We chose our new logo, an old Japanese family crest, because cranes are a symbol of long life, and two cranes because none of us is alone. It reminds me of the story of Sadako, a Japanese girl irradiated by the bombing of Hiroshima . As she lay dying in her hospital bed, she was trying to fold a thousand paper cranes. The folded paper crane represents peace. Today, all over Japan (and around the world), paper cranes are folded to protest nuclear arms, as a meditation for peace.
Poetry is a large house with many rooms; it contains multitudes. The best any of us can do is to—as the old Chinese inscription advises—“look deeply, see clearly.” And practice our arts with devotion to craft and vision. Poets Against War is a house that stands strong because we stand together, putting other grievances and arguments aside in order to present a persuasive argument for nonviolence, for compassionate action—in order to speak as a conscience. In poetry, there is civilization. We each have our own cranes to fold.
War engages masses through propaganda. Poetry engages one hard-earned reader/listener at a time. But war can be stopped one protestor at a time, as we learned from Viet Nam and from recently democratized East European countries. One enlightened mind sheds light on tyranny and a thousand minds gain a little enlightenment. The British learned that lesson when they sent force to meet the engaged pacifist Gandhi. While the Dalai Lama can't go home, he wanders the world, bringing his warm bright light into the minds of multitudes. An anonymous first century philosopher observed, “Trying to establish peace through waging war is like trying to establish chastity through fornication.”
We hope Poets Against War will provide a broad international link for engaged poets around the world to organize campaigns against oppression and for peace and literacy. It is clear that our needs and our risks are global, as “the war on terror” is global. Bush administration policies also declare war on environmental standards, reject clear threats posed by global warming, and promise a United States moving ever farther to the right. One more right-wing judge on the Supreme Court, and women will lose the right to control their own bodies. One more Patriot Act, and we wave goodbye to privacy, to decency, just as this administration waved off the Geneva Accords and engaged in torture. The United States has a long inglorious history of torture—from the world of slavery to “red-skin” scalp bounties, smallpox infested blankets and “reservations” that inspired Hitler's “final solution” to the horrors of our various intrusions into Central and South America, propping up dictators, undermining governments, making the world safe for the United Fruit Company as we now make Iraq safe for Haliburton. Was the fire-bombing of Vietnamese villages not an act of terror, of torture?
All governments lie. This one isn't very good at it. And yet it lies, apparently, pathologically. It tells lies of epic proportion. It lies about everything. A Clear Skies Act means authorization of poisonous fumes. A Clean Water Act means dead fish and mercury. A No Child Left Behind Act means millions of poor children left behind. We wage war to make peace. Rich warmongers call themselves devout Christians but fail to grasp the parable (the koan?) about the camel and the eye of the needle.
I often feel as if I'm living a psychedelic nightmare straight out of Alice in Wonderland . I have always believed that we get the government we deserve. And that's a damned sad thing today. Since I don't believe that most of our citizenry truly believe in their hearts that this present slaughter is good, or that it will soon foster good, how did the present administration get re-elected? Through fear and lies and manipulation. Through the most cynical campaign in our history. Electoral fraud? Who knows? Where's Alice ? This Mad Hatter is truly mad. Hypocrisy is noble. Arrogance poisons the language of humility. This Mad Hatter is authoring a powerful and dangerous legacy. I'm sick to death of the Republicrats and the Demopublicans. I'm sick to death of these holy men—Christian, Jew, and Muslim alike—who wage war. Which way is up?
When I think of the ancient Chinese poets writing in exile, of Dante writing his epic under a death sentence, I can understand why ugly governments fear poets. Governments fear nothing as much as simple truth. Governments thrive on lies. Tu Fu insisted that the real subject of poetry is character. Akhmatova stood at the prison gates and said softly, “I can tell it.” Governments trembled under the pens of Brodsky and Milosz. Anna Swir was subversive just thinking about her body. It is all but impossible to separate myth from fact in the life-and-death of Roque Dalton— “Prison again, black fruit.”
But we—poets of our country and our age— practice our craft and art, preparing to be forgotten, as do all wise poets everywhere, knowing that our lives and those of others have been enriched because poetry had a voice, poetry was embodied. We are alive in the greatest age of poetry in the last millennium. Poetry has thrived and blossomed because of the rise in literacy, the technology that made books available, and most of all because of translation. In the U.S. especially, poetry has hungrily absorbed (from the Greek rophein —to gulp down) influences from the four corners of the earth. Most of the best poets are or were translators themselves. And I must wonder: if more of us knew Arabic and Farsi, if we knew that poetry as well as we know the great poets of Italy or Japan , say, or poets of the Americas , how might that have helped us? The most I can do is learn and practice my arts and join others at every opportunity, sometimes preaching to the choir, but always seeking the simplest solution in the simplest of answers: go in peace— embody peace and peace will spread. What matters, Pound correctly observed, is the quality of the affection.
This is a poem by Michelle Yasmine Valladares, a young poet born in India and raised in Kuwait before she came to the U.S. It's from her first book, Nortada, the North Wind (Global City Press):
in the chatter of the souq,
and mu,addin's song,
we settle into its cadence,
behind the waters
of the Gulf. The heavy,
While the animals watch,
falcon, camel, gazelle,
I live for dates, almond sweets,
small glasses of mud coffee,
We are named for what we will
do in this world.
Michael. Archangel of the Jews.
Tell me how do we write in the language of exile?
While we remain at war, all who oppose war write from exile. Those who build car bombs and those who press buttons to launch missiles share a common consequence. We who advocate for nonviolence place our trust in simple, truthful words. We belong to a large family, one that includes even those whose fingers are on the button. This poem returns me to sanity, to a real world of camel and date and coffee. To a world of simple ethics. I am reminded again that we will, we will, be known for what we do in this world—individually and as a nation.
Sam Hamill's selected poems, Almost Paradise, was recently published by Shambhala Publications.