Reconciliation poetry

The poetry of reconciliation – of loving enemies – is different than war poetry.

War poetry asks us to consider the impact of war and the need for a cease-fire. These are important topics!

Reconciliation poetry realizes that wounds do not heal with peace treaties (though that is an important start). Reconciliation poetry seeks interruptions of cycles of violence. If these cycles are not interrupted they last generations (that is we condition our children to not question “this is just how it is”). Cycles of violence often make the original victim a perpetrator of violence.

Instead, reconciliation poetry says, “Yes, things are bad. The world is not as it ought to be. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Things can be different. We can flourish again.”

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. We have examples all around us where we care to look, though our own pain often says “don’t look, at least not yet.”

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 HeaneyBob 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:

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.

Sophocles, 496-405 BCE trans. Seamus Heaney


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.