we march on: #3 Sylvia pankhurst
Updated: Feb 22
TRIGGER WARNING: imprisonment and abuse while incarcerated.
Hello and welcome to We March On, a series where we'll be revisiting iconic protest poems from the past to learn from those who came before us and honour their legacies. Sylvia Pankhurst is known for her involvement with the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) campaigning for suffrage reform. However, she is not widely remembered as a poet. Her works have slept unread in the Tower Hamlets library archive for around 100 years, until Smokestack Books took the decision to reprint her radical words for us to savour again now! You can see the full version here , but today we will be focusing on the namesake of her collection 'Writ on Cold Slate':
Writ on Cold Slate
Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ, boasting that thus he gave immortal life, my faithful lines upon inconstant slate destined to swift extinction reach not thee.
In other ages dungeons might be strange, with ancient mouldiness their airs infect, but kindly warders would the tablets bring, so captives might their precious words inscribing, the treasures of the fruitful mind preserve, and culling thus its flowers, postpone decay.
Only this age that loudly boasts Reform, hath set its seal of vengeance 'gainst the mind, decreeing nought in prison shall be writ, save on cold slate, and swiftly washed away.
Writ on Cold Slate evocatively conjures the mental hardships and physical oppressions Sylvia endured whilst imprisoned at Holloway in 1920 for 6 months; during her time there she was not allowed any writing materials to express herself, and thus had to use chalk and old slate tiles to commit her spirit. This incarceration was only one of many stints in jail Sylvia went through, however, as her lifelong devotion to socialism and putting intersectionality at the forefront of her political activism first caught the attention of the law in 1914. 1914 being the year she split with her mother and sister's party, forming her own: the East London Federation of Suffragettes (the ELFS).
The Smokestack edition to the collection has a fascinating introduction about the activities of the ELFS and how many times in total Sylvia was locked away, but to quickly summarize: the ELFS was a socialist group of activists in Bow, East London, focusing their efforts on how to make not only industrial working places, but also private homes, more equitable for working-class women and their families. This work was done opposing and disregarding the white, pro-colonial and classist feminism of her mother and sister. In 1920, the year of her 6 month sentence, Sylvia angered the establishment by publishing anti-war articles in the newspaper she ran, the Workers' Dreadnought. Along with the Jamaican poet and journalist, Claude McKay (the 1st black journalist to be employed in the UK), Sylvia published articles endearing London dockworkers not to load ships for the enemies of Soviet Russia.
Writ on Cold Slate starts sentimentally, using the timeless theme of love to lull readers into a false sense of warmth when the poem suddenly shifts in tone. It's beautifully abolitionist in stance, making a political statement with a language of tenderness. 'In other ages dungeons might be strange' is a saddening line, as despite the speaker longing for a chance to escape into the imagination and write to soothe their mind, their real belief in this distant future is still wavering, a hesitant 'might'. Her lines mourn the contrasting states of ephemerality and constancy: the speaker longs to inscribe their 'precious thoughts' on paper in order to 'postpone decay', yet is paradoxically stuck in a state of ephemeral limbo: time slowed to a drudge with no outlet in isolation, thoughts come and go with no record, recognition or reverence. The speaker is both stuck in body and nowhere in mind, 'swiftly wash(ing) away' all traces of their existence.
This poem speaks pertinently to pressing issues still ongoing in our time, mainly the renewed focus on prison reform and abolition that was made aware to many by the Black Lives Matter movement. Although prisoners now are legally entitled to creative outlets during incarceration, that is by no means to say that prisons are at all equitable or just institutions. Government bodies now cooperate with companies to keep the prison industrial complex (PIC) a profitable venture, this opportunistic profiteering is evident in the fact that in 2018, of the around 56,000 people who were imprisoned, only 46% - less than half - of the prison population were sentenced to serve 6 months or less. 6 months in prison is bad enough, but one sentence can have repercussions for the rest of a lifetime. In the UK, black men are 228% more likely to be arrested than white men, showing how the law is able to target and discriminate against (or too often than not, murder) minority groups using police force and imprisonment. This ballooning of so-called offenders and criminals is also seen in the fact that "if our prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison—the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons" . And these facts don't even cover those sufferers of border control imprisoned within detention centres.
Though the poems are old and the language may be archaic, the issues Sylvia is writing towards, and the emotions she's writing from, are sadly anything but 'ancient mouldiness', but the bread and butter of the capitalist system. We are the future she predicted. The future she might still believe, remains distant. But the glory of poetry will always be the opportunity it offers us to conceive of realities before their manifestation. Offering consolation against fact, and building hope into tangible connections between us.
If you would like to learn more about prison abolition and reform in the UK after reading this poem and post, please do check out these websites:
. Community Action Against Prison Expansion- https://cape-campaign.org/
. Abolitionist Futures- https://abolitionistfutures.com/
. Prison Reform Trust- http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/
.These Walls Must Fall- https://detention.org.uk/
Please do comment below if you have anything you'd like to share about this poem or blog post, or if you have any other poets of the past you want us to include in this series!