Reconciliation poetry includes deep, non-sentimental, very real lament. This is not unbridled angry pain that hurts others – it’s acceptance of terrible realities. But to believe that lament is all there is would be to live a lie. Flourishing can happen again, and it’s what we were made for.
Much of what I learned about the poetry of reconciliation is from Cambridge University (UK) chaplain Malcolm Guite, a poet, priest, and rock ‘n roller. He’s also an international expert on Dante, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien. Malcolm spoke at the first Duke Center for Reconciliation Summer Institute, a project I was involved with setting up in 2009 to help grassroots leaders around the world deepen their understanding of what it means to “love enemies.”
Malcolm taught of Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley. The poems and songs he described outlined very real pain but also a choice about “who I want to become when faced with this reality.” Malcolm taught poetry which showed:
- Heaney’s pain of rejection when he would not take sides in the Irish struggle. Exposure is one of the most important reconciliation poems because it’s where Heaney understood he had the right not to take sides in a centuries long struggle but to just be who he was. His Nobel prize speech also refers to important works by Yeats about how one can keep both the awful and the wonderful in one’s mind.
- Bob Dylan’s pain of realizing how many people he had hurt – Every Grain of Sand is considered one of his best works.
- Bob Marley’s urging people to break the bonds of mental slavery at a time Marley faced the cancer that took his life. Redemption Song is one of his most powerful songs that points out a mindset for people to rebuild after terrible catastrophe.
Here is a more ancient source for reconciliation poetry. It reminds me even in my darkest times – when I’m not making it up that it really is that bleak – that sometimes things may change, and they can change in a way that helps us flourish.
THE CURE AT TROY, excerpt
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
For an excellent essay on reconciliation poetry, including additional poems, read Seamus Heaney’s Noble Prize acceptance speech.