Adam Ash

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bookplanet: three poets write about getting out of the house and being activist

1. Poetry & Commitment – by Adrienne Rich/

In "The Defence of Poetry" 1821, Shelley claimed that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". This has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power - in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, "A Philosophic View of Reform," Shelley had written that "Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged" etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft.

And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the "struggle between Revolution and Oppression". His "West Wind" was the "trumpet of a prophecy", driving "dead thoughts ... like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth".

I'm both a poet and one of the "everybodies" of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise poetry - it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.

Walt Whitman never separated his poetry from his vision of American democracy. Late in life he called "poetic lore ... a conversation overheard in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs" - the obscurity, we might think now, of democracy itself. But also of those "dark times" in and about which Bertolt Brecht assured us there would be songs.

Poetry has been charged with "aestheticizing," thus being complicit in, the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape and genocide. This accusation was famously invoked in Adorno's "after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible" - which he later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected.

But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be no poetry left in the world. If to "aestheticize" is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be described and dismantled - much hangs on that word "merely". Opportunism isn't the same as committed attention. But we can also define the "aesthetic", not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, which totalising systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what's still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it's not a mass-market "product", it doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles; it's too "difficult" for the average mind; it's too elite, but the wealthy don't bid for it at Sotheby's; it is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together - and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses - how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images - is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism - a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

There is always that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our late-night arguments. There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator Américo Ferrari) "an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides".

(Adrienne Rich was awarded the US National Book Foundation 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
From a lecture given at the 2006 Stirling University (Scotland) Conference on Poetry and Politics. The entire lecture will be published as a book, Poetry and Commitment, by W.W. Norton in April 2007. This excerpt first appeared in The Guardian.)


“Why did you go to Israel and Palestine? To Turkey?” is the most common question asked following my three-week trip in November. When I left, I thought I knew. I had met Souliman al-Khatib on Bainbridge Island (WA), the first Palestinian to whom I ever really listened. He served ten years in an Israeli prison for his role in the stabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Now he was touring the United States to talk about hope and the value of compassionate listening . In prison, he learned Hebrew (as well as English): “They gave me an education.” When he was released, he co-founded Combatants for Peace ,Palestinians and Jews who teach how to find solutions to their problems without violence. If this Arab could feel hope, could imagine a solution to the Arab-Jew conflict, I wanted to listen. Nothing, I thought from where I sat, could be more despairing than this particular Middle East conflict.

From “where I sat,” I knew I understood little about the Middle East. The U.S. media related nothing about peace groups in Israel and Palestine. I decided to see for myself with the Compassionate Listening Project.

Managing this trip financially would not be easy for this poet, this adjunct faculty writing instructor. I turned, in a way I never had before, to my community, believing that perhaps many people felt as I did about peace and hope. Would it help if I told them I was a poet? That I planned to bring back the poetic words of Arabs and Jews? Perhaps. Deep down, I believe the general public has a sense of poetry as a place we all want to be. One person from my community sent a donation within a card, a quote by Freud on the front: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”

Weeks preceding the trip, I examined closely my reasons for making this difficult and potentially dangerous journey. Was it because I am struggling with my own poetry to move away from postmodern angst and despair into a new millennium era of hope, to a creative mindfulness of praise, as Ilya Kaminsky would say? Was it because I stand on the corner of Washington and Sequim Ave. with the Women in Black and count the people who try so hard not to see us? Or was it because I knew John Barr's essay in Poetry Magazine (Sept. 2006) infuriated me in part because I had been thinking the same thing: “When poets come to pay as much attention to how they live as to what they write, that may mark one new beginning for poetry . . . Poets should live broadly, then write boldly.” Barr quotes Derek Walcott, the West Indian poet who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature: “To change your language, you must change your life.”

As a poet of witness, I did wish to do something to truly change my life. And when I returned home, I hoped the words I brought—my own poems and those of others—might play a role in changing the lives of people in my community.

Well past fifty, I shed my first tear
for an Arab. Souliman al-Khatib
was not looking for tears. I do not know
where he was looking. My mirror says
it was not my face, not my dress
nor sweater. It was not my hands
nor the way I sat, listening. Two days
have passed. He says he saw my words.
His eyes are finer than mine. I see
no words. I am looking.

My bags are packed. Aliyah?
Yes and no. To Israel, to Palestine .
Bring an extra suitcase for your words,
he said. But beware and rejoice—
they may or may not pass the checkpoints,
pass customs. The wounded who sit
with the loneliness of a wall can see your words.
They will feel a duty to take them.

