Introduction to Come Together: Imagine Peace

by Philip Metres


Peace poetry?!” a friend snorted, when I told him about this anthology of peace poetry. “I mean, what is that, anyway?”

A poet himself, my friend’s allegiance is to language, to poetry’s fundamental independence. Almost everything we have been taught about literature seems to militate against the notion of “peace poetry”: great stories have conflict at their core; characters are born in and borne by the winds of potentially destructive desires; out of the quarrel with ourselves comes poetry; great poetry resists programmatic politics and the totalizing claims of ideology; ad infinitum.

Western literature begins with the rage of Achilles and the long siege of Troy, and scatters corpses with as much intensity and gore as a 21st century action thriller. In Homer’s heroic epic poem The Iliad, only Thersites—a minor figure—momentarily gives voice to all those who hate war, and is battered back into silence. The poem ends ominously, at the brink of the rape and pillage of Troy, whose muted civilians tremble in the background. The Iliad instigates but never resolves the great dilemma of war poetry: how to write poetry in times of conflict that does not, in the process, end up glorifying and perpetuating war?

Everyone believes Dante’s Inferno is far more intriguing than his Paradiso. We relish the drama in conflict, failure, suffering. Heaven is boring, inhuman even. But would we really want to live in hell?

Fast-forward to the 20th century. In his Imagist Manifesto (published as “A Few Don’ts for an Imagiste” in Poetry in 1913), Ezra Pound exhorted poets toward a poetics of the particular, away from fuzzy abstractions—a poetic orientation that has dominated modern poetry. He warned: “Don't use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Pound’s “dim lands of peace” is no coincidence, written in the years before the so-called “War To End All Wars”; it underscores doubly the trouble for poets invested in imagining peace. Despite the modern revulsion to war—voiced most plangently by Wilfred Owen, and most acidly by Siegfried Sassoon during World War I—our language all too often has participated in or been complicit with conflict, domination, and mass violence.

Even if modern poetry is consistently anti-war, the great work of poetic dissent too often has articulated itself as resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way. How to imagine peace, how to make peace? Even poet Denise Levertov found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when confronted by psychologist Virginia Satir, who said that “poets should 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, an essay called “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.” There is something about the very word “peace” that resists static images, or tends toward the cliché (the dove, the two-fingered V, the peace sign, etc.).

Our lexicon for peacemaking is poor, not because we have no experience of peace or peacemaking, but because the language of violence and war has been ubiquitous in our culture, and enormously profitable for those in power. And with the mightiest military in the history of the world, in perhaps the most adaptable empire, we live under conditions that Paul Virilio, borrowing from William James, calls Pure War—a state in which the endless preparation for war constitutes the real war.

If “peace” seems abstract, foggy, weak, and utopian, is this a problem of language or the poverty of our culture? The word peace has rich etymological roots, from the Latin pacem, and related to the Greek eirene, which was used by translators to evoke the Hebrew word “shalom,” meaning peace, welfare, and prosperity. Pax meant a “treaty of peace, tranquility, absence of war,” and peace appeared in the 12th century in Anglo-Norman as “freedom from civil disorder,” was related to the word “fasten,” and replaced the Old English term which also meant “happiness.” The notion of “peace of mind” dates from the 13th century. Peace is not merely the absence of war or conflict, but the presence of positive social, ecological, and spiritual relations. To these definitions, we should add Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha (truth force) or what Levertov calls in her poem “Making Peace”—“an energy field more intense than war.” To use A.J. Muste’s phrase, itself echoing Buddhist and Taoist teachings: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

What would a poetry of peace look like? As Levertov wrote in “Poetry and Peace,” “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.” Poetry, and its modern lyric embodiment in song, has been an ideal partner for the peace movement’s homespun, community-building efforts, solidifying the commitment of the already-converted and hailing the uncertain populace. Muriel Rukeyser, who hearkens back to the original meaning of poetry as poeisis, a making, writes, “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.”

