On poetry and current affairs: ‘Prigohzin’s Galley Slaves’

Angela Graham, co-author and editor of Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere, reflects on writing poetry about fast-developing events. The image is a representation of the Peterloo Massacre, which was turned into a poem by Shelley

Angela Graham, co-author and editor of Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere, on writing poetry about fast-developing events

The news came on Saturday 24th June 2023 – Yevgeny Prigohzin’s troops were marching on Moscow, and it boded very ill for all of us. I stopped everything I was doing and wrote a poem.  I had to recognise this event. 

I have written a series of poems about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The earliest of them, ‘The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: First Day’ appears in my poetry collection: Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere (Seren Books). I’d read months earlier about how prisoners in Russia were offered the choice to join the Wagner group, a paramilitary force active in Russia and elsewhere, or stay in prison. An appalling choice, and barbaric that a state prison system would endorse this immoral transaction. The news had little attention at the time. I wanted to write about what this manipulated group of ‘actors’ in  Prigohzin’s scenario had to tell us about our attitudes to the means a state uses to fight a war.

A good poem expresses something true to the ‘moment’ of its creation and true in the long view.

But what good, or ill, or indeed anything at all, can be achieved by a poem? Wouldn’t journalism be more apt? Some information and analysis? As an experienced maker of documentary journalism, I need no convincing of the impact that good journalism can have, especially when it combines the best that ‘heart’ and ‘head’ can offer. And the ‘jour’ in ‘journalism’ points to its aptitude for handling immediate events, ‘of the day’. It convinces through intellectual rigour, just distinctions (breadth and balance) and credible witness. 

Sanctuary includes a short poem called, ‘The Journalist – for Nedim Türfent’ which is a tribute to an individual and a statement of the journalistic vocation:

Artery that carries blood from the nation’s heart
through the whole body to the smallest member
so the nation’s heart can welcome back
the life lived and renew it, all the nation’s blood.
This is the ideal. We fail but we get up again,
carrying life, in words, to our brothers, sisters… nations.

Journalism tells us what’s happening. Poetry helps us brew that information into knowledge. This more integrated apprehension of facts helps them sink to deep levels within us. The actions that spring from these depths may be tinged with that precious quality, wisdom.

In terms of current affairs, the topic of sanctuary is one of the most urgent of our time. In common with many of our greatest challenges it is to do with dis-connection. So I designed the collection to be itself a sanctuary, a safe place for people to allow one another into the depths of their creative process. Four poets, each with experience of an aspect of sanctuary, wrote a poem each with me. The fifth poet acted as my mentor and contributed a fine poem of his own – ‘as praxis… politically perfect’ a reviewer noted. As praxis, war is the opposite of this and a most brutal driver of the search for sanctuary.

Innovative. Informed. Independent.
Your support can help us make Wales better.

In considering an effective response to the news about Prigohzin’s march on Moscow I bore in mind that poetry employs both subjectivity and objectivity and creates images in the inner arena of the reader. Although journalism (particularly documentary and photo-journalism) can also do this, the images poetry creates have a particularly intimate impact and this is increased by poetry’s interplay of rhythm, musicality and form. The harmonious, the beautiful, persuades.

So, a poem it was. But no sooner had I written ‘Prigohzin’s Galley Slaves’ than the march was called off and Prigohzin was heading, we were told, for Belarus. It is rare for such an initiative to be literally turned around. 

Is a poem less of a poem if its current affairs content is overtaken by events? No. But is the experience of reading it affected? Yes. Because the reader will sense a gap between the outcomes the poem assumed and the actual outcomes, while up-to-the-minute allusions may be lost on a later reader.

The best poetry, even when the current affairs of its day have become history, never lose its revolutionary essence because it is linked to truth, to something valid in every age.

To what extent do these things matter? The answer depends on the calibre of the poem. A good poem expresses something true to the ‘moment’ of its creation and true in the long view. The ‘gap’ the reader may experience will be a positive one if the poem is good enough at capturing its ‘moment’. For example, the gap might be felt as pathos, if things worked out worse than the poet imagined, or relief, if they worked out better.

Immediacy but also longevity (length of relevance) are the aims. We are still reading Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy: Written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester:

I met murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh

Shelley’s poem was written about the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Viscount Castlereagh was Robert Stewart, Marquess of Londonderry and Foreign Secretary at the time. It is one of the best-known castigations of establishment barbarity. It wasn’t published till 1832, after Shelley’s death. Its earliest potential publisher, Leigh Hunt, did not feel the public were ready for its sentiments but those have certainly inspired many people since. It is a rallying poem:

Rise like Lions after slumber 
In unvanquishable number – 
Shake your chains to earth like dew 
Which in sleep had fallen on you – 
Ye are many – they are few. 

That potential to hold a mirror up to implicit strength, give it a name and show its potential so that it can be followed is something poetry is good at because it can be both precise and flamboyant. Like a flag. A flag carries minimal information but proclaims an ideal and its concentration of imagery expresses the element of the pure which is always at the core of an ideal.

I revised the poem. In my first draft, I had described the ‘barbarians, mustering on the hilltop…’ (like galley slaves a filmic staple) as ‘deliverers of havoc’. But they deliver havoc and a solution. That’s closer to the truth. We are always tempted to solve problems by expedient but callous means – they have the appearance of efficiency and speed: Here comes the cavalry.  Diplomacy or reform are slow.

The best poetry, even when the current affairs of its day have become history, never lose its revolutionary essence because it is linked to truth, to something valid in every age.


A staple of the sword-and-sandals epic, the galley slave,
powering some trireme at the empire’s will,
is a hollow choice embodied: labour or die; die labouring.

Those Russian convicts who were made to choose
either to fight with Wagner or stay jailed
– freedom to fight and, fighting, die  –

can we call them mercenaries? Their pay is docked
by death. Then they are framed for camera
in cynically tragic terms: Fighters for Freedom.

The days of barbarism, mustering on the hilltop
as they always do, wait for us to signal that we want them
now; want them to swoop – harsh problem solvers –

because we always want them
or we would have penned such obscene choices
in the past.

Traitors and patriots. What twisting of the flesh and mind
powered that move? Those feet heading for Moscow
then turned round; bidden, un-bidden, slaves.

Angela Graham’s poetry collection, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere (2022) is published by Seren Books. This article was edited by Zoë Brigley, Joint Poetry Editor at Seren Books. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider becoming a member.

Angela Graham divides her time between Wales and Northern Ireland. In May 2022, Seren Books published her poetry collection Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere. She is an honorary fellow of the IWA.

Also within Culture