Poetry, Violence and Peace
Rich Furman, MSW,
School of Social Work
University of Nebraska-Omaha
Kathryn S. Collins,
School of Social Work
University of Pittsburgh
May 14, 2003
Rich Furman, MSW, Ph.D., has published nearly two hundred poems in magazines and journals throughout the world. He has been an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Colorado State University. As of the August 2003, he will be an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. His scholarship is concerned with varied topics including: the nature of friendship and its relationship to psychosocial health; the uses of poetry in social work research, education and practice; international social welfare; social work ethics; and the relationship between social work theory and practice.
Kathryn S. Collins, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. Kathryns primary research and clinical interests are in the areas of childrens exposure to violence, trauma symptomatology, and community violence prevention interventions. She is exploring the barriers that limit children who are exposed to violence in their homes, schools and communities to access proper mental health care. Currently, Kathryn is the Principal Investigator on the research project, Childrens Attributions and Trauma Study (CATS), being conducted in the metropolitan Pittsburgh area. This study is contributing to her efforts of designing a comprehensive treatment modality based on reducing childrens frequency, duration, and intensity of trauma symptoms.
War and violence are the ultimate sickness of the human condition. As such, tools are needed to help womankind heal from this sickness. This article presents several uses of poetry as a means of challenging and healing from the impact of violence and war. It also addresses the use of the poem as a means of exploring working towards peace.
In the United States, it is estimated that more than five million children per year are exposed to violent events (Childrens Defense Fund, 1999). In 1999, more children died from gunfire than cancer, pneumonia, influenza, asthma, and HIV/AIDS combined. The reality is that violence has become embedded in the fabric of life in the United States (Ciccheti and Lynch, 1993; Van Soest and Bryant, 1995). With so many children exposed to and influenced by violence, it is likely that American society will continue to be characterized by violence for, at the very least, a generation to come. Numerous social scientists have explored the impact of violence on children, yet researchers have noted that its impact might be more significant than previously imagined (Bell & Jenkins, 1993; Osofsky, 1995).
Adults and children are exposed to violence through direct victimization or through witnessing violent episodes. They also hear about accounts of community and domestic violence from parents, friends, relatives, neighbors, and the media. Children who witness violence often experience co-victimization or secondary trauma. In terms of the impact of violence upon human growth and development, the line of demarcation between direct victims and those who witness or hear about violence is obscure because of similar reactions and effects produced by each (Sharkoor and Chalmers, 1991; Figley & Kleber, 1995). It is likely such experiences also apply to war and the impact of war, as many children and adults are subjected to not only the images of war from television, but also may experience trauma by being subjected to the continual discussion of violence and war that has permeated the daily discourse of life in this country. The impact of war on North American society has been profound. Regardless of ones feelings about the current conflict in Iraq, both supporters of the war and those who oppose it would be advised to explore the impact it has had upon the consciousness of adults and children in the United States.
Gil (1990) observed that North American society is structurally violent. Structurally violent societies are ones that inhibit its members form meeting their basic human needs. These include what Abraham Maslow considered to be essential (Maslow, 1968), such as security, material and self- actualization needs. It also includes the need for meaningful production and creation, and spirituality. According to Gil (1990), a society that inhibits its members constructive developmental tendencies will create context for internalized or externalized violence. Certainly, in addition to alterations in the fundamental social structures that cause such violence, communities of people need mechanisms to meet their creative/expressive, self- actualizing, and spiritual needs. While it is certain that poetry will never end structural violence, it can be utilized as a means of healing, creativity, self- actualization, and community growth.
The authors by no means see poetry as a panacea that could possibly eliminate violence and war. Clearly, violence is predicated on fundamental social structures that must be altered for widespread violence and war to be curbed. However, using poetry as a means of communicating human truth and healing human pains can be a powerful ally in the struggle against violence. The goal of poetry is the clarification and magnification of being (Hirshfield, 1997), and to heal through the power of the word (Mazza, 1999). As violence inhibits human growth and potential, poetry might be an ideal means of helping individuals and communities heal. How this occurs will be explored shortly.
The first author began to use poetry as a mean of social protest in the late 1980s. He traveled through Central America in the late 1980s at the peak of the United States support for governments systematically engaging in genocide through the vehicle of the death squad. His poems from this time served as reminders of the potentially lethal consequences of intervening in situations without assessing the long- term consequences of our actions. The following poem gives voice to the consequences of American support for governments that engaged in genocide in Central America. It also explores the development of social consciousness through the poem, which helped its author grapple with feelings of individual responsibility for that his country was doing (Furman, 1993):
from hell to hell
from death squads black hand neverness
to liberties branding cattle prod
blue suits and steel
safeguard the indelible line
between or separate forms of misery
84 days form Huehuetenago
its streets of indigenous brightness
markets of peppers screaming
Shangri-La emerald hillsides of coffee
To Los Angeles
pools filled with rocky dreams
air thick enough to roller-skate on
shattered hoped stuffed
into working sacs of denial
84 days to walk they said
across the frontier of the disappeared
greening genitals stuffed into mouths
that could not confess fast enough
by roadsides rotting heat
to Tijuanas human coyote
rivers polluted death
children with no arms
drinking in the next generation
of children with no arms
it took you five days
and with your plastic freedom
six hours back
now in front of silicon
you will rationalize
Poetry and healing
For thousands of years, poetry has been a valuable tool for helping people deal with the pains of existence. Before there existed therapists and other professional agents of change, poets and shamans were called upon to facilitate healing through the power of the word. Over the last fifty years, poetry has been formally used for growth and healing through the development of poetry therapy (Leedy, 1973; Lerner, 1978). Poetry therapy can be defined as the systematic use of reading, writing, and performing of poetry for the purpose of human growth, change, healing, and transformation. In poetry therapy, the poem is seen as secondary to the person; the poem is thus a conduit for healing and transformation.