More than mere protest, the poems of Come Together: Imagine Peace demonstrate the range that Levertov anticipates: elegiac, hortatory, ecological, and spiritual poems from the complex to the simple, the conflictual to the harmonious, the lyric to the narrative, the baggy to the supple, the hectoring to the longing, the melancholic to the ecstatic, the provocative to the meditative. They demonstrate that peace is more like a house than a dream. They are not naively utopian, and, like John Milton in “Aereopagitica,” argue against “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” In his words, if “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary,” then a vital poetry of peace necessarily must confront its own blind spots, its own misplaced goodwill, its own utopian flights. According to scholar Michael True, “although writings in [the nonviolent tradition] resemble conventional proclamations recommending peace reform, their tone and attitude tend to be provocative, even disputatious, rather than conciliatory” (xi).

To the great traditions of war poetry and antiwar poetry, represented in such anthologies as A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War (eds. Robert Bly and David Ray, 1967), Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (ed. Carolyn Forché, 1991), and Poets Against the War (ed. Sam Hamill, 2003), Come Together: Imagine Peace brings the dead and the living, poetic luminaries, prophetic firebrands, and quieter, more common voices into a chorus for peace.

Section One. Some Precedents.

The poetry of peace already exists in the footnotes and margins of political and literary history, originating in the earliest writings in ancient Sumer, such as Enheduanna’s “Lament to the Spirit of War,” and felt acutely in the anti-Homeric love poetry of Sappho, who begins our anthology. It is a poetry that is not quite a tradition. Rather, it is a tendency, an itch or irritation, a dormant virus that we’ve carried with us, a longing like thirst, a half-caught dream, within poetry’s longstanding and rocky courtship with power. The poetry of peace is a writing against the grain of received narratives and histories, against the notion that we are doomed to violence and war.

The poetry, or rather, poetries, of peace—part of the dissident root system of all national poetries—themselves are diverse, extending like rhizomes in multiple directions. Come Together: Imagine Peace begins with a selection of Precedents, the prophetic voices that lay claim to other ways of being. The Precedents anticipate and invite the various contemporary visions of peace from the rest of the book. Though this anthology has no pretense to being a comprehensive historical and multinational archive of peace poems—which could also include, just from the Anglo-American tradition, a host of poems, from John Milton’s “Nativity Ode” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” with its concluding longing for “shantih shantih shantih” (“the peace which passeth all understanding”). Yet it proposes that peace poetry—like the peace movement that it anticipates, reflects, and argues with—is part of a larger human conversation about the possibility of a more just and pacific system of social and ecological relations.

While Sappho couples poetry with erotic desire, Walt Whitman’s minor poem, “As I Ponder’d in Silence” stands as an epigraph to his great poetic vision of human unity in “Song of Myself” and the Civil War poems, and his struggle to claim the sacredness of the human body as the center of a modern poetry and modern spirituality. Other poems, such as Emily Dickinson’s #739 and Robert Creeley’s “For No Clear Reason,” vividly demonstrate the longing for an end to psychic turbulence that has marked the great religious writing from the teachings of Buddha to St. Augustine’s Confessions (“our hearts are restless until they rest in You”).

In contrast, a number of Precedents cast their unswerving eye upon the ruins of war. Constantine Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Kenneth Rexroth’s “August 22, 1939,” Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” and June Jordan’s “The Bombing of Baghdad,” witness to and perform elegies for the cultural, political, ecological, physical, and emotional devastations that come with war—how it robs us of our most basic ability to name ourselves (except in opposition to some barbarian other), to care for our children (“a father’s no shield for his child”), and to claim our common humanity.

