- Colin Morton
This Ploughshare is
Notes for the Waging Peace
panel, League of Canadian Poets, Toronto, June 7, 2001
I would like to begin by thanking Susan McMaster
for organizing this panel and for initiating the project that began last winter
with Sarah Klassen’s poem “Waging Peace.” Convergence: Poems for Peace is
Susan’s way of bringing poetry’s healing power to the decision makers on
At first I thought Susan rather
naive to put much faith in the interest (and influence) of politicians and
the generosity of Canada’s poets and artists in aid of such an apple-pie cause
as peace. Well, I still do think so, but I her work has given me new respect
for naive faith when combined with the determination and ability to get things
My greatest perk as an occasional
helper-outer in the Convergence project has been the opportunity to visit
Senators and Members of Parliament in their offices and workplaces. This is
how I added “foyer of the House of Commons” to the list of places I have read
poetry, and it is how I had the honour of meeting Senator Grafstein in his
East Block office a few months ago. I am glad to hear that the Senator’s enthusiasm
for establishing a permanent place for poetry on the Hill hasn’t diminished
since our discussion then.
Another way I have given Susan
McMaster a hand with convergence is by uploading the Convergence: Poems for
Peace website, along with occasional updates by Susan and other members of
the Convergence family. In the latest of these reports, Joanna Weston contributed
this quotation from Matthew Fox's ORIGINAL BLESSING (Bear & Co., 1986),
There are Eskimo tribes ... who when a
war with another tribe is brewing hold a poetry contest between the two best
poets of each tribe. The jury is made up of equal numbers of members from
each of the tribes. The winning poet wins the war for both sides.
Truth or legend, this is an attractive
idea: “The winning poet wins the war for both sides.” An unlikely one, though,
for as the poets in today’s audience know from experience, poetry contests
never resolve anything, and it’s naively idealistic to think they could.
On the other hand, there’s a
ring of truth to the other part of the story — that the Inuit poets, like
most of the poets whose names have survived from earlier centuries, were
willing servants to the power structures of their own societies.
If we look at the record, it
is clear that poets and poetry have as willingly, and as brilliantly, served
the ends of war as of peace. It was a poet, after all — and a superb poet,
Horace — who wrote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, and for centuries
such verse inspired young people to sacrifice their youth and their lives
for manufactured ideals ... call them false gods.
Even when war became mechanized
and more inhumane than ever, in World War I, for every Wilfrid Owen who debunked
the myth that there is anything sweet or fitting in dying for one’s country
there came another poet, or several, who urged their readers to “take up our
quarrel with the foe.”
Neither poetry nor the other
arts necessarily makes us better or more peaceful people. We have all heard
stories about highly cultured leaders who enjoyed a Beethoven symphony after
consigning a trainload of people to a death camp. Presidents continue to
invite the celebrity artists of the day to perform in the White House while
new orders go out to bomb Baghdad. The refinements of culture are as likely
to give comfort to the tyrant who orders an invasion as to the people whose
homes are destroyed.
Likewise, the poetry that has
survived from earlier times has tended to be poetry created by servants of
the powerful and has usually served their interests. Their poems have either
praised war directly — as battle anthems, songs and elegies — or helped to
educate a new generation of rulers and warrior. And from what we know of the
other poetry tradition, the folk tradition that was less often written down
and preserved, peoples’ poets through the centuries have been just as willing
to pass on the metaphors of war as the aristocratic ones.
But this is the 21st century.
We have reached a degree of awareness, some cultural maturity. Since the modernist
revolution, at least, the arts are subversive, or at least challenging to
received ideas. Can’t we decide to change the course of history? We will have
to do that if we’re to write a poetry that hastens or even welcomes peace.
Can’t we decide to wage peace through our poetry?
Well, yes and no. National liberation
movements around the world have enlisted poets in the battle against whatever
form of imperialism they face. But don’t you find most of this “liberation
poetry” formulaic and jingoistic? Isn’t it, in fact, poetry in the service
As a poet, I am suspicious of
the impulse to write poetry to advance a cause. I keep reminding myself of
the poem an acquaintance of mine once published in praise of Pol Pot’s Khmer
Rouge for liberating Cambodia from the evils of American imperialism. In such
matters, poets are as liable to be ignorant and plain wrong as anyone else,
especially when they are certain they are right. When poetry has to bend
over backward in the service of an idea, especially a political or partisan
idea, then conditions are not good for writing poetry.
I suspect my own motives for
writing poetry when in the grip of political passions, and that doubt agitates
the still waters from which poetry needs to arise. In a poem, nothing should
be beyond question, no idea too sacred, or poetry’s mysterious source may
be cut off without warning.