Poetry has been used therapeutically with victims of various kinds of violence. For example, poetry has been used in the treatment of women residing in safe houses and womens shelters (Hynes, 1987). Poetry has been utilized to help give voice to the victims of domestic violence, and help them move towards healing. By externalizing their pain, they begin the process shedding the bonds of self-blame and learn to place their concerns within a social contest. This is especially true when such works is done in the context of groups that have experienced similar patterns of violence or victimization. Poetry can be used to help people reauthor or restory their experience, and thus transform its impact. Through the power of creating new metaphors for oneself, victims of violence can move from self -conceptions defined by victimization, to ones that focus on their strengths as survivors.
Why the use of poetry in therapy is healing is subject to debate. While studies have demonstrated its efficacy with various client populations (Mazza, 1999), research has yet to isolate the exact mechanism for change. However, practitioners have indicated that poetry can create change on the affective (Rothenberg, 1987), cognitive (Goldstein, 1987) and behavioral levels (Langosch, 1987). Poetry facilitates the creative process and seems to release latent and underutilized strengths and resiliencies that clients posses (Furman, et. al, 2003). As a detailed discussion of poetry therapy is beyond the scope of this paper, the authors reference the following sources as being particularly useful (Furman, et. al, 2003; Harrower, 1972; Leedy, 1973; Mazza, 1999; NAPT, 2003).
Poetry and community change, poetry as a tool for peace
The healing power of poetry and poetry therapy are not only useful in work with individuals, families and small groups. Poetry as therapy and the conscious use of poetry therapeutically can be used with communities and large-system groups as well. In social work education in the United States, undergraduate and some graduate programs have adopted the generalist or advanced generalist models of social work. A generalist or advanced generalist practitioner adopts multiple roles with clients and operates on whatever level of changes is needed. That is, a social worker trained as an advanced generalist who is providing individual therapy would see it as their role to engage in community development and activism on behalf of their clients, if needed. The helping role is not viewed as atomistic, but instead adopts a systems or ecological perspective of human development (Germain & Gitterman, 1980; Hepworth, Rooney & Larsen, 2002). Community work is valued as being as therapeutic as individual psychotherapy. Even nation and world building fit into this model of social work practice (Estes, 1999).We believe that the poetry therapist and poet also have the capacity to use poetry in this manner as well. Community practice is a viable focus for the field of poetry therapy and for poets who process liberational approaches to the use of the written word.
Poetry has taken a central place in protest against the war. This social protest not only has political currency, but can help people experience themselves as empowered, which can combat the reactive depression that many have felt during times of war. Engaging in the use of poetry as a form of activism and healing can energize individuals and communities.
Peace work is essentially community work. There have been several activities in communities that are using poetry in this manner. Poetsaginastthewar.org (2003) is utilizing the Internet to give voice to poets opposing the war in Iraq. To date, they have collected poems from over 11,000 poets who were against the war. The organization helped poets organize readings in their communities where poets have read their work. Many such groups have taken advantage of the Internet as a means of promoting community and social change. Poets for Peace (2003a) has also given voice to those who use poetry as a means of working towards non-violence. They have published the World Peace Poem (Poets for Peace, 2003b), which is a poem written collectively by different poets throughout the world.
A case example
The first author of this article will present an incident that helped him gain a deepened understanding of the power of the poem as a tool for peace, and as a means of healing from the scars of violence. It is an example of poetry being used not merely in the insular world of the poetry reading, but as a means of expressing the impact of war at a community gathering. In the tradition of using the expressive arts as narrative inquiry (Neilsen, Cole & Knowles, 2001), the narrative will be presented in the first person.
Standing on a hilltop with about three hundred other people, I experienced the healing power of poetry shared with a community of people. On March 16, 2003, I was asked to read poetry at a peace vigil in Fort Collins, Colorado. Earlier that day, the president announced that the UN needed to approve war against Iraq within a day, or the United States and two allies would move to go to war without international sanction. I had asked another poet, Jack Martin to join me in reading a poem. After introductions, Jack read the following poem to the crowd:
shes a nice kid, loves to read,
will do almost anything
to pay for more school
and more books. Not an angel--
calls her friends names, makes them
guffaw when shes
late for class,
but shes got a hunger.
