A cadence of peace might balance its weight on that different fulcrum — Remembrance Sunday 2018


Making Peace by Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must 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.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

(From Breathing the Water, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1987)

Remembrance Sunday by Malcolm Guite
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war;
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for,
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
For shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries from every land.
One silence only might redeem that blood;
Only the silence of a dying God.

(From Sounding the Seasons, seventy sonnets for the Christian year, Canterbury Press 2012)


For the Unknown Enemy by William Stafford

This monument is for the unknown
good in our enemies. Like a picture
their life began to appear: they
gathered at home in the evening
and sang. Above their fields they saw
a new sky. A holiday came
and they carried the baby to the park
for a party. Sunlight surrounded them.

Here we glimpse what our minds long turned
away from. The great mutual
blindness darkened that sunlight in the park,
and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon
we stood here letting a part of our minds
escape. They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.

This monument is for you.


A cadence of peace might balance its weight on that different fulcrum
Remembrance Sunday 2018

Autumn leaves outside the church on Emmauel Road this morning
Today we mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War which was supposed by some to be “the war to end all wars.” As we know, it was not and it appears that even during the First World War itself it was a phrase which was far from being believed. Indeed, the Prime Minister of the time, David Lloyd George, is even reputed to have said, “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.”

Given the continuing failure of war as a way to end to wars I imagine that there will be no one here who thinks that wars will ever succeed in ending war and that, therefore, peace must, in some fashion, be the answer. But, in affirming this very general notion, we must be careful not to be idealistic or naïve about peace because it is clear that, so far, neither has peace succeeded in ending war.

The truth of this was powerfully illustrated in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference and its highly punitive Treaty of Versailles which simply sowed the seeds for the rise of the Nazis and the beginning of the next war to end war, the Second World War. As Archibald Wavell, a future field-marshal and viceroy of India, said on seeing what was going on in Paris, “After the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been in Paris making the ‘Peace to end Peace’.”

This thought has haunted me for a long, long time now because although it is completely clear to me that war will never end war Wavell’s words have often made me wonder about the rôle our understanding of in what consists peace has on the seemingly endless continuation of war.

Put plainly, one hundred years on from the ending of the First World War, it seems to me that there is as much of a problem with our conceptions of peace as with our tendencies to war.

To help tease this thought out a bit it’s perhaps helpful to do something similar to that which I did a couple of weeks ago in connection with our ideas about “The Future” and make today a distinction between “Peace” with a capital “P” and scare quotes and peace with a lowercase “p” and no scare quotes.

By “Peace” with a capital “P” and scare quotes I’m referring to any kind of idealised utopian and absolute understanding of “Peace”, a “Peace” all the qualities and parameters of which you somehow know about long before you get there. For a culture such as our own, inexorably shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, most capital “P” Peaces can be traced back to Isaiah 11 in which the author presents us with a vision of what has become known as the “Peaceable Kingdom” (6-9):

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

This passage inspired the famous Quaker artist, Edward Hicks (1780–1849), to paint sixty, quite extraordinary versions of this utopian Peaceable Kingdom, one of which I have reproduced in your order of service (see picture on right). The problem is, of course, that such an utopian Peaceable Kingdom simply does not, nor can exist because, being the kind of beings they are in the kind of world this is, humans, wolves, leopards and lions simply do not live peaceably with lambs, kids and calves and it’s always insane ever to let your child play near the hole of an asp or an adder’s den. We may not like it, but hurt and destruction of all kinds — moral and natural, deliberate and accidental — is woven through the very fabric of our world. But, despite this, visions of capital “P” total “Peace” similar to those imagined by Isaiah continue to hold captive huge swaths of humanity who feel strongly that nature should, somehow, not be as it is and that, therefore, nature must either be changed or, given that it doesn’t exist on earth, their utopian vision must exist in some other, supernatural realm such as the kingdom of God. 

But, as someone who thinks we should always be following some strong precautionary principles and proceeding with the greatest of caution when considering changing any aspect of nature’s present way of naturing and who also can no longer believe in the existence of supernatural deities and their perfect, utopian other-worldly kingdoms, I take it as given that all such capital “P” “Peaces” are an illusion and that believing in them and trying to make them real only serves to take our eyes off the possibility of creating much more modest but, ultimately, genuine and realistic examples of lowercase “p” peace in this our natural world.

For me no one has better or more succinctly indicated what is required to create such a modest lower case “p” peace than the Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997).

