Monday, 18 July 2011

The Power of Written Words

I've spoken before about the power of oratory, and how important it is to carefully choose our words. I want to take this subject a step further, and look at the power of the written word. We know that the spoken word can move the soul and bring about profound change, but so can the written word, if we give it a chance.

The above video is a beautiful example of the power of words. Changing the words on the piece of cardboard was simple and subtle, and shows that you don't have to be 'complicated' or 'clever'; just using the right words in the right way is sufficient. There is power in the word. The written word throughout history has been used to express personal thought, comment on specific situations, and promote a variety of ideologies.

I'm currently dipping in and out of a book of poems called, 'War Poems', edited by Brian Busby. The poems are all about peoples' view of war, or their personal experience of war throughout the centuries. There's power in the word. One such powerful poem is by Leslie Coulsen, called "Who made the law?". Leslie Coulsen was a respected Fleet Street journalist before he enlisted in the First World War, and he died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While on active duty he wrote this poem, the first verse of which reads;

"Who made the Law that men should die in meadows?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains?
Who made the Law?"

Don't you think there's power in words?

Some of the finest pieces of written work have come about because the authors have been incarcerated, and therefore prevented from pursuing the spoken word. Any list of favourite, profound and influential works coming while the writers were in prison, has to be a personal choice, and I won't argue with anyone who has a different list. But the following are my favourite examples of the power of the written word.

Long Walk to Freedom - for striving for equality in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his friends were imprisoned. After a 27 year sentence, he published his autobiography, most of which was written secretly while in prison. The book details his early life, adulthood, education, time in prison, and rise to power. There's power in his words, as the iniquities within South Africa are laid bare. Nelson Mandela would also be in my list of all time heroes.

Letters and Papers from Prison - Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a participant in the German resistance movement, and a Church leader during the period of Nazi Germany. In 1943 he was arrested in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was executed two years later. These letters and papers remain influential in the role against tyranny and genocide, and the book can be read through Google Books.

De Profundis - Oscar Wilde was an influential poet who lived in the late 1800's. He was arrested for indecency with other men and sentenced to two years hard labour. During this time, he wrote 'De Profundis', a letter to his then lover. For its haunting words and lyricism, this is one of the most famous works that was written in prison. You can read the letter here. The final paragraph reads,

"All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature,whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole".

Letter from Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King Jr wrote this letter from prison on the 16th April 1963. He was the most influential of civil rights leaders in America. After planning a non-violent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, he was arrested and imprisoned. The American Constitution upheld freedom for all, unless you were black, and this is what King fought and died for, equality. This letter, which you can read here, is a passionate and reasoned response to the criticism of others that the protests were 'untimely' and that they should 'wait'. King wrote the historic phrase, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". The letter also includes these moving and powerful words.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience”.

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan - you may, or may not be religiously inclined, but in its day, this was one of the most famous books written in prison. John Bunyan was a 17th Century non-conformist preacher, born in 1628 and died in 1688. At a time when the power of the Anglican Church was at its height, John was arrested for preaching without a licence, and sentenced to a few months in jail, which was later extended to 12 years because he refused to stop preaching. It was while in prison in Bedford that he wrote Pilgrim's Progress, which chronicles the progress of the Christian everyman from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This is a powerful piece of imagery, as I say, whether you are religious or not.

The Purgatory of Suicides -  born in 1805 in Leicester, Thomas Cooper, in the early 1840's became a leading light in the Midlands for Chartism. This was a belief in the need for political and social reform in the United Kingdom. He came strongly to embrace "The Six Points of the People's Charter" which was published in 1838. He travelled extensively to promote the need for reform. After speaking around Stoke on Trent in 1842, a riot broke out, which Thomas Cooper was blamed for, and he was charged with 'seditious conspiracy', and sentenced to spend over two years in Stafford jail. While there, he wrote what must be the most epic of poems to ever come out of a prison, "The Purgatory of Suicides - a Prison Rhyme".

The poem is in 10 books, with well over 900, nine line stanzas (called Spenserian), where he seeks to outline the cause of Chartism, and embodying the radical ideas of his time. A remarkable piece of work which you can read here. But a warning, you'll need time and patience to read it - but it's worth the effort. A few years after it had been out of print, he was asked for permission for it to be re-issued. At first he was reluctant, because his life had changed, and he had the fear of being reminded of past errors. However, in the end he did agree, and in the 'Address to the Reader', he spoke of those things that were still important to him.

"I hold that the great cause of Human Freedom and Human Right demands that I do not help to consign my 'Prison-Rhyme' to oblivion. The oppression of the Poor drove me to champion their cause, and consigned me to gaol; but the power of Oppression could not subdue me, and I must take care that the fact is preserved as a lesson to Oppressors in the Future". Speaking of the poem, he says, "It does not contain one line of aspiration for Liberty which I would destroy - for my heart, thank God beats as strongly for Human Freedom in my age, as it beat in my youth". Don't you just love the power of words?

So there you have it. People with something real, meaningful and powerful to say will not be stopped by prison walls or anything else. I may well be guilty of harking back to an age gone by, but I can't help feeling that in this present age of sound-bites, speeches and articles made for an impatient media and public, that we have lost something. I hope I'm wrong, and that we haven't lost the belief in the power of words to bring about change. The above people, and many others, are examples of what can be done through the power of words.

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