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Poetic politics: artistic responses to sexual harassment

Ciara Beale discusses the way in which poetry can be used as an emotive and thought provoking response to everyday injustices.

CW: sexual assault

Centuries ago, philosophers and critics began debating what the interplay between art and politics ought to be. Yet, in 2021 this subject still remains relevant. The outrage sparked among women around the country following the tragic disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard, with which one of the greatest fears of every woman was realised, now begs the question: how should artists respond to this horrific tragedy?

Artists, using their own experiences of assault, demonstrate an extraordinary ability to confront traumatic experiences and reshape them into something powerful, if not beautiful. But could this ever glorify the very thing it condemns or even muffle these bleak statistics?

A survey for UN Women UK has found that more than 80% of young women have been sexually harassed. The recent tragedy has unearthed the horror of statistically stratospheric rates of violence against women; misogynistic behaviour is so often normalised in our society, unnoticed by onlookers and internalised by victims. However, many people of the social media generation are used to seeing numbers like these pasted across Instagram stories, repeated and repeated, perhaps beyond the point of reinforcing the shocking sentiment and instead towards blunting it. When we see these infographics infinitely spread across social media, they could be unintentionally normalised in the process.

This is where art comes in. Art personalises and humanises the cold calculated figures, it gives a face and a story to the numbers we are so used to seeing. This art, too, can come within social media; Brian Bilston, for example, is essentially a poet laureate for Gen Z, delivering art within our own territory. Following the vigil to honour Sarah Everard which ended so disastrously, he wrote a poem titled ‘Common Language’. He simply and succinctly reflects on the peaceful intentions of the vigil and the “manhandled answer” they were unfortunately met with. Bilston reignites the face of Instagram activism in his poetry, saying the things we want to express but do not always know how to phrase.

While looking elsewhere into poetic considerations of sexual harassment and assault in the past, I found so many female poets I had unfortunately not yet come across. ‘Poem about My Rights’ by June Jordan, a Jamaican-American bisexual poet, discusses exactly what its title outlines. The poem is a breathless torrent as the speaker relentlessly questions this world she inhabits: a world which designates her as “wrong” in so many ways; which takes it as given that she cannot go out alone at night; which tells her that she “should have been a boy” to eliminate these problems. However, this anger turns into pure triumph as she states unwaveringly in a twist of control: “let this be unmistakable this poem / is not consent”. The final note is one of resoluteness and strength: “my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life”. Misogynistic crimes take place every day; Jordan meets this fact with her own unrelenting and merciless poetic defiance.

Susan Eisenberg, who worked on construction sites between 1978 and 1995, is another remarkable poet. Alongside Jordan, her poetic voice packs no less of a punch. In ‘Welcome’, Eisenberg details the “tricks-of-the-trade” she had to learn as a construction worker, beginning first with the practical (how to “walk, not trip, over cords”) and slowly but eerily melting into the onsite sexual harassment, just another aspect of “protocol” to learn on the job. These poets are proof that art does not necessarily soften blows or tread cagily around taboos. This poetry is a protest.

Poets are able to condense into words what everyone else has so much trouble articulating. This helps readers to feel that their own problems are understood; our pain, loss and fear are woven into something that we can digest and empathise with. They help us to gain insight into another’s experience which is never otherwise truly accessible. Reading a poem is a moment of connection with someone we will never know but whose words we recognise in our own experience, and that is unendingly reassuring.

Poets in marginalised groups and whose voices have so often been silenced gain a particular power through this medium; through articulating their experience in this way they refuse to be ignored and can represent themselves when the mainstream media neglects to do so. Strength and authority are obtained through something as simple as a pen and paper, and their political statements can be made in the most memorable form. In an online vigil for Sarah Everard led by Reclaim These Streets and Feminists of London, poet Pia Stanchina read Maya Angelou’s boundlessly powerful poem ‘Still I Rise’ with the sentiment we need to hear and remember now more than ever: “You may kill me with your hatefulness, / But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Image credit: Tim Dennell via Flickr

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