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The lines of resistance: Writer Ben Okri reveals the poetry that has the power to change the world

Ben Okri
Ben Okri

IN a sword fight, a pen might not, despite all suggestions to the contrary, be mightier.

But poet and novelist Ben Okri is certain words on a page have the power to change the world and believes the poets of the past continue to shed light on the present.

The Nigerian writer has sifted through a staggering 10,000 pieces of work to find 100 of the best political poems and song lyrics from around the world for his new book.

The project involved translating hundreds of poems but Okri, who was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, says even works which are centuries old are relevant to modern-day politics.

Okri, who is coming to Holyrood to discuss his anthology, won acclaim earlier this year for his poem Grenfell Tower, June, 2017 – a powerful response to the London fire that killed 72 people in their homes.

But he says there are any number of historical poems which would have helped make sense of this tragedy.

He said: “The themes are the same even if the circumstance or the characters change; power, greed, wealth, injustice – they feature in every society and have been captured in the great poems of the time.

“The truth is these are good poems, great poems that happen to be about politics.”

Okri’s book, Rise Like Lions: Poetry For The Many, features poems from around the world as well as well-known song lyrics from the likes of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan. He described it as a “labour of love” and hinted there may be a second volume.

He explained: “I read something like 10,000 poems, had so many translated, so the long list was very long but there is a wealth of material out there.

“I am not ashamed to say it is good. Great poems should grab you by the roots of your soul.”

“People sometimes say poetry is not for them but it is just because they have not been exposed to enough of it, or at least enough good poetry.”

Okri, who has his work has been translated into 27 languages and has won numerous international literary prizes, added: “The best way to enjoy poetry is to read it out aloud, there is so much more appreciation for what the poem is trying to say.”

Ben Okri is appearing at the Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament on October 11


The poetry of politics

Here are excerpts from Ben Okri’s Grenfell poem and three from his Rise Like Lions anthology:


Grenfell Tower, June, 2017 – Ben Okri

Those who were living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.
See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower….

In this age of austerity
The poor die for others’ prosperity


The Tree of Liberty – Robert Burns

Wi’ plenty o’ sic trees, I trow,
The warld would live in peace, man;
The sword would help to mak a plough,
The din o’ war wad cease, man.
Like brethren in a common cause,
We’d on each other smile, man;
And equal rights and equal laws
Wad gladden every isle, man…
And blythe we’ll sing, and hail the day
That gives us liberty, man


Hope Is The Thing With Feathers – Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me


Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise….

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise