27º Medellin International Poetry Festival
July 8th to 15th, 2017
War, peace, poetry and reconciliation
By Gerry Loose
Special for Prometeo
Peace is not the opposite of war. Let us begin with fundamentals. War is a virus; one which we will never eradicate by the use of force or by the use of the language of force. What force of arms will overcome war? Clearly there is none.
Peace has no need of answers, since it is the natural state of us all. It is where we live harmoniously, where a mother feeds a baby without fear, where women walk untroubled paths.
Peace comes dropping slow as the poet WB Yeats wrote; it is another way of being, a way of patience, of compassion and wisdom, of slow living, absolutely distinct from the pace and fury and instantaneous destructions of war.
Poetry, and the language of poetry, is an antidote to war – not necessarily the only one, but nevertheless an expression of an assertive, positive force that denies the position of war and oppressive power. It is diamond-pointed thought with utter clarity of vision that paradoxically slips away when examined too closely. It is like something on the periphery of vision at night – looked at full on, it disappears. It holds no direct answers, but its vitality, its vigour, hold up a mirror to the inhumanity of war and the serenities of peace and those small daily struggles that are free of the oppressions of warmongers.
Poetry’s mind is a beginner’s mind. Like a child’s logic, it unpicks and asks inappropriate questions. By inappropriate, I mean questions that get to the heart of that logic whereby killing is normalised. Neruda’s posthumously published Book of Questions, as a single example, turns our apparent verities – or those of our politicians and leaders – on their heads in a simple and wise way that the young and old have in common: “How large was the black octopus / that darkened the day’s peace?” demands answers to many questions we had not thought of before.
The role of poetry in peace, then, is not always direct; often it allows us to see, allows us time to think, to enquire; and with that enquiry we have the beginner’s mind, with the questioning we avoid the rational thought that offers us only binary solutions: the falsehood offered us that we must wage war on terror, that we must kill others for their perceived transgressions. You don’t fix a problem with the mind that made it.
That poetry speaks truth to power is almost banal now, but a necessity. Who else will do this if not poets; though not poets alone. In his Defence of Poetry, Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. That the powerful and the oppressors listen to the songs and verses of poets is clear when we examine the numbers of voices that various regimes across our world try to silence with jail sentences, torture and death. Their words are seen for what they are: a threat to the status quo of militancy and despotism.
Think of the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, sentenced to 8 years in prison and 1000 lashes on trumped up charges of blasphemy in Saudi Arabia, his home, since his own has been stolen in acts of war. “Poetry is powerful against the criminal madness of a deranged state” writes Margaret Randall of his case. Think of another Palestinian poet, a woman, Dareen Tatour, sentenced to 3 months in prison and now under house arrest. Her poem (Resist, my people, resist them) translated into Hebrew was read as evidence against her in a Nazareth court where she was charged with incitement to violence against the State.
Reflect on other imprisoned poets in the Arab world: Wael Saad Eldien, Adel Labad, Abdulmajid al Zahrani; of my own friends now in exile in Scotland from their own lands, imprisoned and tortured for “carrying words” Ghazi Hussein, Iyad Alhiatly.
Spare a moment for the truth spoken by the Nigerian Chris Abani, three times imprisoned for his words and once on death row.
Another moment for the “poet of the people” of Sudan, Mahjoub Sharif, imprisoned for a total of 17 years.
The list goes on, past as well as present, imprisoned or murdered: Wole Soyinka, Federico Garcia Lorca, Osip Mandelstam, Cesar Vallejo, Ismael Cerna, Armando Orozco Tovar, who abandoned armed struggle and decided to promote social change with his writing: imprisoned many times; Eric Knauf, poet, beheaded by Nazis: just one among the millions. I have no doubt that you, dear reader, are already sickened by this list, but also that you could add to it.
Where, then does poetry go after horrors. How do poets work against these forces? It is the poets who give the earth their salt I have heard said. Poets remind us of the conundrums and beauties of existence, the things which cannot be bought or sold. It demonstrates over and again, not least by the anger which it arouses, that there are other ways, that life is diverse, is worth celebrating and that fear is banished by love. Poetry is celebratory.
There is a social use to poetry; oblique or direct, made for the public good with cultural aspirations. Poetry has the energy to heal. Poetry has entire landscapes as characters, stars and leaves together.
Of course, I am a poet, not a fool. I do not believe that a poem overcomes a bullet; but it may affect the thinking of the man whose finger is on the trigger. More can’t easily be done. I have read my work at the gates of Faslane, home to the UK’s nuclear submarine weapons fleet. There, among the crowds are the military and the police, who stop and listen. Where might my words end up in their heads? When their loved ones come close, scared of the darkness? I have walked the atomic weapons testing sites of the USA deserts, leaving seeds and syllable-seeds of peace, and again, where those weapons were used in Japan. It is not because I am brave (I am not) but because I am human, and like everyone I have ever met, I deplore war and will do whatever is in my power, as a person of peace, as a poet, to speak against it and to bring people together, to act in reconciliation.
Activism, then is also a form of poetry; is poetry or may accompany poetry. Small acts of defiance, like the songs of Pussy Riot, like sitting down in front of tanks and in front of the gates of weapons factories: these are thoughtful, poetic acts. They challenge, but non-violently.
