Poetry is a world too often left unexplored. The reading, writing, and listening of poetry are disciplines that more of us should practice more often than we do. Renowned international peacebuilder John Paul Lederach writes in The Moral Imagination that we should actually consider poetry a central component of the peacebuilding process. Poetry (or, more specifically for his purposes, the haiku) allows us to express simply and creatively some of the most daunting complexities of the human journey. Lederach argues that peacebuilding must be able to do this very same thing: simultaneously capturing the overall complexity and embedded simplicity within any given conflict. It is not a form of reductionism necessarily, and we actually must be very careful to avoid such tendencies. Rather, the space of poetry is a space of paradox, a space of serendipity where we may unintentionally stumble upon truth and beauty because we have kept our peripheral vision open through intentional creative practice.
Last night, my newly made friend Pádraig Ó Tuama (a connection I have here in Belfast via the likes of David Dark and Peter Rollins) launched his fantastic new book of poetry Readings from the Book of Exile at Common Ground Cafe on University Ave. With a packed house all sipping coffee and wine, Padraig read aloud selections of his poetry, reminding us all that, as the Irish phrase goes, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Padraig’s poems center around the theme of exile, of being in a place or a state other than where we began or where we find comfort. Exile plays a major role in the stories of the Hebrew people recorded in the biblical text. Whether through external impositions, our own shortcomings, or otherwise, we can often find ourselves in places of exile, of loneliness and despair. It is in these places, as Padraig explained, that we are forced to re-imagine ourselves as we seek to reconstruct our narratives. In exile, we are divorced of what we’ve known, all those things that gave us meaning and influenced our formation. We feel as if we’ve lost our purpose and our belonging. Thus, without creativity and imagination, exile is a pit without potential, a place where identity is lost but never transformed.
This is the hope of poetry at such times and in such places. It gives us voices when we have struggled to find the words to express our bewilderment and confusion at our loss of place and identity in our times of exile. Essentially, poetry gives us opportunities, in ways normal dialogue often cannot, to converse about what it means to be human. And through our conversation, both with others and with ourselves, we find new ways of being, new ways of understanding, new ways of imagining and seeing. Poetry can both simplify the complexities of our loneliness in exile, as well as complexify the simplicities we perceive in our places of comfort. Thus, poetry is both a light in the darkness of exile, and a darkness in the light of comfort. We would do well to listen to its counsel.