World Poetry For Total Peace-Pedagogy For A New Life
Por: Oumar Farouk Sesay
From the time of the Roman empire to the present day, the military has always appropriated poetry to inspire and mould the minds of young men to fight for the fatherland and even to die for it. The Roman poet, and soldier, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known simply as Horace, wrote at a time when Rome was transitioning from a Republic to an empire. His lines have become a major staple in military training worldwide.
‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” loosely translated as “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country” These lines have sent many young people to their early graves, as portrayed by Erich Maria Remarque’s Novel All Quiet in the Western Front, in which an oversell of the sweetness of dying for one’s fatherland sends young men who have no feud with each other to die a needless death in the trenches of the first world war.
The human species are the only living thing known to risk lives for glory, and the pathway to redirect the human spirit toward the insatiable search for glory is strewn with poetic lines. National anthems of nations are so poetically written to lift the human spirit to aspire to defend the anthem and flag with the blood of its patriots. So also, the epigram and preamble of constitutions are poetically rendered to explicitly inspire a love for the fatherland and implicitly feed a desire to die for it.
Military use poetry to justify war and to glorify death for one’s fatherland. Prince Harry, in his latest book, SPARE, writes about poetry’s role in military training thus;
“It was striking how much of our earliest training was intercut, leavened with poetry. The glory of dying, the beauty of dying, the necessity of dying, these concepts were pounded into our heads along with the skills to avoid dying.”
The lie embedded in the glorification of death was hitherto exposed by Prince Harry’s compatriot Wilfred Owen, a soldier and a poet who died in the first World war, and his posthumously published poem captures the hoax of being lured to die for the fatherland;
“If, in some smothering dreams, you, too, could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest.
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Poetry could be salvaged from the trenches of war and repurposed to serve a greater good.
Mathew Arnold once defines poetry as “The most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things.” If poetry could be so used for centuries to wage just and unjust war, it is apt to use it as a pedagogical tool to change the arch of human history towards lasting peace.
Literature has always been in a constant quest for freedom; where it is absent, literature imagines it and inspires people to aspire for freedom. It also calibrates the human mind to fight for freedom, peace, and justice. The recent banning of books of literature in schools in places like America, a country that is supposed to be the bastion of freedom, is a case for concern. It is about time poets of the world shout a resounding no against the backward slide to an epoch that saw tyrants’ cremation of books and souls.
Poetry, the language of the soul, should be animated to cross the divide and heal the world. The surge of Populist ideologies and nascent nationalism amid global challenges is pushing the world to the brink again. Brexit and American First ideologies are gaining support even during a worldwide pandemic that requires international cooperation. The infrastructure created after the second world war to manage global peace is tied, and the language of diplomacy is gradually perishing. Poetry might be the last frontier to pillar the language of diplomacy to restore world order. The world is gradually resorting to using violence as a political discourse. As Bruno Bettelheim once suggested, “Violence is the behaviour of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand”- Poetry dwells in the imagination, the type that peers to the unknown to create a new imagined reality. According to Samuel Johnson, poetry is “The art of uniting pleasure with the truth by calling imagination to the help of reason.” It is about time we called on poetry to intervene as state men called upon poetry to build strong militaries. Humans are a storytelling species, and poets are at the forefront of creating stories. Wole Soyinka narrated the great epic of Sondiata Keita and Soumare Kante in his book, The Burden of Memory. A great conflict that pitched two great warriors and how the mystic power of the balafon instrument was integral in bringing peace. Poetry is also central to maintaining peace and order among the Somalian people, sometimes referred to as a nation of poets. African proverbs used to mitigate conflict infuse imaginative, poetic language to engage minds.
I agree with John Paul Lederach, a peace-building guru when he argues in his book, The poetic Unfolding of the Human Spirit, that we need a different kind of response to stop the circle of violence consuming the world.
“We need new eyes. We need eyes that peer into the hidden mysteries below the visible realities.” He continues the argument in another book she jointly wrote with her daughter; When Blood and Bones Cry out, thus
“I have come to believe more firmly that we need the eyes of muses and mystics, poets and artisans, light-givers, key holders to the wardrobe and perhaps the global dream.” This belief of his led to the conference on human compassion at the Kroc centre in Michigan in 2014, attended by myself with other eminent artists and scientists. In effect, WPM will not be a lone voice in seeking new eyes via the muses to address old-age challenges of a world of everlasting conflict.
World Poetry Movement knows only too well that the business of words in prose is to state. However, in poetry, the business of the word is both to state and suggests new vistas of imagination and means of communication to usher in a better world through poetry.