Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Political Poetry

This blogsite was set up to portray, as I have mentioned before, politics and political ideologies/events using poetry. The use of this medium to eulogize, lament and outrightly criticize the dealings of a group of men with another date as far back as the time when humans had began to write. It would be interesting to have a look at past cases of this. And because the subject is too vast, and the poets are too numerous, I can only afford to look at a few, something I am sure I am not doing justice to.

In the early days, poetry was used mainly for the purposes of religious worship or divine praise. Dante’s set of long poems is a clear example. And which poet could match the effort of Jalaluddin Rumi when he wrote the voluminous Mathnawi? But I would like to attract attention now to William Blake, a popular poet who not only wrote some of the world’s most profound religious poems, but did some illustrations for them himself. But is it true that he intended his poems to be purely religious in nature? In his famous poem “Jerusalem” he wrote the following memorable stanzas:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the holy lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

This sounded very “episcopal” that could come only from some kind of Jesus freak or something. But some commentators argue that the words are actually a camouflage for the true meaning that Blake had intended: namely a very strong statement against the industrialization process that was creeping slowly into 18th century England, slowly replacing the country’s human workforce with machines and engines. The “Dark Satanic Mills” are believed to be the Albion Mills, the first big factory set up in Blackfriars Road in London, which later was burned down by its own workers. 

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my Arrows of Desire
Bring me Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

These surely sound apocalyptic, even “Armageddonic”.  But trying to build Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land” gave it away: Blake wasn’t talking about building a religious center in England: he was advocating for a return to the old England that they all knew instead of ones made up steel and iron machines.
(There had been many musicians who tried to suit the poem’s tunes to some kind of melody in the past, but none as good as, in my opinion, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s rendition complete with Tubular Bells and Gongs plus Moogs to give it some eerie angelic/heavenly atmosphere. Listen to it here).

Compare Blake’s Jeruslaem with Joan Baez’s song of the same name:-

I woke up this morning and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumbling across the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothing anyone could do or say
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

Now THAT’S a political statement. Joan Baez is a very staunch anti-war activist ever since the Vietnam War, and one reason she was very popular was not only that her songs were very melodic and nice to hear (The haunting Diamonds and Rust, and the sad Sweet Sir Galahad ) but that her poetrical lyrics made sense and were loved by everyone. Listen to how she lamented about her own people’s mishandling of world politics that ring true even till today as we are now breathing:

God on our side

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war
Actually the song/poem was written by fellow productive poet-songwriter Bob Dylan, with whom she had an affair once (days before she dated Steve Jobs). 


1 comment:

  1. Superb, Leman! Kudos to you!

    My first time here and am beginning to enjoy reading your write-ups, though some would be too 'heavy duty' for me to chew & digest:-(

    A friend of mine introduced tis blogspot of yours recently and I have enjoyed reading yours and/or your cousin's (Suman Sumbing) re the Najib & the Pope's article as well as your Malay poem on the Izrael - hey, it's Izrael and not Azrael, right? pardon me to correct but you have stated as Azrael, or is it your way of writing in a poetry manner, perhaps?

    Anyway, keep up this great blog of yours, it has class indeed.