I see a way in the darkness.
I am a lantern.
—Illuminations by Sohrab Sepehri (Iran)
America has long defended its hard-won and cherished right to freedom of expression. Sadly, we often take that and other rights for granted until events foreshadow their possible loss. The challenge, now as always, is to think deeply about who and what we want to be as individuals and as a nation. We have a choice: to spread darkness or, as Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri wrote, to find “a way in the darkness” — to be a lantern that extinguishes fear and spotlights beauty.
We at Tweetspeak Poetry choose to illumine the space we share—physically and virtually—with diverse communities of poets and writers. Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to make room in our literary conversations for those poets whose voices were, or have been, or are still silenced because they dared to be our lanterns.
The list of poets imprisoned or exiled, for using their voices to confront wrong, is lengthy. Some of those we celebrate below may be new to you. All speak what poet Donna Vorreyer calls “a language for this / ache” to discover the light of humanity and find common cause.
Adonis, Syria (b. 1930)
“As long as death is there — and death exists — there will be poetry. Poetry will never be silenced.” — Syrian Poet Adonis Says Poetry ‘Can Save Arab World
Known by his pen name, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) was imprisoned for a year because of his political activities. Subsequently, he left Syria for Beirut, where he lived among other expatriate writers and artists. Currently, he lives in Paris.
Adonis’s poetry collections include Adonis: Selected Poems (2010), Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (2008), and If Only the Sea Could Sleep (2002). The theme of exile is prominent in his poetry.
[. . .]
My lungs are my poetry, my eyes a book,
and I, [. . .]
a poet who sang and died [. . . .}
— from Song in Selected Poems (tr. Khaled Mattawa)
The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust
Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space. [. . .]
— from Desert in Selected Poems
Liu Xiaobo, China (b. 1955)
Winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo was arrested in 1989 for taking part in the Tiananmen Square student protests; he was jailed for two years. Later, after criticizing China’s one-party system, he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp. Then, in late 2008, he was arrested for co-authoring the pro-democracy “Charta 08”; accused of undermining the state, he was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in jail. His wife, Liu Xia, to whom he has addressed a number of poems, is under house arrest.
[ . . .]
daybreak a vast emptiness
you in a far place
with nights of love stored away
— from Daybreak (for Xia) (tr. Jeffrey Yang)
Dunya Mikhail, Iraq (b. 1965)
Dunya Mikhail , a poet, journalist, and translator, fled to the United States after being named to Saddam Hussein’s enemies list. War, exile, and loss are common subjects of her poems.
Mikhail’s poetry collections include The Iraqi Nights (2013); Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (2009), a lyrical memoir; and The War Works Hard (2005).
Recipient of the 2001 United National Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing, she teaches poetry at Oakland University in Michigan.
[. . .]
And they forced me to the underworld. [. . .]
— from The Iraqi Nights (#2) in The Iraqi Nights (tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid)
[. . .]
We remember some things that have been lost
not through carelessness
but from their own pitch-black light
like a flower dying from too much fragrance.
— from Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (tr. Elizabeth Winslow and Dunya Mikhail)
Abdilatif Abdalla, Kenya (b. 1946)
“Composing my poems was one of the three major things which sustained me (the others being not regretting what I did and [that] caused me to be imprisoned . . . and the third . . . my faith and religious belief that one should never lose hope as long as one can still breathe.” — Abdilatif Abdalla: ‘My poems gave me company.’
A much-lauded Swahili poet, essayist, translator, and broadcaster, Abdilatif Abdalla is known as independent Kenya’s first political prisoner. It was while in solitary confinement from December 1968 to March 1972 that he secretly wrote his Voice of Agony (Sauti ya Dhiki, Oxford University Press, 1973), a series of poems about colonialism, racism, greed, and social injustice that brought him fame. His political writings and continued defiance of and resistance to the Kenyatta and Moi regimes led to additional detention and confinement, and made exile not only inevitable but permanent. After seven years in Tanzania and more than 15 years in London, Abdalla relocated in 1995 to Germany.