She is completely clear that, just like a poem, “peace . . . is not there ahead of itself”  — it is not some pre-existent, ideal capital “P” thing towards which we hope, even believe, we are moving — rather it is always and only a possibility embedded the present that needs constantly to be evoked and gently brought into being like a poem.

To help you grasp what I am trying to say a little bit more firmly let me say the same thing about friendship. I am absolutely convinced that capital “F” friendship does not exist; but what assuredly does exist are acts of lowercase “f” friendship. Friendship needs to be evoked and gently evoked into being again and again otherwise it is non-existent. As with friendship, so with peace — they really only **are** where there are found living and ongoing acts of friendship and peace.

We may desire that the poets — and also philosophers, theologians, politicians and diplomats, too — should give us finished visions or “imaginations” of some future, capital P “Peace” to oust “to oust the intense, familiar imagination of disaster” but this has never truly been possible because, as Levertov knows, peace “can’t be imagined before it is made, can’t be known except in the words of its making [with its] grammar of justice [and] syntax of mutual aid.”

The most we can hope for, beforehand, is that we can begin to learn to evoke and gently nurture “A feeling towards [peace], dimly sensing a rhythm”, and it is only when we have begun deeply to internalise this movement that that we can then hope to “begin to utter its metaphors, learning them as we speak.”

As I have said at other times in other contexts, it seems to me that before we even think about making new policies (including peace policies) we need new metaphors — not least of all because the old metaphors of capital “P” Peace have failed to bring real, ongoing, lower case “p” peace. We need a “re-story-ation” of peace.

Any meaningful “re-tory-ated” metaphors for such a peace must be very different from that employed by Isaiah and Hicks. They were imagining a finally finished, perfect state but Levertov imagines it as an ever unfolding sentence in which “A line of peace might appear / if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, / questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses . . .”.

If we could do this then she says, perhaps, just perhaps “A cadence of peace might balance its weight / on that different fulcrum”.

But what does Levertov mean when she says a “different fulcrum”? Different to what? Well, from where I stand, the “cadence of peace” I see and hear performed year after year in nearly all the official, big public, political remembrances is one which leads us, not from war to peace, but always from peace to war. This is because the official public, polical cadence (no matter how moving it can be) is designed subtly to reinforce the basic idea that, actually, wars do create peace and this, in turn, means that the putative peaces we create in public are still balanced on a fulcrum of war.

To illustrate the truth of this I need say nothing more than to note that as our world’s state officials have gathered together in various places this week solemnly to remember the ending of “the war to end all wars” the fulcrum upon which their power balances (the military/industrial complex) continues to allow people and companies knowingly and willingly to sell billions of pounds worth of missiles and bombs to countries like Saudi Arabia for use in places like the Yemen.

This fact alone — repeated every generation so far — surely helps us see more clearly that we need a cadence of peace which balances not on a fulcrum of war but on a fulcrum of peace and our old-school nation-state orientated businesses and politics will never be able to provide us with this.

According to Levertov the fulcrum of peace we both need and seek is “a presence, / an energy field more intense than war” and it is one which can only come into being amongst people who, for whatever reason, have become committed both to restructuring the sentence their lives are making and who are also prepared to allow long pauses  out of which can come (re-story-ative) new metaphors and poems.

Is not Levertov suggesting here that real, lowercase “p” peace, like any word in a sentence or poem is the one properly required only for this sentence and poem, not for the next, and that, like acts of friendship, for evermore and until the end of time we are daily called upon to be writing new poems of peace, letting the rhythm of peace enter into us and vibrate every atom of our body and soul?

The war to end all wars has never, nor will ever come except, perhaps, through a war that destroys the whole world. But the same seems true of all our capital “P” “Peaces” and that they, too, will never end war.

But were we able to live as poets we might still have a chance to bring into being a more modest, lowercase “p” peace, that can energise us and might just “pulse then, / stanza by stanza into the world, / [with] each act of living / one of its words, each word a vibration of light—facets / of the forming crystal.”

I realise that for some this might sound wildly impractical but consider this, what is more likey: that the world could ever come to look like the capital “P” Peaceable Kingdom as depicted by Isaiah and Edward Hicks or that the world could, word by word, stanza by stanza each act of living by act of living, could re-story-ate our world and bring about real, modest, but still powerful lowercase “p” peaces that are much, much more than merely the absence of war.


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