Peace Cultures

Mary Lee Morrison: Poetry and Peace

Peace scholar Mary Lee Morrison, biographer of Elise Boulding and friend of the Ikeda Center, knowing that we were putting together a poetry section, kindly agreed for us to excerpt her essay “Poetry and Peace: Explorations of Language and “Unlanguage” as Transformative Pedagogy(In Factis Pax, Vol.3, no.1 (2009), It does a fine job exploring the connections of poetry and peace, including a discussion of Daisaku Ikeda’s “poetic mind” concept.

Poetry makes us human. Without poetry and other art forms, the survival of global, planetary consciousness and, indeed, our very existence as a species is called into question. Poetry, through words, reduces our experiences to their essence and, at the same time, uplifts our souls to their highest. The poet and peace activist Denise Levertov (1923-1997) wrote that poets, more than any others, “recognize language as a form of life and a common resource to be cherished and served as we should serve and cherish earth and its waters, animal and vegetable life, and each other.” (1) Levertov believed that the poet’s task is to hold in trust that knowledge that language is considered power (my italics). Quoting Ibsen, Levertov noted that the task of the poet is to “make clear to himself [sic], and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and community to which he belongs.” (2)

Poetry can be transformative. The inexplicable tears and, at times, laughter that can come when a poem is heard touches something deep within us. The explanation for this, it would seem, lies not only in the didactic process of the hearing, despite the importance many poets place on the power of language. I believe that there are deeper processes that occur within the listener of poetry as the words are incorporated, resulting in a deep communion between poet and listener. I coin these deeper processes the unlanguage of poetry. Unlanguage is the point at which the listener’s authentic self emerges, silently, as we hear a poem, and is the pathway in which we agree with the poet that their truth and our truth are in harmony. When our own, authentic self emerges, transformation can begin.

My adult religious practice as a Quaker has deepened my understanding of the power of “unwords” and the importance of stillness as a discipline and a pathway to a deeper listening, to hear both the spiritual and the temporal, to listen “beneath words.” Hugh Ogden, a well-known poet and professor at Trinity College and Quaker, sadly recently deceased, frequently spoke extemporaneous poetry in our local Meeting for Worship as a spiritual message for the congregation. As I listened to his words and then pondered during the silence following, I often found my own sense of the Divine heightened, in ways different from and more powerfully enhanced, than when hearing other spoken messages.

Martin Heidegger, as Denise Levertov notes in The Poet in the World, wrote that to be human is to be rooted in conversation. Levertov expands on this notion to say that the poet develops this basic need for dialogue in ways that are audible to others. Through listening, the hearer is awakened to take up his or her own inner dialogue, all too often neglected in a world of constant outer stimulation. (3) Louis Untermeyer, author of A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, claims that poetry is the most potent form of communication. He goes on to note that poetry is also conversation as a craft. (4) That is, the purpose of a poem is to create something that was not there before. We may conclude that to make, therefore, implies a form of action in the creation. Poetry, according to Levertov, sets in motion elements in the listener that would otherwise remain stagnant. Levertov makes the claim that language is a form of life itself (my italics).  

Poetry as Peace Pedagogy

Poetry asks questions about the deepest issues related to the human condition. Peace education does the same. Wordsworth wrote of the task of poetry as binding together, by passion and knowledge, “the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth and over all time.” (5) Louis Untermeyer notes that the aim of a poem is to make the hearer or reader feel and see with new acuteness and awareness. The poet is the bearer of everything that humanity holds dear and uplifts, the keeper and transmitter of all that humans work for. (6) Thus it can be concluded that one of the tasks of poetry is to bring forth those transformative potentials in listeners that can be the basis for deep social and structural change. In the words of Walt Whitman

Allons! We must not stop here.
Let us press on together,
my friends and companions.
and let us sing songs of praise
of life’s beauties and wonders
as we go.

I agree with Denise Levertov that at the root of good poetry is a reverence for life.

Making peace is a process of both inward discernment and outward action.

Mary Lee Morrison

Jane Hirschfield notes that, to fully appreciate poetry, one must travel inward as well as outward in imaging. She writes “provoking the imagination, on the inward journey, is at the heart of change.” (7) Levertov notes that both the meditative and the socially active are interrelated. Similarly, making peace is a process of both inward discernment and outward action.      

Poets must give us their (and ours to claim) imagination, the images of peace, to replace those of disaster and war, in order to foster hope for a better world. The Japanese Buddhist philosopher and peace educator Daisaku Ikeda writes that the poet creates “portals of hope and entranceways for exchange in the massive walls that divide us.” (8) Good peace pedagogy must do the same, with the power to evoke our imagination toward the deepest possibilities for human existence. All too often we can despair at the hope for change if we see only our present world and the structural violence in which we are embedded.

Elise Boulding began in the 1980s, with Warren Ziegler, to create imaging workshops in which participants, through a series of imaginary steps both backwards and forwards in their own personal sense of time, communally designed the world they wished to see and, at the end of the workshop each participant created action steps to move into the world he/she wished to see. Boulding’s ideas were based, in part, on the work of the Dutch futurist, Fred Polak, who believed that educators and activists cannot work for a world they cannot imagine. So it is with the artists, who, by their trade, are closer than many of us to the imaginings of both inner truths and outer good. It is important to give credence to where we have been as much as where we hope to go. Good poetry captures the essence of this hope and, in Ikeda’s words, creates a sense of “spiritual openness” to new possibilities. Thus we can see that both poets and peace educators can contribute to the deepening of this spiritual essence within each of us so that we can create possibilities for new ways of thinking and acting.

Levertov takes this concept further by telling us, in “Making Peace,” that we must go beyond even static imagining and that, in the writing and speaking of the very words themselves, poems and the poet, and, in turn, we the readers and listeners, become the makers of peace.

A Voice from the dark called out,
“The poets much give us
Imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
‘imagination of disaster’. Peace, not only
The absence of war”
But peace, like a poem
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice
syntax of mutual aid.

If we believe that poetry can touch the heart of the human condition, can engage the listener, writer, reader in dialogue, can help us with the spiritual transformation and vital imaging necessary, we conclude that poetry is a form of peace pedagogy. Indeed, we might consider it is one of the highest forms of peace pedagogy if we believe, as does Hirschfield, that great poetry is “a bird of prey, tearing open whatever needs to be opened.” (9)

Despite the claim of some poets, such as Levertov, that language is the most potent vehicle for change, I conclude that language is not enough for both the “tearing open” and the potential for transformation. It is not just in the hearing of the words, the reading or writing of the words, but in that space between the words and the “unwords,” between the language and the unlanguage, as we hear a poem, or write a poem or read a poem, it is in that space during which the reflective processes of moving inward and outward occur, as we both hear the words and “still the words,” that the  transformative educational process begins. Here, also, is the heart of educating for peace.


1. Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions Books, 1973), 53.

2. Ibid., 111.

3. Levertov, The Poet in the World.

4. Louis Untermeyer, A Concise History of Great Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953).

5. Ibid., 13.

6. Ibid.

7. Ayers, Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, 106.

8. Daisaku Ikeda, “On the Occasion of the Publication of Creating Waldens: Report on the Occasion of Publication,” (Ikeda Center, Cambridge, MA, September, 2009).

9. Ayers, Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, ix.