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Human rights on Poetry Day

It's National Poetry Day. As good an excuse as any for a visit to verse. As is my wont, I'll use the opportunity to highlight a favoured human rights poem and invite your own suggestions.

Last year it was Seamus Heaney's From the Republic of Conscience, written for Amnesty's 25th anniversary. By the way, it is always worth revisiting Heaney's reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human condition and the role of the artist: Human Rights, Poetic Redress.

For my money, one of the few northern Irish poets to rival him in the power of expression is Michael Longley, another long-time supporter of Amnesty.

In his 1994 poem Ceasefire, Longley obliquely addresses the hoped-for IRA ceasefire through the prism of Homer's Iliad. Longley has written that after the poem was published in the Irish Times, he received a letter from the father of Paul Maxwell, the sixteen-year-old boy who had been blown up in a boat off the coast of Sligo with Lord Mountbatten:

"Those letters matter more to me than any amount of criticism I might receive in literary journals or attention in the public world."


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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