A poem is just a poem, nothing special. It’s a bunch of words grouped together in a certain way, sometimes in meter and rhyme, sometimes not. It doesn’t have any power over the human mind and emotions. There’s nothing threatening about a poem.
Or is there?
The truth is, poetry is one of the most powerful weapons humans can use. The tongue has long been known for its ability to influence; among other references, Proverbs 18:21 says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” A poem is the highest form of any language. It can carry the greatest impact with the fewest words.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that many poets have had their work banned, challenged, or censored throughout their lives. The very act of banning a poem acknowledges that it holds some power to change reality. For example, Mahmoud Darwish, an activist poet in the Middle East, was exiled from Israel for 26 years because some of his work was considered ‘anti-Israel.’ The president of Israel, Ehud Barak, went so far as to prevent any of Darwish’s poetry from being included on school curricula. Darwish was surprised. “It is difficult to believe,” he said, “that the most militarily powerful country in the middle east is threatened by a poem.”
And yet, this was the case.
Shel Silverstein, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carrol, Dr. Seuss, and others all march in the ranks of the banned poets. The reasons why they were banned vary widely; some were banned for their portrayals of Marxism and others for the anthropomorphizing of animals.
Shel Silverstein’s collection of poetry, A Light in the Attic, was number 51 on the 1990s list for most-challenged books. According to a school in Wisconsin, it “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism, and encouraged children to be disobedient.” One poem in the book, ‘How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes,’ caused distress because it encouraged children to break dishes instead of drying them. Another poem, called ‘Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony,’ was disputed at a school in Florida due to the fact that the little girl died at the end.
Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham was banned in Maoist China in 1965. What was the reason? Apparently, it portrayed Marxism in a bad light by showing the Sam-I-Am character force his possessions (green eggs and ham) onto someone else. The ban was not lifted until Seuss’ death in 1991. Californians had problems with The Lorax, which they believed demonized the logger community.
Alice in Wonderland, full of both poetry and prose, was banned in Hunan, China in 1931 because Lewis Carrol included talking animals, especially in the poems “The Lobster Quadrille,” “The Voice of the Lobster,” and “The Mouse’s Tale.” A government censor condemned it for “its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings.” Other countries also challenged the book, but for different reasons – it allegedly promoted drug use in places such as the “eat me, drink me” scenes and the hookah-smoking caterpillar.
One prime example of using poetry as a kind of weapon is the WWI poetry collection by D. H. Lawrence, All of Us. Lawrence, an English author, criticized the war and challenged British imperialism with his poems. He described the horrors and inhumanity of the war, and his message was spread through his verses. But this collection was Bowdlerized by government-fearing publishers to the point of incomprehensibility. These poems had the power of persuasion, and British authorities feared this. Thus, Lawrence was silenced. It was not until 1979 that Cambridge University began a project to publish all of his works, now uncensored.
Whitman’s poem collection, Leaves of Grass, was considered obscene and shocking to many when it was published in 1855. The unconventional subject matter (everything from love to democracy) and frankness with which it was discussed outraged many. The book was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s, and libraries around the country refused to buy it. Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, was in favor of the poems. He called them “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” He recognized that Whitman’s words had power and should be heard.
I could say more about the power of poetry, but perhaps it is more fitting to end this article with a quote from one of Whitman’s banned poems: ‘As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap, Camerado.’
“I know my words are weapons, full of danger, full of death;
(Indeed, I am myself the real soldier;
It is not he, there, with his bayonet, and not the red striped artilleryman;)”
It seems that Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right: the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
Liberman, Sherri. “Even Dr. Seuss Recognized He Was ‘Subversive As Hell’.” Talking Points Memo, 26 Sept. 2013, talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/even-dr-seuss-recognized-he-was-subversive-as-hell.
Morrison, Oliver. “The Good, the Bad, and the Banned.” National Coalition Against Censorship, 9 Apr. 2015, ncac.org/blog/the-good-the-bad-and-the-banned.
“Poetry’s Place in the History of Banned Books .” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 9 Aug. 2017, www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetrys-place-history-banned-books.
“Spotlight on a Banned Book: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Buzz Bookstore, 26 Sept. 2016, www.buzzbookstore.com/blog/2016/9/26/spotlight-on-a-banned-book-alices-adventures-in-wonderland.