Yet, like more recent peace poetry, this genealogy of Precedents anchors itself in the vital vision embodied by resisters, demonstrators, peacemakers, and prophets. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Conscientious Objector,” Karl Shapiro’s “The Conscientious Objector,” William Stafford’s “Peace Walk,” and Denise Levertov’s “The Altars in the Street” offer compelling visions of peace action, which become touchstones for contemporary poets’ attempts to narrate what gets left out of the daily news. Relatedly, Kenneth Patchen’s “Creation,” Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” William Stafford’s “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border,” and Denise Levertov’s “Making Peace,” theorize what peacework might look like, and how it might be sustained.

Finally, Allen Ginsberg’s visionary “Wichita Vortex Sutra”—from which we have excerpted the moment in which the poet incants a declaration of the end of the Vietnam War—asserts the performative power of language, language as prayer, like Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace,” and Mahmoud Darwish’s concluding litany of salaams from “State of Siege.” These poems establish the difficulties of overcoming our own distrust, borne out of histories of oppression, in finding a way toward resolving conflict and reconciliation with each other, and with ourselves.

Section Two. The Story So Far: Poems of Witness and Elegy

The great war poems confront war with frank honesty, sometimes bitter anger, and great compassion for war’s victims. In homage to that tradition, and in line with the work of Carolyn Forché in Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the poems in “The Story So Far” face history and its brutal tides. Though human history often has been framed as a history of wars, these poems mark both the human capacity for violence and its selective memory. From Wislawa Szymborska’s sympathetic ant-eye view of the battlefield, where unphotographed “someones” must clean up the rubble, to Joseph Ross’ ominously titled “On a Sign Announcing: Expanding Arlington National Cemetery,” from John Bradley’s austere image of two dead lovers (one Muslim, one Serb) on a bridge between Bosnian and Serbian neighborhoods in Sarajevo to Carolyn Forché’s stark recognition that “the heart is the toughest part of the body,” these poems grieve, rage, and count the dead, catalyzing our weariness into a state of watchful vigil.

Section Three. Call and Answer: Poems of Exhortation and Action

The poems in “Call and Answer” are not mere protest poems, but rather a dialectic between exhortations and actions—in essence, calls to action and representations of action. Demonstrative and demonstrational, these poems offer rousing rhetorics and language templates for social change. Poems by Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Alice Walker urge us to speak out, to defy the conventions of polite non-political speech in both poetry and in the public sphere, to “become worthy of our dead.” These poems offer vivid models of dissent and resistance that burn in the memory: William Heyen’s “black bows and ribbons,” Liane Ellison Norman’s image of seven-year-old Maya Weiss’s anti-war rally, Edward Dougherty’s saffron-robed monks beating drums, Martín Espada’s song for Iraq War C.O. Sgt. Mejía, among others. Still other poems complicate the notions of patriotism and the peace movement. Adrienne Rich’s meditation on patriotism (“a patriot is not a weapon”) is as unsparing about those in the peace movement who failed to be roused equally for the struggles for justice. Equally essential, is Robert Pinsky’s acerbic questioning of “peace” as a quietism that fails to acknowledge our fully complex and animal humanity.

Section Four. Healing the Breach: Poems of Reconciliation

While peace poetry may occasionally provoke, it also must dramatize the sometimes tentative, sometimes outlandish reaching across the abyssal distances between antagonists. In “Healing the Breach,” the poems bring to life stunning acts of reconciliation and peacemaking from the past and present, between nations and individuals. The vision of French and German soldiers playing soccer on the Christmas Eve truce during World War I, captured magically by Robert Cording; Naomi Shihab Nye’s visionary conclusion to “Jerusalem”—“it’s late, but everything happens next”; Aharon Shabtai’s provocative offering of his daughter in marriage to his nation’s “enemy”; Naton Leslie’s act of forgiveness of an abusive father; these poems articulate the various “points we meet,” as Elmaz Abinader’s poem puts it, and show both courage and consanguinity in their trust that such acts of reaching will not be in vain.