This then, is one of the purposes of poetry in the service of peaceful humanity: to create the conditions of thought whereby not just peace may, just possibly, ensue, but thought and compassion, justice and reconciliation may begin.
Justice must happen, but grace begins through reflection and forgiveness. As poets we know then what we must subvert and the tools - words are all - that we have in order to do that. It’s clear that our language, not the language of war or despotism and oppression, but our lexicon with its oblique and beginner’s mind view would work towards reconciliation.
There’s no-one but us; and those we work towards and those who work with us are one and the same. Walt Whitman:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
... For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin
(Leaves of Grass)
What compassionate reality. A recognition that wars are between brothers and fathers, often so-called civil wars, wars that have ravaged countries across the world: Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Nigeria, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia. We know that we have common ground with our brothers, our fathers. Our mothers and sisters suffer the most.
There is a paradox here. The poetry of war and of conflict is something that people turn towards; poetry that expresses suffering, expresses the emotions of people caught in turmoil precisely because such poetry may bring a healing, can help towards comforting the oppressed. This it achieves not by polemic or by martial words, but by allowing thought and time and the suffering of experience to enter to salve wounds: I am not alone. With the strength of words and my comrades and my cousins and sisters, there is hope. There can be forgiveness and work may begin towards reconciliation. We know the power of the powerless, the power of the word alone.
I bear witness; poetry can stand aside from conflict and speak of love: because it is that – the stuff of poetry – that really gives the earth its salt. My friend Maud Sulter, a poet of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage when asked what sort of poetry she wrote replied “In the end, there is only the poetry of love. That is what I write”.
I spoke of poetry holding a mirror to the oppressor. Interesting then, that in other cultures, poetry is part of healing and mirroring rituals made that we might see ourselves clearly and that others may see themselves. The word may be part of elaborate or simple rituals concerning music and theatricality, as in the case of Pussy Galore, or the healing songs of the Dine people in north America. Cannupa Hanska Luger, a Native American born in Standing Rock and an artist at the heart of the protests against the North Dakota oil pipeline has devised an actual mirror, cheap and easy to make to be placed in the hands of protestors to show the militarised police in their riot gear with water cannons and plastic bullets and tear gas, precisely how they look. This what I term the action of poetry: non-violent, imaginative and creative.
But above all it is the word which we use. The words of poetry in the end carry more weight, more meaning than the words of diplomacy which are the common words of conflict resolution and reconciliation. The words of poetry are the words we use in our daily round to describe tenderness, to delineate joy and contentment. Words to puzzle and to please, not to challenge and subdue.
Diplomacy is conflict without arms. Our poetic vocabularies must carry rain in the afternoon, lemons in the mouths of iguanas, chaff in the western wind, a ball bouncing down the street, a salmon swimming upstream, a mother’s lullaby. Our songs must delight and enlighten, shedding light and luminescence, glowing with a love for the planet and our fellow creatures. It was always that way. In the beginning was the word. Our poems must find their way to the beginning, the beginner’s mind, and demonstrate that there are ways forward and towards reconciliation.
How poetry may achieve that is multiple and diverse, like the raised voices of song, like the paged voices of the US poet Sam Hamill’s global movement Poets Against War. Celebrations like Fernando Rendon’s splendid International Poetry Festival. As many ways as there are poets.
The Scottish poet Alan Jackson once wrote: “Glasgow is full of poets/ they are three feet tall/ and all eat sherbet dabs” (I paraphrase). But it is poets who can, like children, look clearly, ask simple, thoughtful questions that those travelling the normal diplomatic and punitive routes towards justice and reconciliation will never think of asking: they are locked into the binary rhetoric of opposition. They wave flags.
It’s poetry than can build bridges, not walls. It’s the unthinkable that we need to think of. If war cannot defeat war and if judicial actions cannot bring reconciliation, then maybe, just maybe, the vigour and utter honesty of poetry may help.
We, as the makers of poetry, are bound by morality and by tradition to offer help. To offer words that will replace the tired words that have been, to remake the world in newly-worded ways; to create the new myths of equity and reconciliation. Who knows who may hear? Who knows what may be the fruits of our songs?
Gerry Loose is a poet and activist whose work is often found inscribed in parks, gardens, hospital grounds and other outdoor spaces as well as in galleries and in his many print publications, catalogues and books. Most recent books are fault line, and An Oakwoods Almanac. Other titles include that person himself – a poetic record of a tour on foot of USA nuclear test sites as well as Hiroshima & Nagasaki and Printed on Water, Selected and New Poems. His awards include a Hermann Kesten Stipendium, Kone Foundation Award, Creative Scotland Award and a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, He is a member of Scottish PEN and founder and former Director of the Scottish Writers’ Centre.
He has held residencies in several Botanic Gardens, including Glasgow Botanic Gardens and the Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier. A growing example of his land-writing may be found in Mynamaki, Finland.
He draws no distinction between his poetic output and his political anti-nuclear weapon, anti-war activism. He lives on a small island off the west coast of Scotland, close to Faslane, home to the UK nuclear submarine weapons base.
Published at January 29th, 2017