A wave of resistance is rippling across the world, calling out oppressors who rule with the iron hand of tyranny. In times like these, words provide hope and poets give people their anthems of resistance and their ballads of sorrow.
Pablo Neruda was a Nobel laureate whose life and poetry was upheld as the symbol of resistance to dictatorship. He took on the role of activist-writer during Chile’s revolutionary student movement. He became the voice of a generation challenging the country’s aristocracy. In his best-known work, Canto General (General Song), he reclaimed the history of the Americas from the conquerors.
After he went to Madrid in 1934 as the Chilean counsel, he wrote 21 poems in response to the war. He lost his penchant for penning melancholic love poems, instead taking on a more urgent tone and cautioning against rising fascism. In I’m Explaining a Few Things, about the Spanish Civil War, he captured the country’s tense and complicated political story.
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them with holes and birds?
I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.
I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.
Federico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
And one morning everything was burning
and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
... kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.
You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
As we face our moments of crises – conflict, brutality – some might ask what good is poetry or any art of resistance in response to such times? Can it remove authoritarian regimes or eliminate injustices? No. But just because art cannot stop a storm from raging doesn’t mean it is powerless to alter the experience of being trapped by the storm.
As author Barbara Harlow says, resistance poetry is “a force for mobilising a collective response to occupation and domination and a repository for popular memory and consciousness”.
The power of poetry is proven by its endurance and how people reach for it in difficult times to galvanise and sustain. During the protests against the amended citizenship law in India, placards repeated Neruda’s words: “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop spring from coming”.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.