Upon my immediate return, I had no idea how I had changed—or if I had at all. Other matters held my focus: (1) the poems flooding my email from Israel, Palestine, and Turkey, (2) the peace education resources I had collected (and continue to collect), and (3) my own taking form. I was still basking in the intense warmth of my perception that hundreds of people in the Middle East and elsewhere are working for peace. More people than I ever imagined were saying, “Enough!”

Maha El-Taji was our Arabic translator and “Palestinian” co-leader with American-Jew Leah Green, founder of The Compassionate-Listening Project (CLP) .As a result of the Arab diaspora in 1948, Maha's parents fled from Palestine to Lebanon and then Libya, where Maha was born. She grew up hating Jews “for taking our land.” Not so many years ago, in Haifa, at a Buddhist sangha, she shared her story. A Jewish girl teared up and said, “I'm afraid that what happened to Maha's family will happen to mine.” This was the beginning that led Maha to working for peace and offering herself, as she did on our trip, to “partner” herself in spirit with such people as Israeli Shani Werner, a former Zionist, present peace-activist, and one of the first female conscientious objectors to the draft. Maha's words to Shani modeled a guideline of CLP to “hold both sides.”

Did the CLP delegation have an isolated experience, or may I truly believe that the people in Israel and Palestine are ready for peace? To keep hold of my experience, I must remember those I met. People like Ibrahim Issa, director of The Hope Flowers al-Amal School ( amal means “hope”) in Bethlehem, Palestine. The mission of the school is to teach the importance of coexistence and democracy — along with Arabic, English and Hebrew. The PLO blew up the school in 1992; Issa rebuilt. Since the 2000 Intifada, no Israelis are allowed to attend the school. In 2002, Israeli forces arrested Issa and accused him of giving refuge to a terrorist (i.e. a renter at Issa's residence). Issa pleaded his innocence. He was tortured five days, and then released with an apology for the partial demolition of his home. Friends encouraged him to seek retribution. Issa said, “I need to practice forgiveness.” In 2004, Israeli soldiers asked him, “Why do peace education?” Issa replied, “There is no other choice.”

I remember Hagit Ra'anan, an Israeli peacemaker, her husband killed in Beirut by Palestinians. She believes that if we can heal ourselves and heal individuals around us, there is a chance for healing between nations. She says, “I don't think of myself as a ‘peacemaker.' I don't think you can ‘make' peace. It's already here. I just need to be that peace.” Eighty peace poles around the country are of her creation. She served as our guide to Metullah and the “Good Fence” on the Lebanon border, and then to the town of Kiryat Shmona, which suffered the attack of 300 shells per day during the recent war with the Hezbollah of Lebanon. Hagit introduced us to Rhonda Tsipar, a New Jersey-born Jew and director of a school for young children, mother of two Israeli sons who served in the recent war. Rhonda turned her school into a bomb shelter for the Tzfat Hospital, which was bombed in July; she offered Palestinians care and refuge in her school.

The next stop with Hagit was Rosh Pina, center of Creativity for Peace (and yoga) and the home of Anael Harpez, where women, both Jewish and Palestinian, come together in spiritual support. Following the passionate sharing by many of the women, a member of our coalition, Frieda Furman, said, “Thank you for sharing. We've been learning how to hold both sides without judgment. Thank you for giving us a model for how it's done.”

On November 11, the two-year anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, Hamas member and Mayor of Beit Ommar, Farhan Alqam, with a large photograph of Arafat framed above his head, spoke to our group. He said, “I understand you could have come on a tourist trip for leisure and relaxation, but you have come to listen to the problems and concerns of my country. That makes me want to share from my heart in a deep way.” In Mayor Farhan Alqam, I found a poet. He said, “A drop of water, soft as it is, will make a dent in even the hardest of things. This is the power in the water: to make change and bring justice. This is the hope of my people.”

