information Bill

J.D. Warner


Once we were entwined,

all slippy bums on squeaky leather,

and at that time I knew not whether

I’d see out the summer with you.


Constantly keeping me alert,

Like a meerkat in savannah dusk,

Smelling the jackals potent musk,

I was made a schizophrenic wreck.


I said please? but you said no!

Keeping me obedient and at bay,

Preventing my hedonistic ways

I hated you the season long.


But my desire for you is

Now outweighed. I’ll not tolerate,

Your knuckle-raps and loud berates

Any longer; I am free of you.


For I have found another lover,

Who lets me loose and feeds my greed,

And cares not that I am a rampant weed,

Who will visit both your gardens.


Declaring now; “let’s all be free

But let me be freer still!

Do as I say and not as you see

And do only as I have willed.”


Freedom’s last stand

Danielle Crouse


When sitting in an East Coast bar

Away from home, so far,

One balmy night

In fading light

With Village people with their Village voice

Bored of hearing them smugly rejoice

About all that being American meant to them all

(this was before the towers’ doubly jeopardising fall)

I stood, silencing my liberal hosts,

Shamelessly interrupted their boasts

Of how their mighty soaring eagle gave their voices wings

And of their liberties and other such tritely expressed blessings,

To deliver an impassioned oratory

On the superiority of my liberty.


“This freedom you think you know

Is nothing, NOThing, nought, I tell you so,

Compared with the boldness of our voice,

With the openness of our ears, the excess of our choice,

With the swift and smooth velveteen speed with which our ink flows

How journalists’ reap the truths they sew,

If only Rach’s piano fingers were as fine as ours, strengthened from typing the truth

If only Mr P Glass himself could have our cacophonous liberty wash over him, forsooth -

A standing ovation

at our enviable elation

At the sweet syncopated symphony of our all-saying

At the electric magic that is our honest earnestness and playing

The unboundedness of our thoughtspeechpressmovementexpressionwillLIFE!

You, with your constraints,

Your restraint,

Your fears of complaint,

Your excessive consideration,

Your curtailed imagination.

The shackles of your political correctness

Are signs of your abjectness...

Don’t you talk to me of freedom

Let me coach your timid voice

Let me teach you about freedom, about liberty, and choice
For these run in my blood,

No, they don’t run, they flood!

And the blood that ran freely to free us from our chains

Did not run in vain

For we... are... truly... free!”


How many years ago that seems

Though in truth but a few

How these once-truths seem like dreams

As our truth is quashed, together with the hope we knew.


Ten poems of protest

Bold, imaginative, visionary and original: each one of these ten poems offers a knockout blow to the Protection of Information Bill.  Apart from the imagery, I was most impressed with the choice and management of tone.  Whether using understatement, irony, absurdity or the elegiac, each poet is utterly in command of the tone and message of his or her poem.

Graham Dukas’s ‘Censorship’ takes us into his heavy topic with the lightest touch, cunningly allowing us to let our guard down with its comic turn, before subtly pushing its imagery of amputation to its utterly serious and damning conclusion.

Michele Betty’s ‘Guardian Angels’ is a moving honour roll of struggle heroes who fought for the very freedom that it now rests with the eleven judges of the Constitutional Court to defend. The poem’s solemn and thoughtful accretion of names, and of categories of suffering, powerfully illuminates the integrity and valour the country has lost.

Pamela Newham’s ‘HIPPOcrisy’ is a playfully constructed yet dark allegory that mocks the blandishments of Information Bill apologists and the morbid obesity of their methods. The crocodile that lies in wait at the end of the poem is an unsettlingly familiar character.egory, ''gories of suffering powerfully illuminates the integrity and valour the country has lost.

Deirdre Slemon’s wonderfully recognizable ‘I remember’ turns on a brilliant irony.  It is also a salutary reminder of our too-recent reign of terror.

Bev Rycroft’s incisively titled ‘Like we did before’, with its deceptive refrain inviting the reader to join in the fun, is a marvelous piece of satire. The imagery embedded in the third-last stanza is utterly chilling.

Dominique Botha’s heartbreakingly sad and lyrically beautiful ‘dirge’ reminds us of how regimes have treated writers like Gorky or Neruda.  A series of despondent statements is suddenly and brilliantly reversed in the final line of the poem.

John Eppel’s ‘The Coming of the Rains’ manages to be both deeply philosophical and utterly conversational – as many of the world’s best poems are. The insistent image of the final lines is splendidly ambiguous.  Are the coming rains an apocalyptic flood or agrarian relief?

Stephanie Saunders’ ‘Law suit’ is a cleverly subversive riff on the ever-current fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes.  The poem uses its fabric imagery to assert the many freedoms that speech will continue to take for itself, willy-nilly.

J.D. Warner’s ‘To My Darling Freedom or: The Protection of Information Bill’ ironically personifies freedom as a lover rejected for being too strict (morally). The lover Freedom is replaced by one who permits the wrong kind of freedom -- hedonism -- while restricting the kind that really matters,.

Finally, Danielle Crouse’s ‘Freedom’s last stand’ grieves for those heady, ebullient and exuberant days when we were able to stand on our soap boxes and boast of this country’s freedom.

Comments are closed.