by Mary Liepold
Peace X Peace
As my dear friend the artist Huong would say, I’m a lucky ducky. I get to write about poetry for peace. Yippee! Only . . . where to begin?
So many cultures, so many poets, such a huge, abiding longing for peace down through the ages! I’ll have to focus mostly on the moderns, those I know best. But since I referred in my editor’s note to the ancient Greeks, who we regard as the fountainhead of Western culture, I must also pay homage to my own tribe, the ancient Celts, and to Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, commonly known as Rumi. I’ll start with a fragment of a blessing from the Celtic tradition:
Deep peace of the running waves to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the smiling stars to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth . . .
Ahh. Breathe in the peace. Now here’s the power: the universal appeal of poetry in a nutshell. At a time when the West and the Islamic world seem locked in conflict on too many fronts to count, a 13th-century Sufi from what is now Afghanistan is the single most popular poet on both sides of the divide. How clearly Rumi saw that poetry belongs to us all!
I am not from the East or the West
Not out of the ocean or up from the ground . . .
I belong to the beloved
I have seen the two worlds as one.
The rainbow that spans what we too easily see as two worlds is the territory of the Muses, including the universe of peace poetry. In fact there’s a fine site by that name: UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry. It’s poetry for peace, not about peace, and it’s not affiliated with any flag or creed. In the words of the website, “Poetry for peace is affiliated to humanity, regardless of race, religion, sex and geography.” The authors note that “Poets comprise an international community practicing sensitivity in desensitized times.”
The site presents lyric works that encourage dialogue, compassion, and peace from 59 different nations and tribes. It offers competent translations―not the case, unfortunately, with some of the international poetry sites online―alongside the original versions.
Eritrean Saba Kidane, who writes in the Tigrinya language, used Virgil’s “Arms and the man” as the starting point for her poem, “War and a Woman.” Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash made the translation.
War and a woman I sing.
needs a woman
to find peace
Only a woman
can sacrifice enough
to overcome fear,
win the fight
and still keep peace in sight.
Ready for anything,
she sacrifices herself
and gives birth,
rocking and soothing
like a lion
licking her cubs.
They grow with her love
calling her back
to the trenches.
Guarding her children,
she still can’t refuse
or even think
of being tired,
hurt or dead.
she takes a breath
and catches fire . . .
The muse Polyhymnia, whose beat reportedly covered dance as well as music and meter, would be pleased with this site’s archive of poetry married to dance and film. Two Iranian women, Reza Farmand and Niloufar Talebi, are among the featured artists. See for yourself!
Poetry is central to Islamic culture to the present day. In Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan, where Persian speakers can read Rumi in the original, more blogs are dedicated to poetry than to religion or politics or any other topic.
Rira Abassi organized international peace poetry festivals in Iran in 2007 and 2009. In 2011 she joined her efforts to others around the world, and took part in a gathering where “77 international festivals, 317 poets and 83 countries from all continents joined hands in poetry.” You can read a long, rather dark sample of her poetic work here.
Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston, who has written numerous award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction, released a book-length poem earlier this year, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. After spending 10 years on her mixed-genre The Fifth Book of Peace, she turned to poetry hoping it might be easier — simply a matter of “waiting for the muse to fly by.” She mocks that notion in a wonderfully funny address, which you can watch on YouTube. Like all the arts, poetry is essential to our humanity, so it’s much too serious to always take seriously.
For decades now, Kingston has been conducting poetry workshops for war veterans, helping them come to terms with their experience through this powerful art form. Sean Mclain Brown, one of the participants, credits the program with saving his life: “Had I not gone to the group, I would not be here today.” That’s poetry power!
As I was completing this issue I learned of the death of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 1912), a pioneering feminist poet. In her life and her work, she was a powerful advocate―fierce is one of the words most often used to describe her―for every major progressive movement of my lifetime. She chose prose for some of her seminal work, including the 1976 Of Woman Born, yet poetry was her true métier. She explained why she persisted in poetry and used it to address urgent issues like war and peace, the environment, and the suppression of women:
“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.”