Section Five. Savoring the World: Poems of Shared Humanity

Though Come Together: Imagine Peace is not quite a global anthology, much peace poetry shows it globalist leanings in its vision of common humanity. Descendents of Whitman, these poets in “Savoring the World” imagine and assert the persistence of our connectedness, so obscured by ideologies, languages, and national security walls. Taking us from the road to Rama (and its South Asian narrative of journey), we stop in Palestine, Lebanon, Washington D.C., Darfur, Hanoi, El Salvador, the Dixwell Stop and Shop, the equator, Manhattan, the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute for Men at Houtzdale, outside Salaam’s in Pittsburgh, to some unnamed street where a woman’s “mind is at war.” In Anna Meek’s words, “we cannot steal ourselves from one another.” These poems pronounce that humanity does not end at the national border, nor, increasingly, do we, global citizens and descendents from elsewheres.

Section Six. The Way We Learn to Love the World: Poems of Wildness and Home

If “Nature holds up a mirror”—a line that Robert Lowell, in “Fall 1961,” derives from Shakespeare—we have often sought ourselves and the beyond of ourselves in wildness. During World War II, William Stafford recounted how conscientious objectors working in alternative service camps in the wilds of the United States often sought to become “the quiet of the land.” In “The Way We Learn to Love the World,” the poems look to the natural world and to the home for images of hope, so vividly begun by Wendell Berry in “The Peace of Wild Things.” Though we see in nature the fear and violence that is also in us, in Todd Davis’ “Trying to Understand the Patriot Act,” we also see where such fear emerges, and how we might quiet it. “Stillness is a choice you make,” as Emily Bright’s poem attests. Alongside the poems of wildness, the poems that mark the boundaries of home suggest the vulnerabilities and possibilities cradled in our dwelling places; in the presence of the hardiness of dandelions, in the evanescence of fireflies, in “tires in the rain,” these poems “report,” as Jeff Gundy’s title puts it, “on the Conditions in the Interior.”

Section Seven. Becoming the Next Thread: Poems of Rituals and Vigils

To order the anarchies inside and outside us, the poems of ritual and vigil offer word structures that parallel the practices of allowing the sacred to happen. To find ways to structure our days, to find rhythm where demand so often imposes, these poems dramatize and become rituals and vigils in themselves. From Angie Estes’ recipes to Judith Montgomery’s weaving, these poems take tactile acts and sound as literal and metaphorical ways of “becoming the next thread.” Here, we find Yusef Komunyakaa’s arresting, grief-heavy “Facing It,” where the speaker seems half-disappeared in the Vietnam Veteran Memorial wall; his unstinting grief makes him a figure of anamnesis. It is not surprising, either, to find three sonnets (Robert Cording’s “Opening Cans,” Dave Lucas’ “The Fourteen Happy Days,” and Katharyn Howd Machan’s “At the Veterans Hospital”) in this section, as if that structuring form—with its argument, turn, and resolution—could become the objective correlative of peace ritual itself.

Section Eight. Gentleness that Wears Away Rock: Poems of Meditation and Prayer

Taken from a line by Ellen Bass’s “Pray for Peace,” this section of poems weaves together prayers, blessings, kwansabas, and glyphs into a chorus like the gentle constancy of water that “wears away rock.” Poems of meditation and prayer merge physical being with spiritual being. No wonder, then, that poems such as “Zazen” by Jennifer Karmin and “Wind” by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodrán bring contemplative mindfulness and attention to breathing, that oscillation between our taking in the world and letting it go. Ranging from catalogues of everyday being, to musings on the nature of God (Fady Joudah’s “Proposal”), to songs for the nationalities of the former Yugoslavia (Karen Kovacik’s “Songs for a Belgrade Baker”), to prayers by Jesuit peace activist Daniel Berrigan, these poems demonstrate the range of mindfulness and calling forth to higher powers, both within and without us. They often assert a disarming earnestness, a faith in the goodness of things that is leavened by nimbleness of mind, leaps of compassion, and occasionally acid wit.