Yet, if I distrust poetry written
with a political motivation, I am also wary of the pitfalls in the belief
that my poetry exists in a pure realm outside the political order and power
relations that make up society. I’m constantly in debate with myself over
matters like these, and in part that debate is what gets written down as poetry.
So what can poetry do for peace?
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “peace without justice is not true peace.” To
keep quiet about injustice only helps to perpetuate it. Around the world we
see a state of war become the status quo in countries like Yugoslavia and
Israel, where injustices remain unacknowledged and unredressed. Maybe the
best thing poets can do it such situations is to keep on talking when the
politic thing would be to remain silent. The poetry of witness, as Carolyn
Forché calls it, keeps placing injustice on the agenda until there
is some kind of reconciliation.
The poetry that roots up, exposes
and gets to the heart of injustice, then; that’s the poetry that hastens peace.
It also tends to be the most subversive, the most feared poetry, the poetry
that upsets the comfortable, that asks questions and demands truth of both
the asker and the listener.
What contemporary poetry does
best is record and reveal the rhythm and texture of everyday life; the sights,
sounds, tastes and smells of the world we know and the ones we imagine. It
is in doing these things superbly that poetry can serve the cause of peace.
For why are there wars except
because one group of people fear or hate another group of people. Their hate
and fear are fuelled by ignorance, often fanned hot by propaganda. But when
we read their poetry we may find that the “enemy” is as human, as torn between
loyalties and desires as we ourselves are. We discover more reason to embrace
our neighbours as friends than to crush them as enemies.
Once, people and countries dealt
with social conflict by spreading out across the more or less hospitable globe.
Now, we can spread no farther without brushing against one another. In Canada’s
big cities, even in its small towns, globalism has arrived. Where in past
millennia, mutual ignorance fuelled conflict, we now need knowledge of one
another to overcome those fears. We need mutual understanding and acceptance.
There are bound to be clashes,
as the world’s peoples move together and become again one people. The best
we can do is know one another, respect one another, and what way is more direct
than through one another’s poetry.
If arguments and manifestoes
could bring peace we would have it by now. But poetry doesn’t lend itself
to the kind of expression that convinces people through reasoning. Poetry
is allied to song. Recently, I’ve been writing a long
poem that, in narrative and meditative modes, looks again at some of the
major events of the past century, wars and revolutions, especially. I would
like to conclude with a passage that records a couple of those moments when
the longing for peace overcomes and finally overwhelms the tyranny of fear.
It describes people waging peace, first in Berlin a dozen years ago, and
then in Santiago, last fall. In the passage, I quote or paraphrase eye-witness
accounts: one from Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging (Viking,
1993), one from an article in New Internationalist by Carmen Rodriguez, called
“Remembering the Future.”
In late September the regime
met marchers with water cannons,
massed police lines, shields, truncheons
and dogs. Protesters were frogmarched away,
their arms twisted behind their backs...
But demonstrations continued and the slogans
moved beyond cautious demands.
Night after night the crowds would gather,
and people would look around and discover
how many there were like them.
They stretched from one side of the street to the
and as far back and as far ahead as one could see.
One day at the barricades the fear
melts away like the air of menace
on a young soldier’s face who threatens
then pretends to ignore and finally
smiles with the ones who dance around him
in Halloween costumes — rhinoceros faces, gorilla
the Village People with picks and hammers
chipping away at the face of a system
that never cracked a smile before.
And from the other side of the city, from the West,
merchants race to the wall with vans overflowing
food and goodies.
Free champagne on ice.
Barbed wire fences sprout Christmas-tree lights
and the dancers have taken over no-man’s-land.
Demolition continues throughout the night
by the light of TV cameras,
and the fear of generations flies away
like so much winter clothing in spring.
All these faces of people tearing down the wall,
they seem more real than our faces ...
Why more real? I don’t know exactly.
Suffering makes people real.
Then again half a world away, today:
The crowd grows as it honks and cheers its way
to the Plaza de la Constitucion ...
My body swells with the happiness
of the people around me... A huge gathering
celebrates the new president’s inauguration.
Musical groups get us all on our feet;
children paint pictures full of colour;
young and old stand up and dance ...
the crowd joins in the now-familiar roar ...
Juicio a Pinochet, make him answer,
bring him to justice and put him on trial.
It’s the least we can do for those who will not
Young and old stand up and dance.
First a few, then a few more,
then a laughing army strikes at the wall.
They are drunk before the corks begin flying,
too drunk to feel the terror of free fall
or spare a thought for the hangover.
One athlete, showing off, reaches the top,
stands on the wall and no shots are fired.
Soon everyone’s head is in the stars.
My body swells with the happiness
of the people around me...
who at last have stood up and
begun to walk
with no intention of being stopped.