Poetry and reconciliation: The poet’s quest for peace

By: Alexandria Reid with Sasha Dugdale

Sasha Dugdale, Poet and Translator. Source: Academica Rossica.
Sasha Dugdale, Poet and Translator. Source: Academica Rossica.

Poetry, especially in traditional oral form, has the power to connect boundaries and disciplines. Literary critic Paul Fussell makes a powerful case that by forcing the reader to confront ‘actual and terrible moral challenges’ the genre earns itself a special reputation for timelessness and emotional reverence. [1] War poetry is often a staple ingredient in history and English curriculums for schools across the world, and many who claim not to enjoy poetry make an exception for war poetry. As a deeply personal experience, poetry captures people across time and space. These exceptional qualities may allow for poetry to become a potent tool in conflict resolution.

Poetry offers an insight into the emotional experience of violence and conflict potentially beyond that found in academia. As Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov notes, academically identifying the drivers of conflict amidst political elites does not necessarily promote a stable or long lasting peace. [3] Missing from the equation is the importance of community reconciliation as a process and an outcome of durable peacemaking. ‘Reconciliation’, Bar-Tal and Bennick note, ‘involves modifying motivations, beliefs, and attitudes of the majority, and such activities promote establishing or renewing relations within a group.’ [2] Poetry offers itself as a way of building confidence and understanding between groups at a grassroots level.

It is possible to envisage that the vocabulary and social discussion poetry stimulates might become an important element of the reconciliation process between communities. This idea is not novel. Long ago, Walt Whitman’s American Civil War poem entitled ‘Reconciliation’ exposed the self-serving myth that the enemy is ‘the evil other’, and not in fact ‘a man divine as myself’:

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time
be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly
wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead — a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin — I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in
the coffin.

Walt Whitman, 1867 [4]

Employing the theme of reconciliation, and seeking a way to incorporate poetry into contemporary discussions about conflict, last weekend, internationally renowned poets gathered in London for an interfaith discussion and series of readings on the theme of ‘The Poet’s Quest for Peace’. The event saw Kurdish poet and refugee Choman Hardi, Israeli poet Agi Mishol, and T.S. Eliot prize-winning poet George Szirtes asking the important question: How might poetry contribute to peace processes?

Strife spoke briefly with Sasha Dugdale, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, on some of these themes. Sasha was short-listed earlier this month for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem of 2016 with her poem Joy:

Alexandria Reid: Who are the audiences for your poetry? Does your poetry about conflict ever reach the victims, or the stakeholders in these conflicts? 

Sasha Dugdale: I write in response to friends’ experiences of conflicts (mostly Russians and Ukrainians) and my own experience of translating their conflict-related work, so my experience of conflict is second-hand. I wouldn’t dream of presuming to show the victims or stakeholders, as I am mostly at one removed and it would feel presumptuous. Also it is usually at an oblique angle to the events it describes.

AR: One of the panels on the day asked the question ‘How might poetry contribute to peace processes?’ Could you tell Strife your thoughts on this:

SD: I can’t honestly see how poetry contributes to peace processes, which are usually careful minute calculations of diplomacy with all emotion carefully stripped out. But poetry can remind us of the pity of war as no other genre can, so perhaps its useful role is played out before the tanks roll in.

AR: What are some of the challenges of writing about violence and conflict through poetry as a medium?

SD: I don’t seek to write about conflict and violence, I write about what is moving and agitating me. But there are distinct risks: when some poets are living through war, genocide and desperate times, to write about their experience from the position of someone who lives in safety and stability can seem presumptuous to the point of immorality. I wouldn’t say I wrote poetry of witness, because I wouldn’t claim to have felt or witnessed their experiences ‘on my pulse’ however I can write what naturally and properly arises from my own meditations on war and conflict and my own experiences of working with the scarred.


The Poet’s Quest for Peace was an LJS event, curated by Naomi Jaffa [former Director of The Poetry Trust/Aldeburgh Poetry Festival] and organised by Harriett Goldenberg and Sue Bolsom.

Sasha Dugdale is a Sussex-born poet, playwright and translator specialising in both classic and contemporary Russian drama and poetry. She has worked for the British Council in Russia and set up the Russian New Writing Project with the Royal Court Theatre in London. Since 2012 she has been editor of Modern Poetry in Translation (co-founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort) and to date she has published three poetry collections – most recently Red House (2011). Twitter: @SashaDugdale.

Alexandria Reid is a recent graduate of War Studies at King’s College London and recipient of the Sir Michael Howard Excellence Award and Best Undergraduate Award. Alex currently works for Strife as a Social Media Coordinator, and as a research assistant for Dr. John Bew. In September she will begin her Master’s education as a Conflict, Security and Development student at KCL. Twitter: @AlexHREID.



[1] Fussell in Featherstone, Simon (1995), ‘War Poetry: An Introductory Reader’ (Routledge), p.1

[2] Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov (2004), From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation (Oxford University Press)

[3] Bar-Tal, Daniel, Bennink, Gemma (2004), ‘The Nature of Reconciliation as an Outcome and as a Process’, in Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov, From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation (Oxford University Press), pp.11-39

[4] Whitman, Walt (1867), ‘Reconciliation’, Bartleby Bibliographic Record, accessed 24/06/2016, http://www.bartleby.com/142/137.html

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