Ironically, the poems Abdalla wrote in prison (all on toilet paper, smuggled out) won the 1974 Jomo Kenyatta Award for Literature. An English translation of his prison diaries, The Right and Might of a Pen, was published in London in 1985. He is the subject of Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet in Politics (Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers, January 2016), edited by Rose Marie Beck and Kai Kresse.
[. . .]
What lies ahead none of us can comprehend;
What fate has set, no show of fierceness can transcend.
Don’t forget: what has a start must have an end.
— from Crocodile in Voice of Agony (tr. Meg Arenberg)
Joseph Brodsky, Russia (1940-1996)
”Poetry is perhaps the only insurance we’ve got against the vulgarity of the human heart. . . .” — Quoted in Joseph Brodsky, Some Tips, 1988 Winter Commencement Address at University of Michigan
“. . . for a writer only one form of patriotism exists: his attitude toward language.” “. . . Life the way it really is — is a battle not between Bad and Good, but between Bad and Worse. . . .” — Joseph Brodsky, Says poet Brodsky, ex of the Soviet Union: ‘A Writer is a lonely traveler, and no one is his helper’, The New York Times, October 1, 1972
Winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1991 U.S. Poet Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, who studied with Anna Akhmatova, began writing at age 18. Considered the greatest Russian poet of his generation, he suffered persecution as a Jew and attracted Soviet authorities’ attention early on. Denounced as a “social parasite” whose writing was “gibberish, ” he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a five-year sentence in a harsh labor camp in the Arctic, his poetry banned. Released after 18 months, he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1972, eventually reaching the United States, where he became poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977.
A prolific poet, Brodsky’s last collection, Nativity Poems, was published in 2001.
[. . .] Freedom
is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie, [. . . .]
— from A Part of Speech in Collected Poem in English, 1972-1999 (2000)
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine (1941-2008)
“. . . If I were to classify my poetry, I cherish most the poetry that I wrote in Paris . . . There, I had the opportunity to reflect and look at the homeland and the world and things from a distance — the distance of light. When you see from a distance, you see better, and see the scene entirely. . . .” — Quoted from Darwish Foundation Biography
Mahmoud Darwish first became a refugee at age 6, when he and his family members were forced from their village, which subsequently was destroyed. After a period in Lebanon, they returned illegally to Israel, eventually becoming “forced residents” of Haifa, from which they were prohibited to depart. For years Darwish, deemed a “poet of resistance, ” lived under house arrest; accused of hostilities against the state, he was detained multiple times.
In 1970, Darwish traveled to the Soviet Union and a year later tried to go to Paris but was denied entry and flown back to his occupied homeland. Ultimately, he left Palestine, going first to Cairo, Egypt, where he published I Love You, I Love You Not; then to Beirut, Lebanon, where he lived from 1973 to 1982; then to Damascus, Syria, and from there to Tunisia, Cyprus, and France. It was in Paris, Darwish said, that his “complete birth as a poet” took place; while there, he published a number of collections, including I See What I Want and Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? He also wrote the text declaring Palestine a state (he was a member of the PLO).
Though allowed back to Ramallah, a “part” of his homeland, in 1996, Darwish spent his last years mostly in Amman, Jordan, where, from 2000 to 2007, he wrote another half-dozen poetry collections, including State of Siege, Do Not Apologize For What You Did, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, and In the Presence of Absence.
One of Darwish’s most important protest poems is Identity Card.
Darwish left Amman for the last time in 2008, when he went to the U.S. for open-heart surgery that he did not survive. He is considered Palestine’s national poet.
[. . . ]
There is no margin in modern language left
to celebrate what we love,
because all that will be . . . was [. . . .]
— from The Horse Fell Off the Poem in The Butterfly’s Burden (tr. Fady Joudah)
[. . .]
If I were another on the road, I would have
hidden my emotions in the suitcase, so my poem
would be of water, diaphanous, white,
abstract, and lightweight . . . stronger than memory,
and weaker than dewdrops, and I would have said:
My identity is this expanse!
[. . . .]
— from “If I Were Another” from The Butterfly’s Burden (tr. Fady Joudah)
Dennis Brutus, Zimbabwe (1924-2009)
A leading African poet who taught English and Afrikaans in South Africa for more than a decade, Dennis Brutus was ardently anti-apartheid. His political activism, which included campaigns to ban South Africa from the Olympic Games, led to more than a year’s imprisonment, including five months in solitary confinement, on Robben Island (his cell was next to Nelson Mandela’s), the banning of his books, prohibitions on teaching, writing, and public speaking, and 25 years in exile. He received political asylum in the United States in the 1980s.
