What is it about rage that makes it a necessary emotion? A cleansing, fierce, tumultuous necessity? Temper is capricious, it could even be peevish. Anger is, well, anger; even the word seems more docile and well-behaved than “rage”, there’s something tight-lipped and cold about it. And no matter how many dictionaries suggest that rage is just another handy synonym for anything ranging from a tantrum to a riot, I’d say rage stands alone – a flame, a force, irresistible to writers and poets seeking a place where their furies can be matched by a word large enough, furious enough and yes, strong enough.

When Dylan Thomas wrote Do not go gentle into that good night (1951) he gave mourning an atmospheric so electric, it ceased to be mourning and turned instead into a rallying cry, a rousing hymnal. Wise men, good men, wild men, grave men, he exhorts all of them to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” To behave contrary to conventional wisdom, not accept death meekly, and believe that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”. In the closing stanza where he directly addresses his father, sorrow bursts through, and yet, what a robust sorrow it is, how complex and electrifying:

“And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

— "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", by Dylan Thomas

His father, who died a year after Thomas wrote this poem was (as he said in a note to an editor friend) the only person he couldn’t show it to because he didn’t know he was dying. His father’s approaching blindness sparked the poem, but what galvanises it is precisely the blinding force of the speaker’s refusal. Agony, frustration, resistance – all contained in the concluding couplet, which has passed into common speech, especially the last line, one we all know, one we use, in which rage ceases to be a violent, destructive noun, and turns instead into an unstoppable affirmative verb. So many years later, these lines still crackle with the emotional electricity that powered them.

Reining in rage

I wonder then, if to rage against something is the key to understanding the phenomenon of rage. If it bursts forth, uncontrollably, what is to prevent rage from turning murderous, cataclysmic, a red-hot paroxysm in which reason has no role (as happens in mobs)? Perhaps this awareness of the potentiality of mayhem is what makes poets consider (and contain) rage in a variety of ways.

I’m looking at a poem by Sjohnna McCray, Portrait of my father as a young black man, in which she says, “Rage is the language of men/ layers of particulates fused.” Rage is oblation (the wine poured on the ground), rage is gesture (a tight knuckle-grip), rage is suppression (a choke in the throat), and in the clinching line: “Rage is a promise kept”. Here the poet’s economy of words is so effective in conveying an entire history of oppression, where rage is not one explosive outburst but an inevitable way of being, a historical continuity. The fact that rage is essential to remember and fight against racial injustice is underlined with potency and poignancy, two qualities that I find exist in Dylan Thomas’s poem as well, despite its completely different form, tenor and mode.

If rage is, in McCray’s poem, the language of men, rage is equally, if not more so, the language of women. In Meena Kandasamy’s Lady Justice (from her collection Ms Militancy), the lady in question is sad at the beginning of the poem. Playing Patience, unfazed by hard work, handing out Tarot cards as judgements, she watches her courtroom turn into an “ominous circus”, and the “rebellious righteous” turn against her. At the end of the poem, to make sure she never gets bored or falls asleep, “each plaintiff/ Applies a paste of bloodred chillies” on her open eyes. You wince, along with Lady Justice. The poem is written in a light, conversational, sardonic register, all the better to rub it in at the end. You know – you feel it – the source of this poem is the rage against the machine that makes justice a farce.

When it kills

Rage can be articulated with rage, rage can be owned with irony. And sometimes, rage is simply, non-negotiable. In K Satchidanandan’s poem with that title, what emerges is a moment of irreversible horror. Why do I think this is a rage poem? Because of the way in which the poet strips his language as bare as the body of the woman in it, leaving us no wiggle-room, not a single escape route from the unspeakable truth of it. The very matter-of-fact unflinching directness of the poem is like a fist in the face.

“She stripped herself bare
and scrawled with charcoal
all over her body: ‘Non-negotiable’.
Then she poured petrol
from head to foot
and set herself afire.”

— "Non-negotiable", by K Satchidanandan (translated from the Malayalam by the poet)

This is rage as reportage. Unadorned, unembellished, so quiet it could be mistaken for despair. This is not rage amplified into the rampage of the unthinking, this is rage distilled. We are forced to confront the fact of the burning woman, and we are made to share the poet’s rage that this should have happened, is still happening.

So why is a poem as a punch-in-the-face acceptable when physical violence is not? What might literary rage achieve that a mob cannot? Stop us in our tracks. Disarm our instinctive desire to retaliate (an eye for an eye, that old Biblical fury). Literary rage may provide us with a private arsenal with which to fight our battles. Warned, strengthened, chastened or shattered, it may give us a place to retreat to in moments of doubt, it might act as a catalyst to action, a call to arms.