Poetry and Political Language: A Challenge Inspired by Animal Farm

As poets, we know that words are powerful. When used for political reasons, language can be dangerous: it can turn anyone you don’t agree with into a sub-human monster. But because it is often absurd, political language is also ripe for satire. We’ve teamed up with Jeremy Wikeley from the Orwell Youth Prize to challenge young people to explore political language in their poetry, in the 75th year of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Teachers can find a new teaching resource on this theme here.

Close-up photo of a pig's face taken with a fish-eye lens so the snout looks huge!

The challenge: write a poem or poems using political language

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

Last month marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory of the 1917 Russian revolution. It’s also a universal parable about tyranny and how ‘language can corrupt thought’, as Orwell writes elsewhere. If you haven’t read Animal Farm, beware: there are spoilers ahead.

Animal Farm: a summary

Early book cover of Animal Farm: the background is half-cream, half-green, divided diagonally from top-right to bottom left with cream on top. This is overlaid with the text: ANIMAL FARM - A FAIRY STORY by GEORGE ORWELLAt the start of the book, the animals live under Farmer Jones who feeds them, but works them hard and kills and sells them for his own profit. They organise, violently overthrow him, and start to look after themselves. Guided by the pigs, the animals eagerly adopt simple, powerful slogans like ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ and ‘all animals are equal’. They learn the ‘Seven Commandments’ painted on the barn wall and they sing patriotic songs. Under the surface of this utopian society, however, the pigs begin to take more food, sleep in the farmer’s house and in general organise things in their favour. The animals end up just as subjugated, but with a different tyrant in charge.

It’s through clever use of political language and propaganda that the pigs are able to take power. They attempt to convince the other animals that their selfish behaviour is for the common good, with increasingly ludicrous explanations: When the pigs start to take more food than the others, one of them responds:

“Comrades!… We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for YOUR sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back! Surely, comrades,” cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, “surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?”

 The lies are so bold you are amazed he is even trying them: how could eating all the food, so that there is none left for the animals themselves, be done for their welfare? The speech is full of exaggeration and emotion. Squealer literally performs it, skipping from side to side. And the argument is designed to exploit the animal’s worst fears about the return of Mr Jones. You may be able to think of contemporary parallels.

Cartoon of a pig seeming to shout at a variety of other farmyard animals who stare angrily back
Cartoon from the 1954 edition of Animal Farm

‘Politics and the English Language’

In speeches like Squealer’s, Orwell was mocking  the propaganda of regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. When Orwell started out as a writer in the 1930s, authoritarian political movements like fascism and communism were calling for (very different) revolutionary changes in society, and they were getting into power. The conflict this created affected every aspect of people’s lives.

In his famous essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell argued that political language had become detached from reality. This is partly because political speech and writing covered up concrete details in ‘the defence of the indefensible’:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside… this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.

For Orwell, political language had descended into ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ which was increasingly used only to gain and keep power. ‘The great enemy of clear language,’ he wrote in the same essay, ‘is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.’

Political language and technology

Propaganda thrives on new technology. Regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used radio and television to present their own versions of the world. Today, the internet has created new opportunities for direct action, solidarity and accountability, such as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. But social media also means that powerful people of all stripes can bypass the press and issue their own ‘alternative facts’. President Donald Trump seems to campaign and govern through Twitter. There are questions about whether Facebook adverts affected the results of several elections. And big corporations can now tweet that they value social justice, while still using exploitative supply chains. What’s more, in the past, totalitarian regimes used propaganda to push a single narrative. But nowadays online it is often enough simply to sow confusion. Used like this, Language can cover up truths and change people’s perception of the world and (mis)information is increasingly at everyone’s fingertips:

Social networks have put us each in control of our own little propaganda machines: technologists like Jaron Lainer have argued that social media is built on algorithms which are literally designed to fuel division. You may have been inside one yourself when you found this challenge.

Black and white photo of George Orwell sitting in front of a microphone labelled BBC
George Orwell. With permission from the Orwell Foundation.

How can poetry respond?

