“Yet we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, whose adaptably postmodern empire is marked by what William James calls Pure War, a state in which the real war is the constant preparation for war. Though our poetry has ably represented the traumatic and unmaking operations of war—from the rage of Achilles on to our present day—it has also often unwittingly glorified and perpetuated a culture of war. We have yet to give adequate attention to how our poetry also contains the seeds of other ways of dealing with conflict, oppression, and injustice, and how it may advance our thinking into what a future without war might look like.
How to imagine peace, how to make peace? In our conversations on the Peace Shelf, three general subcategories emerged, though these were full of overlap and contradiction: Sorrows, Resistance, and Alternative Visions. It’s simple enough: we need to witness and chronicle the horrors of war, we need to resist and find models of resistance, and we need to imagine and build another world. Even if modern poetry has been marked by a resistance to the glorification of war, vividly shown by the World War I soldier poets and many others, the important work of poetic dissent has been, too often, via negativa—resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way.
Even Denise Levertov—one of the self-consciously anti-war poets on any Peace Shelf—found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when Virginia Satir called upon Levertov and other poets to “present to the world images of peace, not only of war; everyone needed to be able to imagine peace if we were going to achieve it.” In her response, “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” (1989), Levertov argues that “peace as a positive condition of society, not merely as an interim between wars, is something so unknown that it casts no images on the mind’s screen.” But she does proceed further: “if a poetry of peace is ever to be written, there must first be this stage we are just entering—the poetry of preparation for peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” That Levertov lays out succinctly what we ourselves, the Peace Shelf collective, took some weeks to arrive at, illuminates the challenge of the peace movement and of the literature that engages it; our conversations, our living history and past, are scattered, marginal, unfunded, and all too easily forgotten.”
Muriel Rukeyser, “Poem”
If Walt Whitman were a Jewish woman born in the age of documentary films and social radicalism, he might have written a little like Muriel Rukeyser. Were it not for the reclamation by Adrienne Rich and others, Rukeyser’s name and work could have been almost lost today. For her wide-ranging (from the documentary to the scientific, the mystical to the profane) and socially radical work, Rukeyser is a crucial touchstone for peace poetry.
Rukeyser, though, in contrast to the anti-war poets of the 1930s and 1960s, avoided the bloody screeds that some otherwise great poets occasionally (in both senses) produced. She hearkened back to the original meaning of poetry as poeisis, a making, when she wrote, “I will protest all my life . . . but I’m a person who makes … and I have decided that whenever I protest . . . I will make something—I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.” Though there are at least a dozen more dazzling poems of hers, in “Poem” we have a chronicle of an ordinary citizen trying to reclaim a space for reconciliation (“ourselves with each other, / ourselves with ourselves”) through words, in a time of perpetual and global war.
* * *
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.