Writing and reading poetry helps us to engage with issues, communicate across society, and connect with each other – a good starting point for personal and collective action, says Ben Michaels
Poetry can be a common language for speaking across boundaries. We’ve all read poems from other, unfamiliar places or times, which speak to us and communicate something of the author’s experience. Often these touch shared emotions – love, fear, alienation – which spark a sense of connection, a feeling of togetherness.
I recently joined the ECOSOC Youth Forum in discussing collective youth action for sustainable development. A standout point for me was the value of communicating between sections of society to ensure we don’t leave anyone behind.
Poetry can be an exciting way of doing this – communicating messages, sharing feelings, building common ground. The UN Development Programme is actively promoting this across countries in Africa – one inspiring example is the Somali Storytellers.
Poetry gives me a voice.
The practice of writing or reading poetry can be empowering. In a world which is complex and alienating, yet at your fingertips, poetry can help you to explore what you feel, and why. When I write poetry I begin to identify, interpret and make sense of my feelings – which in turn helps me to make sense of the world around me. Expressing these feelings, especially with a community, such as on social media, gives me a voice.
Right now, Ukraine is a violent and chaotic ongoing presence in our lives. Our hearts daily go out to the people directly involved in the conflict. As a bystander, I have responded with poetry – sharing it on Twitter. Here are some.
I wrote this after Russian troops began the invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2022.
A city at dawn
Still, half-light, waiting
For something, stretching
To make sense of the vastness.
Expecting dawn, something
Populated by millions.
The horizon advancing behind the curtain.
Young men being conscripted to fight felt both distant and close to home. My grandfather was conscripted in World War II and listening to his stories sparked feelings about youth having to grow up fast as they find themselves in a scary world.
A word which is
Exchanged, easily on the news,
But it’s you saying it which gets to me.
I get it now that it happened.
My experience slips into your experience,
And my heart skips.
The war has stirred up fears of nuclear war, something which has been incomprehensible for a long time.
Bunkered, but Ukraine
The whole world just isn’t.
Sunk so deep
Nuclear doesn’t even touch you.
The only one.
You’ll live on, TV, life
Happens out there,
It’s remote control
It’s deep in the past.
I wish I made your atoms shiver too.
Misinformation and propaganda in Russia is well known – people and their truths are not being listened to. This is an all too familiar pattern of patriarchy, and on International Women’s Day I wrote this.
President Zelensky addressed the UK Parliament on March 8th, appealing emotively for continued support. His use of the language of Shakespeare and Churchill particularly caught the headlines in the UK.
That’s the question.
The value of freedom.
What’s worth fighting for.
The answer is something
Which you are.
One month after the invasion, more than ten million people have fled their homes in Ukraine. The EU faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II. The scale is so vast and hard too grasp.
It’ll be June soon.
When you see poplar trees
Disperse their cotton clouds
Into the still heat, drifting
Away from the populated.
Whispy, young, untethered.
Going or beginning.
With them, this June
What will they signify?
The more I write poetry, the more I discover what I think and feel about these complex issues. And I realise that I care – and there are so many others who care too. This shared engagement is surely a key starting point for collective action.
Ben Michaels graduated in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford in 2013. He's excited to engage with diverse youth issues from an anthropological perspective. His poetry has been published online including by the UN Youth Envoy.