In poems, we pay close attention to language. Short and sharp, poetry can also respond quickly to contemporary events (though not as quickly as a tweet!). Poets have the power to make us re-think words and phrases we hear every day. In his T. S. Eliot Prize winning collection A Portable Paradise, Roger Robinson reimagines the word ‘woke’, which is often used dismissively or insultingly, by inserting it into the narrative of slavery and displacement:

I woke up in the chains of the belly of a slave ship. The dip of the bow and the moan of the timbers made me fall asleep. When I woke again, I was being whipped to get up.

The repetition of the word, which in other contexts is so undermining, brings the poem to life: ‘I woke up on the 16th floor of a tower block looking out the window with a clear view of the land that does not belong to me.’ So, poets can interrogate the ‘dead metaphors’ we use without thinking.

As we’ve seen, to get its point across, political language is also often exaggerative and repetitive. Poets can satirise political language and point out how absurd it is. Like George Orwell, the poet W. H. Auden wrote in opposition to totalitarianism and fascism in the 1930s and witnessed how language could be used to divide, to stir up hate, and to hide all kinds of evil. In the poem ‘To an Unknown Citizen’, Auden imagined the epitaph of an anonymous citizen of an all-powerful government, written in the voice of ‘the State’ itself. Auden chillingly builds an image of the micro-management of every aspect of the person’s life, but in doing so, the poem also satirises those ambitions. The greatest praise the monument can muster is that ‘he was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be / One against whom there was no official complaint.’

The challenge

In this challenge we want you to take George Orwell’s Animal Farm as inspiration to write a poem exploring politics and language. How is language used and abused today? And how could it be used better? You can interpret this in any way you like. 

Pay close attention to the words and phrases of politicians and those in power, but also in the world around you, in the media and on social media, in school, or even at home. Ask the same questions you would ask a poem: about form, tone, vocabulary, who is speaking and to what purpose. Whether your poem is satirical, or more serious, remember that it is your poem we’re interested in, not your politics.

Some more writing prompts

  • Reclaim repetition: in recent years, the British public has been bombarded with short, snappy slogans like ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Strong and Stable’, or even the government’s various messages about coronavirus. Choose a word or phrase that has lost its meaning, or whose meaning is contested, and write a poem which uses repetition to say something new. What is it hiding? What does it make clearer?
  • Malika Booker’s poem ‘Difficult of Dawns’ takes the speeches of contemporary politicians, from Nigel Farage to Theresa May, and places them alongside voices which expose their contradictions. Write your own poem in conversation with a political speech, campaign video or meme. You could include real words, but make sure you keep track of where you found the quotations, as Malika Booker does.
  • Put a new spin on the ‘instruction’ poem by creating your own alternative public health announcement, paying close attention to tone and vocabulary. Stay alert, control the virus, write poetry.
  • Not-so-social media: platforms like Facebook and Twitter are rife with misinformation, propaganda and oversimplifications. What would a poem made only of Donald Trump’s tweets look like? Or the subject lines in Mark Zuckerberg’s inbox?
  • Which speeches, slogans or corporate statements will look ridiculous in the future? Will there be anyone there to listen? P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias is left praising his own magnificence to nothing but ‘lone and level sands’. In poetry, time is on your side.
  • Write a poem in which the key political phrase or word is only revealed final line. In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen shows all the horrors of war before finishing with the ‘old lie’ in the poem’s title, ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’.
  • What do you do when words fail, or have been destroyed? Silence is a powerful response to injustice in Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Deaf Republic’. Write a poem which explores the gaps between words, or the places words cannot go.

Good luck!

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and the Orwell Youth Prize website, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 25 October 2020. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘Poetry and Political Language challenge’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and to help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 25 October 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group. Teachers can download this free teaching resource to explore political language further with KS3-5.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and the Orwell Foundation to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

The Orwell Youth Prize aims to inspire the next generation of politically engaged young writers across the UK through their annual writing prize, workshops and regional event. Entry for the next award will open later this year. Find out more at www.orwellyouthprize.co.uk or follow them on Instagram @orwellyouthprize. The Youth Prize works closely with the Orwell Foundation, an independent charity which exists to perpetuate the achievements of the British writer George Orwell (1903-1950) through its prizes for books and journalism and growing programmes of events and activities. 

Jeremy Wikeley works at the Orwell Foundation. His own poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He got a personal insight into how political language works when he (briefly) worked in Parliament in the run up to the EU referendum.

Published September 2020

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