REVIEW: Poems for Refugees

One of my reading goals for 2023 is to read more poetry and I think I am doing ok at that one. To date I have read two books that include poetry and two volumes of poetry. This is the third (although because I have a lot of reviews to catch up on, I have already read another two books of poetry).

Anyway, at least I am ticking the poetry box even if some of the other goals on the list aren’t looking quite so healthy.

Poems for Refugees was published in 2002. I picked it up in a charity shop.

It is edited by actor Pippa Haywood with a foreword by actor Martin Jarvis and was put together in response to 9/11 and also the Afghan Crisis.

It is interesting (at least to me) because the poems have been selected by leading names in the arts – not necessarily writers, there are many actors involved – and because of this there are poems included that you might not see in other poetry collections that have been put together by poets or literary editors.

The poems are grouped together under 11 different headings that include On September 11th, On Death and Dying and Our Ancestors, On Diversity, On Hope and On Peace.

There are poems in here chosen by the great and the good of the (mainly UK) arts scene including Dame Judy Dench, John Thaw and his wife Sheila Hancock, John Cleese, Griff Rhys Jones, Stephen Fry, Bono, Bill Nighy, Virginia McKenna and many many more.

The poems chosen are wide-ranging and cover more than 2000 years of writing from Saints Paul and Francis, through Rumi, a Persian poet whose poems I love and really ought to read more of, William Shakespeare, John Keats, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Louis MacNiece, Maya Angelou, Michael Rosen, Christina Rosetti, Sylvia Plath, Jenny Joseph and lots of others. There is such a diverse selection of poets and poems in here you are bound to find something you love.

Here is one of the poems. It’s called First They Came For The Jews. It is attributed to Pastor Martin Neimuller (1892-1984) who is meant to have said something similar in a post-war Confessional prose in 1946.

There are different versions of the poem but the version in this book goes like this:

“First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a communist

Then they came for the Trade Unionists

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Trade Unionist

Then they came for me –

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

Now at first glance this seems like a poem that encourages people to speak out against injustice at the earliest possibility and, indeed, it has been used on Holocaust memorials around the world, especially in the USA.

But doesn’t it seem a little self-serving to you? To me, this poem is less about doing the right thing because it is the right thing and you have a moral duty to do it and more about saving your own skin – if you don’t help other people, no one will be left to help you.

I have read it many, many times and I am still not sure what to think about it.

And that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this volume of poetry… it made me think. It made me think not only about what the poet meant by the words but also why the person who had selected it had done so and what I thought about it.

I like things that stretch my brain a little.

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