10 Works of Poetry with Development-Related Themes

Poetry. Development. It might not be our first instinct to link these two words together, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely unrelated. Poetry is an epitome of the power of words – whether written or spoken – to showcase human imagination, to evoke empathy, and, finally, to galvanize the audience into action. The concerns poets raise in their works often resonate with issues that are at the heart of international development. In this blog post Translator Kelvin Chu look at 10 works of poetry with development-related themes written by poets from around the world. Poverty 1. Charles Baudelaire’s “A Toy for the Poor” A prose poem from Paris Spleen, it begins with the suggestion of what the speaker calls “an innocent diversion:” the offering of toys to poor children. At first they “won’t dare accept…Then they will grab the gift and move away, as cats distance themselves to eat what you toss them, having learned to distrust mankind.” An apparent hierarchy between the rich and the poor is thus set up, and the reference to distrust hints at the hypocrisy of the former group. Building on their gulf of circumstances, the speaker goes on to juxtapose two children, on “a neat and beautiful little boy in fastidious country garments,” the other a “boy, dirty, sickly, soot-covered, one of those outcast urchins whose beauty an impartial eye might appreciate, if it…could wash off the repulsive patina of poverty.” Baudelaire implies, therefore, that wealth is but a façade, and he makes a point of ending his poem on a note of equality: “And the two children, each to the other, laughed fraternally, with teeth of equal whiteness.” 2. Jayanta Mahapatra’s “Village Evening” “Village Evening” gives a portrayal of poverty in India. Time references frame the poem: This evening, fruit bats will hang once again  from the rain-wet deodars ………………………...………………….. her promise to feed her son milk-curd next morning another faraway dream. The temporal structure of the poem implies that poverty is like a trap, and there seems to be no end to the misery and suffering that it causes. Already, as night falls, the protagonist Ahalya has to worry about how she will feed her son the next day. The most powerful lines are spoken by Ahalya herself. Ironically, this expression of relief only adds to the grimness of her situation: “What a relief there are just the two of us! Or else this little money would get us nowhere." Race/Migration 3. Langton Hughes’ “America” What is the relation of the self to community? And how do we find our place when others don’t seem to accept us or our race? “America,” conveying a strong desire to fit in, portrays a very dynamic identity-building process. Through the anaphoric repetitions, Hughes seeks to level the differences between a “little dark baby” and a “little jew baby” by drawing attention to their common experience of past suffering: “the chains of slavery…the ghettos of Europe.” The construction of the speaker’s identity is very much based upon his similarity to “you,” the Jew, as well as their forming America together. The line “You and I” ultimately becomes “I am you / And yet / I am my one sole self, America seeking the stars.” This last sentence is admittedly not very convincing, since it suggests that “I”, which remains the subject grammatically, has inflated to include America, rather than the other way round. The frequent repetitions also appear somewhat excessive, to the point that they seem to register a sense of insecurity and paranoia rather than strengthening the speaker’s point. 4. Cyril Dabydeen’s “Multiculturalism” Dabydeen is of mixed East Indian, Caribbean and Canadian descent, and is a vibrant voice in race relations. His poem “Multiculturalism,” like Hughes’s “America,” represents an attempt to dismantle the official ideology that is so insistent on categorizing ethnic groups. It recognizes the diversity within Canada: Quebec or Newfoundland; the Territories... How far we make a map out of our solitudes, As we are still Europe, Asia, Africa; and the Aborigine in me Suggests love above all else – The expansion of territory (“make a map”) here is driven by a desire for more company. Love will ultimately unite all, and the poem emphasizes Canada as one country, regardless of its people’s heritage: I raise a banner high on Parliament Hill – Crying “Welcome!” – we are, you are… OH CANADA! Gender 5. Afghan women poets’ Landays A landay is a folk couplet, often created by illiterate people. In Afghan culture, these people are usually women. In a way, therefore, this poetic genre might be their only form of education. A landay has 22 syllables – 9 in the first line and 13 in the second – and ends with the sound “ma” or “na” (these conventions might not be preserved in the English translation). Consider the following landay: When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers. When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others. This poem aptly captures the gender inequality in Afghan patriarchy, contrasting women’s loyalty to their family and men’s poor treatment of them. Some landays also address the issue of poverty, for instance: I dream I am the president. When I awake, I am the beggar of the world. 