Thursday Poems: Making Peace by Denise Levertov

Ah, friends, it’s been a strange and unpleasant day. I wish I could welcome you back to Thursday Poems with a better context than another reprehensible attack, more grotesque murders committed by madmen clothed in religion, but entirely empty of its spirit. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to post something today, given news like this never fails to send me into a depressed spiral–the arguments that spring up in its wake, the hatred and retaliatory attacks all feel so very rote, so disgustingly familiar and expected that it’s enough to make you hopeless, to feel this cycle is doomed to continue forever until we’re all dead.

Enter poetry.

I was sitting at my desk, and thought I’d just check to see if I had any poems saved that I might like to read, and I did. From that poem, I found a random link to another, and hey presto, I arrived at Making Peace by Denise Levertov; the title promised the impossible, and what’s even more magical, somehow delivered. I felt a little more at ease in myself, and in the world, by the end of it.

It begins:

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.”

The stakes are set immediately and they are as high as they could be. The poet must imagine peace in all its fullness, must lay it out for the rest of us to follow, and that follow-through is what Levertov focuses on. Words are nothing without actions to give them life, to give them dimension and character. Too often, in fact, they are left empty and unfulfilled; we live in the absence of war, nothing more.

Meanwhile, actual wars go on across the globe, but for us, the still-free, the horribly wonderfully privileged, we get to pretend they don’t. That is our joy, and our curse all at once.

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.

To the poet, this makes complete sense. For many of us, the poem does not exist as a whole until the last word is written. Writing one is like groping your way forward in the dark, and it isn’t until the end that the light flickers on and you can see what you’ve made. So it is with peace — it will seem unattainable, out of reach or immaterial, until the day it isn’t and has arrived full-formed thanks to communal effort. It only takes a tiny amount from each of us to achieve an outsized result.

We can do more than say we stand for free speech, acceptance for all cultures and sexes and sexualities – we can do more than tweet about it, we can do more than hashtags and Facebook likes, we can vote for leaders that are anti-war, that abhor extremism of any stripe, no matter its creed or colouring, that understand our planet is changing and we need to change with it or be crushed by a destruction of our own making – and in the absence of such leaders, we can march until our voices are heard, until, as Levertov says, each word of peace and peaceful intent becomes ‘a vibration of light’. 

Forgive my idealism if you can; in times like these, I cling to hope. A hope which was at a low ebb until this poem rejuvenated me, just a bit. You may not agree with my interpretation of it, the lens of my politics, but the poem itself is worth reading for its simple beauty alone and you can do so here.

In the absence of that, or perhaps as an addendum to it, dear humans everywhere: be kinder to each other, please. We’re all we’ve got.

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