I remember the dozens of others I spoke to, listened to, in Israel and Palestine: my host family in Al-Arroub Refugee Camp; Israeli soldiers who dared talk to me; shopkeepers; the Michigan Peace Team, protesting the Wall at Bi'lin; Donna Hicks and former NPR journalist Hisham Sharabati of the Christian Peacemaker Team; Dr. Muhammad Essawi, President of Al-Qasemi Academy for Jews and Arabs, who dreams of “taking the model to the whole world”; poet Wagee Burnot, who starred in and wrote poetry for a film about Bi'lin's weekly protests against the Wall; poet Taha Muhammad Ali of Nazareth; and the Israeli-Jew, Dalia (Eshkenazi) Landau, a main character in Sandy Tolan's bestselling book The Lemon Tree . When host of our group one Shabbat, she informed us her father decided to return their home in Ramla to the Khairis, the Palestinian family that owned it before the Arab diaspora in 1948. In demonstration of her personal commitment to mend the break between Jews and Arabs, Dalia autographed a copy of The Lemon Tree for Maha's father: I hope you can forgive us.

In Antalya, Turkey, attended by seven of our CLP delegation, 300 individuals working internationally in peace education internationally met for four days to exchange ideas about how to create a culture of peace. I collected poems and resources, and spoke with poet Ada Aharoni, who has been nominated for a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Was it all lovely? All easy? Was I never in danger? Never afraid? Absolutely not. Yet it is the people being peace, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, and working for peace that we hear too little about.

Find out how you can help:
Al-Arroub Palestinian Refugee Camp, Jamil Roshdy:
Al-Qasemi Academy :
Anael Harpez,
Christian Peacemaker Teams:
Dalia Landau:
Hagit Ra'anan; Bridges of Peace :
Hope Flowers School :
Michigan Peace Team (international):
Plant Trees for Peace:
Wi'am, Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center :

[Sarah Zale teaches writing at Peninsula College and facilitates the online workshop Poetry First! from her website ( She is Editor of the Pitkin Review at Goddard College]

3. Commentary by Sam Hamill/

Just as we all turned to a new calendar year, the 3000 th U. S. citizen-warrior died in combat in Iraq. No one knows how many Iraqis have perished in Bush's War; no one knows how many Iraqis have died needlessly; nobody knows how many tens of thousands of disenfranchised Iraqis have fled their homelands to live in exile. What we do know is that while Bush mouths the words freedom and democracy, they are, to him and Cheney and others of their ilk, empty words—empty because Bush & Co. has no meaningful concept of freedom or democracy; to Bush and Cheney and their allies, these are merely abstract ideas used to promote the concentration of power in the hands of the rich white males who would rule the world. How otherwise could this country continue to invest in murder, in the slaughter of innocents, while turning its back on the slaughter of innocents in Darfur and on the encroachment of our ally, the Israeli government, on Palestinian homelands? Without some sense of justice, liberty and democracy are impotent concepts.

In a talk given at the Labor Exchange of Saint-Etienne a half-century ago, Albert Camus said, “If we add up the examples of breach of faith and extortion that have just been pointed out to us, we can foresee a time when, in a Europe of concentration camps, the only people at liberty will be prison guards who will then have to lock up one another. When only one remains, he will be called the ‘supreme guard,' and that will be the ideal society in which problems of opposition, the headache of all twentieth century government, will be settled once and for all.”

Remove the word Europe and replace it with America, and Camus might have been writing about George W. Bush. It takes little or no imagination to see Bush calling himself the “Supreme Guard.” He has spoken parallel lines a thousand times. Our grand “Decider” has decided for all of us that our Constitution simply doesn't work in a “post 9-11 world,” that we need secret prisons in foreign lands where we can freely torture anyone the Decider decides needs torturing, that we can wage war upon an innocent nation in the name of freedom and democracy, and that we do not need the 1st, 4th, or 14th amendments to protect us from his supreme guardianship. But this particular fascist can't even get the trains to run on time. He pursues his war despite all reasonable counsel to the contrary and in the face of unified opposition by the very American people he was (perhaps) elected to serve. Even the Republican Party has come to oppose his ambitions.

All war is extortion. And this particular war will extort its cost not only from us, but from our children, both morally and financially. What is far, far worse is the abridgement of our Constitutional rights and the collapse of congressional responsibility. The present administration has advanced the causes of freedom and democracy nowhere—neither at home nor abroad. It has operated exactly to the contrary of those noble ideals and principles set down by the authors of our Constitution. And our elected representatives, ever in the service of their own seats of power, have conceded again and again.

The Halliburton Corporation, the oil magnates, the arms manufacturers, multinational media conglomerates —in short, those who provide the money and legitimize the lies of Bush and company—profit handsomely from the death of innocents. The same companies that profit from the destruction of countries profit again from rebuilding them. American oil companies have enjoyed several years of record-breaking profits. This too is a form of extortion. And nearly every politician running for office feels the need to tap into the rich veins of corporate extortionists in order to be elected. Corporate money and corporate ethics, not ideals of liberty and democracy, define our electoral politics.

