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Poetry as Transitional Justice?


Poetry has long been a therapeutic medium through which traumatised survivors of war have attempted to process, explore, contain or escape painful yet life-affirming moments. The ambiguities of content and pattern integral to the practice make it uniquely suited to this task of amalgamating the incomprehensible. We think, perhaps, of the wild visions of Henry Vaughan’s post-civil war poems, the violent moral tensions of Milton’s post-English Commonwealth epics, the syncopation between traumatic memory and mythic fantasy in the post-WW1 work of David Jones, or the oscillation between combat realism and Catholic hymnal in the corpus of Sassoon. As Frost’s ‘Silken Tent’ moniker implies, poetry is a form which offers the weary traveller the hope of shelter without the threat of imprisonment.

But can poetry ever do more than merely console the shivering recluse?

On Saturday 21st October the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series made a courageous case for the affirmative. At one of the break-out session working groups, two Iraqi poets, one British poet, one British poetry academic, one British academic looking at Iraqi prose writing, and two British military veterans of the recent war in Iraq discussed the commemorative potential, if any, of poetry.

Frank Ledwidge, a veteran of military operations in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, opened the discussion with a challenge. Simply stated, war is a violent phenomenon which kills, crushes, and disempowers. What did the socially elite activities of poetry and academia have to do with the catastrophic experiences suffered by those who have been through war? We were going to talk about poetry and commemoration but what relevance, Ledwidge asked, did this have for contemporary war? So we were going to talk, but so what?

To this challenge Dunya Mikhail and Adnan al-Sayegh offered three responses. Firstly, Mikhail suggested that for herself the writing of poetry enabled the creation in her mind of a place of peace. Having previously described being a poet as being a ‘flame bearer’, it seems that this place of peace is a semi-sacred place which not only offers peace for the flame-bearer but also demands that he or she shine a light on the actions of humanity’s darker recesses – poetry as sanctuary but also as a place of commemorative witness.

Adnan al-Sayegh added a second point, suggesting that poetry was not merely a sanctuary for the practitioner and a witness for the future, but a peaceful place of collaboration into which others could be invited. Working alongside British poet Jenny Lewis, Adnan has collaborated with groups of children in Iraq to try and enable children to harness a poetic vocabulary to imagine a peaceful future.

These two points were well made. But the third response of the poets to Ledwidge’s challenge was not so much stated as embodied.

Transitional justice is a tool of post-conflict reconciliation which focusses on addressing people’s deeply held pains and grievances as a means to enable individual healing and then societal development. Transitional justice may use judicial processes such as war crimes tribunals, but may also use more informal mechanisms such as truth and reconciliation commissions.

The challenge transitional justice attempts to negotiate is to enable satisfaction for the distressed while also not opening old sores by vilifying others. It is such a binary distinction, evident in the categorising imperative of legal judgement, that transitional justice attempts to avoid.

The evidence of our discussion on Saturday suggests that the very same ambiguities and emotional sensitivities which make poetry such an effective medium for individuals to address their own challenging personal contradictions may also make the medium uniquely suited to negotiating discussions between confrontational and contradictory groups. The silken tent of poetry may open enough space for the acknowledgement of responsibility without committing its visitors to the price of accountability. And it is an acknowledgement, and not a price, that survivors of war are often seeking.

Certainly that was our experience on Saturday, in which differing perspectives on conflict in Iraq were all able to recognise and respond respectfully to others’ suffering, acknowledge mistakes and responsibility, but were not compelled to admit culpability – for being a poet in a country at war, for being an academic in a country of peace, or for being a soldier in a country of poets.


Alex Donnelly

DPhil candidate in Anthropology, University of Oxford