She understands the difference
between figurative and literal. Still,
maybe she stands a chance.
Yes, death will cut her hair,
and she will use weapons
with names we know
and names we dont.
But shell probably survive,
and she will know what shes done.
You should get to know her
before she leaves.
The crowd was visibly moved. The poem speaks of life, and a life that could be potentially altered or eliminated by war. Life in all its imperfections, but perfect none the less. It speaks to the impact that violence may upon those who survive. The mood of the crowd seemed to shift after the poem was read. Prior to his reading, several speakers discussed the significance of the day, and played a recording of the World Anthem. During Jacks live reading, the mood of the crowd became more focused. It appeared that many people who had previously only intellectually recognized the likelihood of war experienced its foreboding presence viscerally. Jacks poem gave voice to the human consequences of violence and war. The metaphor of this young life and its potential extinction gave the crowd something powerful to consider.
I followed Jacks reading with two poems. The first poem was written during the first gulf war, and speaks to the painful realities of a war that was often glorified and depersonalized by daily television broadcasts. For many, violence and war now have taken on the quality of a video game. Images from the media, alternating between overwhelming and antiseptic, can overwhelm the emotions and leave one without any discernible emotional experience of violence. The poem can be useful in helping break that sense of distance and safety.
Hearts stop as bombs drop
Death pounds Baghdad
Ancient chants wailing form Mosques
And the Ultimate
That now will pray
In asphyxiated sleep.
Millions hide terrified opals
Face what once was
That now is not
In separate worlds that never meet
We find no solace
In executioners smile
Or another set of lies.
Across American skies cola coal dark
Magical minds western and obscure
Neon lights of the wrong type of emptiness
Inners riddled with opacity
Lives wrought in the blackest haze
Clouds overhead lined with metal rain.
Fill me up Charlie
Drive down to the sand
Sunset of Pacific dreams
Oil polluted pseudo paradise shores
Above Baghdad stone age dirge
Twenty million pound sunset glow
The same spectacle of departing lights?
Blood freely flowing
Out expendable pumps
Causalities mothers holding up faded
Embarrassed high school snapshots
Enlarged for greater mourning
Time passes money hearts fold
Like cheap marked cards.
The second poem also speaks of the helplessness I have felt as the train of war sped along its track, seemingly out of control. In this poem, I juxtapose elements from my own life in a type of surreal narrative, the purpose of which is to highlight the unreal quality of a war.
when he sees the baby my wife cares for.
Only few years past early motherhood,
my wife loves the baby.
I worry about myself, only caring about
the $800 a month
invisibly stapled to the kids forehead,
or the protection of my silence,
and maybe the death
which will soon stick to fingers
like guilty blisters
that I press against granite typewriter keys.
George W. sees dead Iraqis as votes.
Pellets from smartbombs must
make constipating cereal
for little stomachs not accustomed to solid food.
I can never eat or sleep
before my first day in front of a class.
Republicans believe professors are drains
on the economy.
What use are professor poets
who dont even teach poetry?
What use are dead Iraqis?
We might not needs smoking guns
but must need smoking bodies.
It amazes me how some folks smoke cigarettes
but drink green tea and take vitamins.
The press estimates thirty thousand marched
in Washington against the war.
Nearly five million watched the playoffs.
Why does my dog shake when he sees the baby?
Why did my retirement fund tank?
Why are there the miniature dead
floating on the surface of my tea?
All too often, the academe encourages the atomization of various disciplines. Since one of the impacts of violence is to fracture personalities and communities, it is important that the university moves towards a sense of integration and wholeness. The arts and humanities, be it poetry, philosophy, drama or visual arts are useful mean of communicating about human phenomenon that have become the territory of the behavioral and social sciences. Poetry and the expressive arts can also be valuable means of resolving many of the social dilemmas that the behavioral and social sciences are committed to addressing. The authors of this article hope to have presented one example of how poetry and the arts can be used to cope with violence and war. The authors understand that this work is merely in a developmental stage, and much work needs to be done in developing theoretical and practice models. It is the hope of these authors that this paper will inspire others to build upon this work.
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Childrens Defense Fund (1999). *
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National Association for Poetry Therapy (2003). Homepage. Taken from the World Wide Web on May 7, 2003. http://www.poetrytherapy.org
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Poets for Peace (2003a). Homepage. Taken from the World Wide Web on May 6, 2003. http://www.iqpoetry.com/index.php
Poets for Peace (2003b). World Peace poem. Taken from the World Wide Web on May 6, 2003. http://www.poetsforpeace.net/poetsforpeace/a_plea_for_peace.htm
Rothenberg, A. (1987). Self-destruction, self creation, and psychotherapy. The American Journal of Social Psychiatry, 7(2), 69-77.
Sharkoor, B. H., & Chalmers, D. (1991). Co-victimization of African American children who are witness violence: Effects of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. Journal of the National Medical Association, 83, 223-238.
Van Soest, D. & Bryant, S. (1995). Violence reconceptualized for social work: the urban dilemma. Social Work, 40(4). 549-559.
 In graduate social work education, the model is referred to as the advanced generalist model.
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