His poetry collections include Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison, A Simple Lust, Stubborn Hope, Salutes and Censures, Still the Sirens, Airs and Tributes, Leaf Drift, and China Poems. Among others honors, Brutus was awarded the Kenneth Kaunda Humanism Award, the Steven Biko Award, and City University of New York’s Langston Hughes Award.
But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.
Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,
most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
but somehow tenderness survives.
— from Somehow We Survive in Sirens, Knuckles and Boots (1963)
Juan Gelman, Argentina (1930-2014)
A highly influential literary figure, especially in Central and South America, as well as a journalist, essayist, and translator, Juan Gelman was one of thousands of Argentines who suffered deeply under the country’s 1973-1986 military dictatorship. In addition to being forced into exile abroad, he lost his son and pregnant daughter-in-law, who were abducted and murdered in 1976. His daughter-in-law was allowed to live long enough to give birth but her infant was taken away and put up for adoption secretly. It took Gelman more than two decades but he ultimately found and reunited with his grand-daughter (she was 37 by then), who had been taken to Uruguay.
Out of Argentina when the military seized power in 1976, Gelman spent years in exile in Italy, Spain, France, the United States, and Mexico. While democracy was restored in 1983, Gelman remained subject to an arrest warrant for his pre-coup political activities. When the warrant was nullified in 1988, Gelman went back to Argentina; although pardoned in 1989, he spent the rest of his life in Mexico.
Well-known and praised for his human rights activism, Gelman is revered for his poetry, said to be “tattooed on his bones.” His dozens of volumes of poetry, which include Gotan, Unthinkable Tenderness, Open Letter, The Poems of Sidney West, Deeds and Relations, and Dark Times Filled with Light, all bear witness to his own painful history, profound loss, the brutalities of tyrannical leaders, and the pervasive social injustices present in South America even today.
Among other awards, Gelman received Argentina’s National Poetry Prize, the Juan Rulfo Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, and the Cervantes Prize.
when his life was snuffed out
his eyes were soft with subdued anger
or were falling like autumn leaves
in hard transparent sheets
[. . . .]
— from “He Was Born on the Edge of a Disastrous Day” in Selected Poems (tr. Hardie St. Martin)
those steps: are they looking for him?
that car: is it stopping at his door?
those men in the street: are they after him?
there are various noises in the night
[. . . .]
— from “Noises” in Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems (tr. Joan Lindgren)
Some of the many other poets who have suffered political persecution or been jailed or exiled for exercising their human right to free expression are:
Jose Marti, Cuba
Pablo Neruda, Chile
Martin Carter, Guyana
Adam Mickiewicz, Poland
Octavio Paz, Mexico
Heinrich Heine, Germany
Allen Ginsberg , United States
Tsering Woeser, Tibet/China
Saw Wai, Myanmar
Nazand Begikhani, Iraq/Kurdistan
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistan
Bei Dao, China
Kemal Burkay, Turkey
Peretz Markish, Soviet Union
Vasyl Stus, Soviet Union
Hu Sigen, China
Yang Tianshui, China
Zhang Lin, China
Mustafa Ismail, Syria
Tran Duc Thach, Vietnam
Photo by tsuna72, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Maureen Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
- Persecuted Poets: Hearing the Voices Beyond Our Borders - November 30, 2016
- Writing with Matisse in Mind - October 26, 2016
- Healing with Poetry: Interview with Fred Foote (Part 3) - September 10, 2015
The list is sobering – and what’s even more sobering is that it’s only partial. In addition to Jose Marti (who died in 1895), the Cuban list could include Armando Valladares, Herberto Padilla, and many others imprisoned and persecuted during the Castro regime. Some were allowed to emigrate, usually through the intervention of notable foreigners, but that, too, is a form of persecution.