Come Together: Imagine Peace

There may yet come a time when this poetry can be called a tradition, if even a minor tradition. This anthology is an attempt to draw back to in order to move forward, the way a rower leans forward into the water and then digs backward, in order to propel into some new territory. At the very least, Come Together: Imagine Peace introduces the poets to each other, often doing parallel work without the benefit of mutual support (see the bio pages for more information). Equally important, Come Together offers a bridge between our poetry communities and peace communities, those places where we find ourselves.

Poet and Vietnam Veteran W.D. Ehrhart recently mused:

What was the point of my reading antiwar poetry to the members of the Brandywine Peace Community? These are folks who chain themselves to fences and hammer on missile warheads. But what they hear in my poems confirms them in their beliefs (which are not easy to hold and maintain in this culture)…and renews their spirit and commitment; it gives them a sense of connectedness, of not being entirely alone. That’s worth doing, even if it is on such a small scale (there were maybe 25 people there that night).

We hope that these poets and poems will be seen not only as food for the peace troops in moments of repose, but also as a script for future readings, demonstrations and other actions. Peace poems, after all, are often occasional endeavors, written by movement participants and delivered for the ear and heart. Gene Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action lists 198 nonviolent tactics that resisters have employed to resist illegitimate power and effect social change. Poems can take their place as part of the peace movement story and community building that is so central to peace movement labor. These poems invite us to join the local networks of the peace movement—which, lacking serious mass media attention and much of the nation, always needs more active participants—those who can bring a dish to a potluck discussion on the war in Iraq, those who can post flyers or canvass one’s neighborhood, those who can write press releases and speeches. Poets have a pivotal role to play in the peace movement, because of our keen attention to language—not simply to excoriate its abuse by the dominant narrative, but also to construct alternative narratives that invite those who may be sympathetic but lack awareness of the movement, to learn, join and act.

We look forward to poets who might become creators as well as archivists of this movement, who might become mediums and media for those whose experience in peacework deserve the amplifications and textured ruminations of poetry. Though Come Together: Imagine Peace does not archive the contexts in which these poems came into being, or how they might continue to circulate—not just on email or in readings, but on walls and in streets—we invite poets to celebrate and record those deployments of language for peace. In Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941, I concluded with an exhortation for poets to continue to participate in this often-quixotic making and movement:

In this making, in this composing, in this movement-building, we know that our actions will not necessarily lead to immediate change, and may never end war; yet, we ought to remember that when we resist war, we are participating in something that many people throughout history have struggled for, even given their lives for. Since war will not soon be sloughed off as a vestigial organ or an archaism, war resistance will survive and persist—even thrive—because poets continue to articulate, question, motivate and sustain it—in the symbolic action of their utterances and in the prose of their daily involvement making resistance. A visionary aspect of the peace movement, war resistance poems valorize the struggle inherent in resistance and argue against the mythologies of pro-war discourse so that, when the next wars come, people will resist the manufacture of public consent…. This is a fight worth writing for, and the lines made and broken are part of "millions of intricate moves," whose sentence might end with the word peace.


What strikes me now, with our nation still mired in two wars, is how much our own self-argument can come to silence us, and how we can become victims of our own narratives of despair. The poems of Come Together: Imagine Peace remind us that, though the work of peacemaking is never done, and though we face the most powerful forces in the world, we are not alone, and our voices bear the burden of the silenced throughout the globe. As Rebecca Solnit recently wrote:

What does it mean to be radical, to tell radical stories in our time, to win the battle of the story? The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.

The work of peacemaking, and the work of peace poetry, is at least in part to give voice to those small victories—where no blood was spilled, but lives were changed, justice was won, and peace was forged, achieved, or found. And words bring us there, to the brink of something new. Peace poetry is larger than a moral injunction against war; it is an articulation of the expanse, the horizon where we might come together. To adapt a line by the Sufi poet Rumi: beyond the realm of good and evil, there is a field.