And what of poetry in the face of such circumstances? Camus reminds us that if art “adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his (sic) mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality.”

Four years ago, founding Poets Against War, we were a minority opinion in our unified opposition to this war. We are now part of a vast mainstream majority. Nevertheless the wars grind on in living reality and therefore live on in our hearts and minds and in our poetry. The imagination fixes on the suffering of Darfur, the unabated mayhem of Baghdad, the village battles in Afganistan, the public bombings in Thailand or India, Indonesia, England or Spain, and poetry seems almost impotent. But it is not. Each of us has a tale-of-the-tribe; each of us must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the victimized. Each of us must draw a line and make a stand for something larger than ourselves if our art is to have usefulness. We poets do not and cannot stand apart from the suffering in this world. Each of us must embody and carry forward the very peace and justice we all seek.

In the name of justice and liberty, the war criminals should be impeached and put on trial for crimes against humanity and our elected representatives should be made to restore our Constitution. Peace, liberty, justice—these are concepts wrought in the individual heart-and-mind and made manifest in this world only through individual courage and commitment. Our art, born in the heart and polished through years of practice, is a part of the solution.

During World War II, during the terrible years of 1943 and '44, Camus published several “Letters to a German Friend” (see Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Knopf, 1961) to explain his stance against nationalism. “I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end,” he said. “There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don't want greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” Of course his German friend “retorted, ‘Well, you don't love your country.'” Camus says he felt “a choking sensation” as he thought of his friend's remarks, then says, “No, I didn't love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving, if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving.”

Our country's greatness includes a power and prosperity build on the shoulders and backs of the slave trade (which helped finance the American Revolution) and two hundred years of genocide practiced against Native American nations during our westward expansion. Our prosperity came, all too often, at the expense of dictatorships and mass murder— direct preconceived consequences of our imperialist policies in Mexico and in Central and South America for more than one hundred years. (For a surprising treatise on this subject by a Marine Corps general who won two Congressional Medals of Honor, go to: )

We should have learned from our experience in Vietnam that destroying a country cannot save it. There are levels of resistance that military might simply cannot overcome. There are means that simply cannot be justified.

For me, the greatness of our Constitution lies in the Bill of Rights, and most specifically in three of its most compelling arguments: 1: The inalienable right to free speech which opens the doors to the free exchange of ideas (including even the most repugnant). 2: The separation of Church and State, without which we'd all be members of the English church. 3: The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

George Bush has spent the last five years using “a post-911 world” as his excuse to undermine these Constutional rights as they have never before been undermined. Even as I write, our government is planning a huge military complex for Guantánamo where more prisoners can be tried without counsel, without habeas corpus, and without Constitutional or Geneva Convention interference. No President in our history has done more to destroy our civil rights and abridge our system of justice.

If we as poets are duty-bound to hear the cries of the world, we are also equally bound to celebrate the beauty and justice that blossoms however mysteriously even amongst such carnage. That, after all, is our human condition. Because we love our country and our language, we must be true not to its tyrants, but to essential principles and what can be made of them in the service of truth, justice, and the practice of decency, the practice of compassion.

Love our country as we love our children. Every country is a child slowly maturing. And just as we impose discipline on our children because we love them, we must impose discipline on those who claim to serve us. We may have to suffer through another two years of Caligula in the White House, but we have the power to hold our congressional representatives' feet to a very hot fire. We have become the majority, and there is much that can be done: now is not the time for silence. We get the government we deserve.

May our poems continue to speak for the conscience of our country, as we asked in founding Poets Against War four years, countless lives.

(Sam Hamill's selected poems, Almost Paradise, was recently published by Shambhala Publications.)


At 2/19/2007 5:04 PM, Blogger david said...

due to the suspension of habeas corpus (thanks to the Military Commissions Act) there is no legal recourse for detainees of the United States. the lawyers for hospital administrator Adel Hamad, a detainee at Guantanamo, thus took the unprecedented step of releasing video testimony on YouTube to the court of public opinion.

You can see this compelling video at:

you can also add your name in support of habeas restoration and read a blog posting by Brandon Mayfield, the U.S. citizen wrongfully incarcerated for the Madrid bombings who is now challenging the constitutionality of the Patriot Act in district court

join the project!

At 2/26/2007 11:43 AM, Anonymous Adam Done said...

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