Poets who Used Their Words for Social Change

Appreciating social change through creativity during National Poetry Month

Poets have long been the lyrical documentarians and commentators of our society, tackling critical issues in their verse. Though they have written eloquently about love, spirituality and the human condition, poets have also wielded their pens to transform our train of thought and challenge old ways of being. Some of the best-known poets have addressed global concerns like environmentalism and social ills like racism in their works.

Poetry has proven to serve as a consensus-building and awareness-raising force, bringing likeminded, change-oriented people together, from college campus activism to various nonprofit youth arts and education programs, such as Raise It Up Youth and Southern Word. In “A Defence [sic] of Poetry,” famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators” whose “power, while invisible, is very real,” as written in The New York Times’ “How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley”.

During National Poetry Month this April, we highlight some timeless maxims about making the world a better place from just a few of the many talented bards whose words have inspired social change.

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014): “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”

Amiri Baraka (1934 – 2014): “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely.”

Simin Behbahani (1927 – 2014): “My country, I will build you again, if need be, with bricks made from my life. I will build columns to support your roof, if need be, with my bones.”

Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010): “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else.” 

Allen Ginsburg (1926 – 1997): “The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.”

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992): “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.”

Christine de Pizan (1364 – 1430): “If it were customary to send little girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences.” 

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862): “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

What do you think about the role of poets in stimulating social change? To what extent do their verses shape the public dialogue on important issues? Which social-change poets have inspired – and been inspired by – causes that you support?

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