Poetry and Peace
Por: Gerry Loose
"The language of birds is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant and understood."
Gilbert White, 1788 (a time of continuing colonisation, war, transportation, slavery and genocide)
The old story tells us that human language here is derived from the speech of birds, that is, their songs. Gaelic culture, it is said, derives its song from careful listening to the birds, indeed from other non humans with whom we share our landscapes and ecosystems. Song being indistinguishable here from poetry. Of course, this is echoed by other older cultures throughout the world, where careful listening to – and hearing – our surroundings is also commonplace: the joys it brings, the notions of belonging to our world so full of other creatures, of something greater than our human selves.
Here, however, the old songs and poems and stories (the oral tradition) are filled with references to the other than human worlds – led by their sounds, calls, whistles and spellbinding songs one might say. Many songs in Gaelic mime, at least in part, the songs of thrush, of blackbird, the high rising notes of lonely curlews and sandpipers. So much of this tradition is carried by the women of our culture, sometimes a spontaneous tuneful mimicry of these songs, without words, but with the greatest of pleasure and a sort of solidarity with other creatures; a living in harmony. An equally old tradition is the psalm-singing of the Western Isles, out in the Atlantic ocean, where the call and response, each in song, brings to mind a dawn chorus, where one bird’s song, say a thrush-song rises and is followed by others in a simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. There is a great freedom and licence in this response, in many voices, with each singing the melody in a slightly different way.
This brings great comfort and a harmony and peace far removed from the world of wars, of hunger and of climate crisis, with which, of course, it is inevitably and inextricably linked.
If this tells us anything, it is that as humans, we have learned much, with still so much to re-learn of the world in which we live. If we discuss pedagogy, we surely must concern ourselves also with how we learn, what we learn and who we learn it from.
Poets are nothing if not careful listeners. We listen to inner voices, yes, but also we go to the people and hear their voices, their concerns, their needs, desires and joys (though of course we are of the people). We listen acutely to the older communities who have cared for their local ecologies, their fellow creatures and their families of humans. Their songs, poems and speech lead us along saner paths. (It is worth noting here that the root of the word ecology is the Greek oikos, meaning household, habitation: our dwelling spaces as one species among many.)
In listening in this way, poets are making another world, or perhaps recovering an older world newly adapted to the needs of the twenty-first century. A world, where, as poets throughout all continents, our call is peace and our response, in all the languages of the beautiful planet, is a single melodic line throughout our poems, each rising and falling slightly differently. A dawn – and everyday – chorus of single intent for total peace. This is speaking from our learned experience for the new life, a new order.
Where I live, also on a small island with the roots of those psalms and poems and speech, I am fifteen nautical miles from the antithesis of a new order: the old militaristic, Imperialist order of Weapons of Mass Destruction that is a nuclear submarine base, with closer, and ranged around, its weapons bunkers and stores tunnelled into the mainland hills.
How, as poets, do we counter all this (and its corresponding sites and attitudes throughout the world) without resorting to the tactics or language of the military, of imperialism and the mindset that brings this about, which might correctly be termed propaganda?
If we learn anything from our genuine and peaceful cultures, it is not only what we learn and what or who we learn from, but how we embody this and pass it on. The other side of the coin of pedagogy is who we teach and what we teach (while always bearing in mind that we are singers, not didacts nor propagandists). However, the simple, single act of poetry is political in the best and most honest definition of that word: relating to the government or public affairs of a country. With its roots in the Greek word polites, meaning citizens, we assume the peaceful politics of everyday living - and against the abuses of power inherent in the deliberate misuse of that word, we re-affirm our citizenship of a caring symbiotic world.
What directly can be done? What can be the movements towards this new order, this new ancient life. It’s important to be honest and realise that changing systems is done in smaller grass roots ways, not from the top down, but by the swell of change brought about locally, eventually organically growing into a genuine world (poetry) movement. As the saying goes, thinking globally, acting locally to bring about that new age I call the Symbiocene, where humankind regains the humanity part of that word.
Acting locally, in my case means small acts of resistance: reaching out to my fellow citizens in the nearby nuclear submarine base: reading at the gates, outside the fences and miles of razor wire, to the police, also outside the gates, to the military inside the gates, and reading the poetry of the new order. These fellow citizens have been subject to a century of misinformation and imperialistic propaganda (just as I have, just as we all have) and they may just take another way of seeing, of hearing from a simple reading of poems falling on their unsuspecting ears.
More concretely, who we also teach, through our language and poetry, the language and poetry of peace, is important elsewhere. Any chances I have had, and it has been many, I have read poems and held workshops in schools, with classes of all ages, in universities and academies, where I stray far from the prescribed texts. I read to sufferers of mental ill-health, survivors of many kinds of abuse; to prisoners and to addicts. These are my people, marginalised, victims of the misinformation, of propaganda, of the stealing of hope in the name of – well, of what? As poets, and it is you I am addressing in the first instance, you know the answer to this question. I don’t write any of this to impress (I know well I cannot) – because I know I am not alone in these actions, there are many, many actions and poets across the world with whom I am united by our singing and especially within the more recent and exemplary World Poetry Movement; I simply write this as one poet’s direction in the pedagogy for the new life. What we teach, who we teach, who we reach through poetry, putting into action what we have learned; in my case from the gentle and joyous sounds of the other than-human as well as the old ways, the old singers, the mother’s lullabies, the sisters’ spontaneous songs.
Paramount in this is the necessity to go into schools, reading and speaking to children from the youngest to the oldest. Their minds are open to words of poetry and of peace. We can pass on the traditions of older viewpoints, carrying heritage into a new, fresh life.
And of course there are other ways. Each poet, in different local circumstances will act in different ways, with passion and humility, with attention to the world, and minor, sometimes major poetic acts. I am happy to be in such company, a pedagogue of the ninety-nine percent, the dismissed, the belittled and demeaned, not a minion of the one percent of destroyers, liars, and murderers - we must call them that - for a new life for us, for the planet; a life of struggle towards long-awaited peace.