This strikes a kind of stillness, Maureen. Thanks for writing this.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Glynn, and for adding the additional names. My list at the end could easily have been three times or more longer. I wanted to give a sense of how many countries have been involved and how many hundreds of hundreds of years persecution has been meted out. What saddens is that that persecution continues today.
Megan Willome says
Thank you, Maureen. This list means so much to me. I appreciate that you shared examples from multiple countries and continents. These are the voices we need right now.
Despite some hard reading while researching the poets, I was so heartened that we have the poets’ words today and that those words continue to speak to us. Poets are at the frontlines. Freedom of expression everywhere is threatened and we have to stay vigilant to ensure it is not lost.
Will Willingham says
I’m with Glynn. Sobering. And grateful for the work you’ve given us here.
The role that poets have played (do play) as lanterns, as canaries, as sirens even, is such a vital one, and one that in so many cases they have undertaken at great cost.
During my time in Argentina in the mid-80s (not long after the ouster of the junta) I was acquainted with a university student whose father was among the disappeared. I recall being at one of the campuses which displayed giant banners listing of faculty, students and former students that were missing from that school. At the time it was still quite difficult for anyone to speak of things openly but it left a deep impression and I studied the period at great length when I returned home.
I sent for Gelman’s Dark Times last night. I am remiss in not having read much of his work.
I hope you will write some day about your experience in Argentina, LW. So many of “the disappeared” were never found.
One of the most chilling articles I’ve read was about infant children who were abducted and given to military officers to raise, as Gelman’s granddaughter was. I was heartened when I discovered while doing research that Gelman was able to find her after decades of searching.
Thank you for your help in getting this essay up today.
Will Willingham says
I’ve never been able to find a way to say much about it. And in fact most of what I know I learned later, as there was still a great deal of lingering fear (and grief) amongst our friends there to speak of it to us. I am embarrassed to say my first time there I knew nothing of the history before I arrived (within just a couple of years of the ouster, so ignorant one can be), but learned things toward the end of the trip that had me poring through whatever material I could find when I arrived home. Pre-internet days, and information was not easy to find. By the time I returned the following year, I knew a great deal more and understood what to look for, so to speak.
I found two films on the era quite gripping. One, La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) tells the story of a family that adopted a child who was one of the children of the desaparecidos. The other, Noche de los Lapices (Night of the Pencils) left me with nightmares (sometimes to this day). It tells the story of a group of students who were part of the resistance and their subsequent detention and torture.
This was probably my first experience with having such atrocities become something other than remote, affecting some mythical people in some mythical place. I might go so far as to say it was the thing that jolted me into adulthood and has deeply affected my worldview ever since.
It’s interesting what we remember. Your comment brings to mind my early exposure to Yevtushenko, the Soviet dissident. I still have my 1962 copy of “Yevtushenko: Selected Poems”, which includes his poem “Babiy Yar”; much like the films you mention, that poem, a remarkable poem of witness, had the same effect on me the first time I read it as did Darwish’s “Identity Card”.
Many articles have been written about the children of “the disappeared”; one often cited is by The New York Times, from October 2015; it’s accessible online. There also are several Websites, one called “”The Vanished Gallery” and another called “Project Disappeared”. Both are indeed sobering.
Sandra Heska King says
I am familiar only with a couple of these poets. I am hushed by this.
Darwish said he first realized writing poetry could be a dangerous thing when he was called before and scolded by the Israeli military governor for something he wrote and read. He was 12 years old. I think I would have quit right then and there. He was only 16 when he was first imprisoned.
Thanks for writing this, Maureen.
I think a poet like Darwish could never have quit writing. Really, none of these poets could have done so. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to day that words became for all of them the equivalent of breathing.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Sandra. I remain so pleased that you discovered Darwish.
michelle ortega says
Maureen, thank you for writing, and Tweetspeak as well for publishing this piece. Your words, whether poetic or informational, have been lampposts to me through the years, calling attention to the needs of suffering people and drastic world events, all in your clear, strong, sensitive, loving voice. Again, thank you.
What a lovely and very much appreciated comment, Michelle.
I just came across ‘The Memory Stones’ and a review of the book, which addresses Argentina’s military regime and the issue of “the disappeared” and their children.
Marilyn Yocum says
Thank you for this wonderful post. SO interesting. The comments, too.