6. Margaret Atwood’s “Eurydice” Atwood’s poem is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but she deviates from it to emphasize female subjectivity. Traditionally, Orpheus is the steadfast lover who descends to Hell to save Eurydice, albeit in vain. In “Eurydice,” however, Orpheus is cast in a selfish light, for all he seems to do is subject Eurydice to his own desires: He wants you to be what he calls real. He wants you to stop light. He wants to feel himself thickening... Each line here beings with “He wants,” and the anaphora reinforces the selfish nature of her desires. Further, Atwood’s Eurydice is a subject with her own agency: You hold love in your hand, a red seed you had forgotten you were holding ....................................................... it is not through him you will get your freedom. Eurydice’s grasp of love is a tactile image that is symbolic of her own subjectivity, and the last lines make it clear that her freedom is not dictated by Orpheus. 7. Adrienne Rich’s “A Woman Dead in Her Forties” Rich is known for the political dimension of her poetry; this poem of hers explores breast cancer. The first stanzas are a powerful statement of female strength: Your breasts/ sliced-off The scars dimmed as they would have to be years later All the women I grew up with are sitting half-naked on rocks in sun we look at each other and are not ashamed The caesura in the first line is a verbal representation of mastectomy, and the second stanza offers a strong sense of community. Yet, the main tension of the poem is one between communal support and the privacy of loss. Sensitive but bold, Rich’s poem explores the female experience of breast cancer. Environment and urbanization/industrialization 8. Ai Qing’s “Fuqiao” (The Floating Bridge) How do we reconcile conservation of the environment and the need for development? The Chinese poet Ai Qing finds himself trapped between his fascination with urban life on the one hand and his love for nature on the other. The development of cities, he realizes, happens at the expense of the environment. His poem “Fuqiao,” for instance, contrasts images of cities and villages, showing the former’s exploitation of the latter. A link between “wealth and poverty,” the floating bridge is implicated in the exploitation, as it allows the cities to take advantage of the villages’ natural resources. 9. Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood-Tree” A late poem from Leaves of Grass, “Song of the Redwood-Tree” reveals Whitman’s doubt about the sanity of urban experience, as well as the harm it does to Nature. The poem contains a song from the wood nymphs, and it tells us that the redwood-tree is being chopped, sacrificing itself for the humankind: With Nature’s calm content, with tacit huge delight, We welcome what we wrought for through the past, And leave the field for them. What Nature “wrought for” is the great good of the world at large, but the circumstance has become such that Nature’s regenerative quality cannot, ironically, save itself. It takes up its motherly role again, sacrificing for its children, and even doing so with “delight.” The redwood-tree has symbolic value, its death signaling to the speaker the potential of the loss of his dwelling. But the speaker is at the same time cognizant of the inevitability of urban development, which causes him to yield to it on the condition that it is “proportionate to Nature.” This is nevertheless only tentative: Fresh come, to a new world indeed, yet long prepared, I see the genius of the modern, child of the real and ideal, Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America, heir of the past so grand, To build a grander future. The fragmentary syntax here is uncharacteristic of Whitman’s frequent use of unpunctuated end-stopped lines that create a regular rhythm. The many line breaks here perhaps reflect a kind of uncertainty between the desire to build a greater good and the suspicion of its success. The hopeful note on which this last stanza seems to end turns out to contain an element of self-deception. 10. Lucinda Roy’s “Points of View” This poem is made of two stanzas, each presenting a different point of view on water. The first – that of “daughters of Africa” – still sees water as a source of life that they offer not only to their family but also to inanimate objects: Even now, women bend to rivers Or to wells; they scoop up life and offer it To men or to their children, to their elders, To blistered cooking-pots. On the other hand, the speaker, a woman presumably living in modern society, has grown used to her easy access to water, taking it for granted: I catch it tamed from metal spouts encased In quiet glass, contoured in porcelain. I compartmentalize the beast in ice, Then serve it, grinning, to distant friends. What do I know of water? Her question, however, reveals that she is aware of the inadequacy of her point of view. She goes on to seek “a new baptism free of metaphor,” and becomes “a newly-evolved fish” that has learned to appreciate the power and importance of water – a life-giving force. Read More