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Fighting Words: Poets for Ukraine

Submitted by on April 2, 2022 – 4:27 pmNo Comment

Poets for Ukraine event at JW3 in London.

“He sits at his table long as a fable planning a banquet of death too sharp are his claws too aglow are his eyes Putin of the great war cry dragging his carcass of history.”

The war in Ukraine has brought together a unified international stance that is saying no to conflict, no to imperialism and no to Putin! This was never more apparent than when poets took a stand in London on 27 March at the JW3 centre, to raise funds for Ukraine in a Poem-a-Thon. Sponsored poets read in relay for up to five minutes from 11am to 5pm joining online and in person.

Words have always been the most powerful weapon of speaking truth to power. The well-known anti-war poet Wilfred Owen was certainly no exception with his poem ironically entitled “Dulce et decorum est”, the title taken from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” the English translation, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen’s poem states: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”

And from Wilfred Owen speaking out against World War One, to Allan Ginsberg’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” where he wills the end of the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese rightly call it, the American war. Ginsberg states: “I lift my voice aloud, make Mantra of American language now, I here declare the end of the War!” Or the landay, Pashtun folk poems, that powerfully criticised the American invasion of Afghanistan with words like: “May God destroy the White House and kill the man who sent U.S. cruise missiles to burn my homeland. Bush don’t be so proud of your armoured car. My remoti [remote] bomb will blow it to bits from afar.”

Sitting in the auditorium of the JW3, looking up at the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours projected onto the stage, my mind flitted to the historical past sufferings endured by the people of this country.  Such as the Babi Yar massacre that was perpetrated in Ukraine in the 20th century that saw up to 100,000 Jews from Kyiv killed by the Nazis.

Although war brings with it great uncertainty, there always remains with it the certainties of destruction, the death of innocence and the opposition to it. These parallels of war remind us that conflict is not new, and we once again are at the edge of a precipice looking down at hell.

These parallels of war were a recurring theme throughout the event. When poet Sonia Jarema, born in Luton to Ukrainian parents, took the stage she referred to another Ukrainian tragedy: the Great Famine or Holodomor which was engineered by Stalin in the 1930s to exterminate the Ukrainians. The estimated death toll was 3.9 million.

More parallels of war with Isabel del Rio, a British-Spanish writer and linguist who is the co-founder of Friends of Alice Publishing, in her powerful poem “Our little pale blue dot”. She referenced the crass quote from the tyrant Stalin, “As one of them once cynically claimed exactly a century ago, the many ensuing deaths are but a mere statistic.” Del Rio’s comparisons of conflict summed up succinctly with the lines:

“The word war tragically defining every period of history: invading wars, colonial wars, world wars; even the cold war wasn’t bloodless. Wars are measured by death toll, suffering, devastation; but they can only be explained by the bloodthirsty greed of invaders, by the brutal schemes of tyranny, by sheer evil.”

Other poems at the event took on a more direct approach confronting warmongering in present day Ukraine. Like Dr Jennifer Langer, poet and editor of five exiled anthologies and founding director of Exiled Writers Ink,  whose evocative poem “To Hades we descended” which was newly written at the beginning of the Russian invasion of 2022 in the women’s voice: “He sits at his table long as a fable planning a banquet of death too sharp are his claws too aglow are his eyes Putin of the great war cry dragging his carcass of history.”

The poet Julian Bishop stayed in the 21st century and its warfare, addressing the use of hypersonic weapons by the Russians in Ukraine, “Hurled down at five times the speed of sound […].” The poet Tim Edwards reminded us of Putin’s toxic masculinity and  misogyny when he mentioned that the despot quoted a Russian rhyming phrase when referring to Ukraine:

“My beauty, whether you like it or not, you must tolerate whatever I choose to do to you, while you are asleep.”

The Poets for Ukraine event was organised in just a month which goes to show the dedication of these artists and their passion for peace. The event was also a fundraiser for Ukraine through Goods for Good and Hope and Aid Direct. You can still do your bit to help to raise funds for Ukraine here.

Poets for Ukraine are using their fighting words to do what they can to create awareness of a tragic and unprovoked attack on Ukraine as the war machine keeps moving forward and led by a tyrant, like all the rest throughout history, who only cares about gain without any regard to lives lost.

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