Poetry and Peace; Writing for The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

It was recently my pleasure to receive notification that a poem by Estella Lauter has tied for first place in the adult division of the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest conducted by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF). Estella’s winning poem, “Gaza, January 2009,” appears in this issue of the Pulse. Estella and I sat down recently to savor her win and to talk about entering contests and writing poetry for peace. Before I report on that conversation, a word or two about poems that deal with war and peace.


The tradition of war poetry goes back to the very beginning of our Western literary heritage. Homer’s Iliad is just such a poem. The setting for the Bhagavad Gita, India’s great religious text, is also a great battle. War appears again when Virgil describes the founding of Rome in The Aeneid. War continues to appear as the subject of poetry throughout our tradition. Contemporary war poems were written during both World Wars and the practice continued in response to the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Recently, poems have begun to emerge in response to the several conflicts in the Middle East as well. A curious irony hovers over much of this poetry for many, nay most so-called “war” poems actually cry out against war. One might assume that war poems are written about battles but that is not necessarily the case. In his World War II poem, “Japan” Anthony Hecht described early impressions of our Asian foe along with the way our propaganda described the Japanese to the troops we sent to occupy the land of our defeated enemy.


Now when we reached them it was with a sense

Sharpened for treachery compounding in their brains

Like mating weasels; our Intelligence

             Said: The Black Dragon reigns

           Secretly under yellow skin,

           Deeper than dyes of Atabrine

And deadlier. The War Department said:

Remember you are Americans; forsake

             The wounded and the dead

At your own risk; remember Wake and Pearl Harbor.


Through the experience of the occupation, however, Hecht comes to a new comprehension of the Japanese.


At last we came to see them not as glib

Walkers of tightropes, worshipers of carp,

Nor yet a species out of Adam’s rib

             Meant to preserve its warp

           In Cain’s own image. They had learned

           That their tough eye-born goddess burned

Adoring fingers. They were very poor.

The holy mountain was not moved to speak.

           Wind at the paper door

Offered them snow out of its hollow peak.


Of course, we remember how WWII ushered in the nuclear age and how the balance of terror during the Cold War seemed to contain the threat of all out nuclear war – the Cuban Missile Crises providing the case in point. But these days, with so many stress points in our world and with so many antagonists of one kind or another with actual or possible access to nuclear weapons, it is clear that the threat of nuclear conflict is as immediate as it has ever been. Now, more than ever before, we should be actively searching for peaceful solutions to international problems. Our best minds should be engaged in efforts to end war altogether. Such is the mission of the NAPF and their efforts go beyond the ken of politicians and strategists. Their poetry contest is held to bolster the search for peace in all of us by “encourag[ing] poets to explore and illuminate positive visions of peace and the human spirit.”


When I asked Estella Lauter how she came to enter this contest, she described a kind of two-staged process that started with a poetry workshop she attended at The Clearing. It was called “Poetry Camp: Sending Poetry into the World” and was lead by Robin Chapman of Madison. Chapman’s directive in this workshop was simple: “Just send things out!” Hence, the motivation to action! One can’t just do that, however, until one has poems in which one believes, especially when one is concerned to write about politics and war and peace. So, discovering the NAPF peace poem contest brought Lauter to the second phase of the process. Here was a contest that called for the kind of poetry that she has long wanted to write. But a lot of people write anti-war poetry. How does one write such poems in a way that brings a unique voice to the cause?


This problem vexed Estella until she heard the Chinese-American poet, Li-Young Lee read and speak about his own work. “He talked about poetry as prayer,” Lauter explained, “and later I thought about that and realized that he might have given me a model for my own poetry. What would using poetry to pray mean in the writing of political poetry?” What it meant was to write the poem from the angle of devotion rather than from a position of anger. In so doing, she realized, she would be able to move the reader to a different point of view.


“Angry poems are so often a downer because there’s nowhere to go from anger,” she said, with a shrug. “How do you talk to the people you love?”


In posing such questions, Lauter was able to find a way to internalize the conflict so that she was able to write the poem from the inside out, rather than from the point of view of an observer or a reporter from the outside looking in. The cellular metaphor she used in “Gaza, January 2009″ accomplished that internalization and came from Li-Young Lee. It appears as a motto to the poem.


Internalization and its resultant empathy rests at the very center of the act and art of poetry. Through such internalization, political poetry transcends politics and war poetry ascends to peace poetry. Estelle Lauter took the inspiration to express her thoughts from the transcendent words of a Chinese-American poet. Using poetry as prayer is part and parcel of the transcendent mystical traditions of both the East and the Middle East. In the Middle East, this strain of poetry is found in poems written in both Hebrew and Arabic. It would be an appropriate leap to come to partake of all these traditions in order to find models for our own efforts to write for peace. For all the politicians and terrorists who turn deaf ears to mere poetry, what other resource do we have, poets and readers alike, but to read poems that pray from every corner of the world?