Because of Violence (essay)

In conjunction with yesterday’s poem, I’ve also submitted an interpretative essay on the writing process. I’ll not post the entire essay; however, here is a condensed version that outlines my rationale:
Having personally observed violent societies, spoken to victims of violence, and witnessed innumerable real and imagined acts of violence in the media—I have begin to consider potential remedies; what are the root causes? What is it about humans that give us this tendency toward violence? Is it innate or a learned activity? Last year, I began drafting a manifesto of sorts laying out my thoughts on the topic (with the aim to eventually expand the precepts into a book-length work). However, while the document is clear in its proposals, it lacks a certain vigour. For instance, the third proposal (which becomes canto three in the poem) states:

Given the opportunity, healing takes place
We are able to flourish because of our resiliency and adaptability; nature has a marked ability to recover from what seems to be complete devastation. However, because some wounds are so severe, we must carefully foster an environment where healing can take place. This involves a recognition of the need for healing. It involves an acceptance of our own responsibility for causing injury. It involves an acceptance of our own responsibility in recovery as well.

Recently, I listened to a lecture by James P. Carse entitled Religious War in Light of the Infinite Game. He was asked what is the most important need of the “environmental movement” at this time; his response was that the world needs more poets—that scientists need to learn how to express their research in a poetic manner to bring the power and import of their findings to others. When I was an undergraduate, I took several creative writing classes (I have a degree in English) and used to regularly express myself in verse. However, over the past few years, my pursuit of poetry reading and composition has waned. Instead, I have focused more on “concrete” writing of essays and proposals. Regardless of the form in which I’m writing, my intent is to communicate with clarity and immediacy. Perhaps I was just needing a gentle nudge toward poetry to take it up once again.

This was, however, not an easily accomplished task. I’ve been so long without the rhythms and structure of poetry in my head that it was difficult to wake the muse (and, admittedly, she was a bit fussy and bleary-eyed through the process). I spent the better part of a week in preparatory reading before sitting down to write; in addition, I’ve been choosing and listening to music with lyrics that evoke the mindset I’m in (I did not begin with a particular style in mind; it came into focus through the preparations). I’ve found that these structures, from music and verse, ingrain themselves in me like patterns in timber; they provide the raw material of sorts but the wood is there to be shaped—to be carved and varnished into something new.

In retrospect, my earlier verse was mostly commentary on my own inner state; I’m sensing a shift toward specific social criticism as I now write. While I recognise that a large part of any poet’s work will relate directly to his or her personal experience and outlook, I’m consciously attempting to write broadly applicable verse; I’m trying to find a personal voice that pertains to larger issues at hand.

The poetic form allows a writer to expand on content in ways which would be too cumbersome in prose. By re-working this passage in verse, I am attempting to broaden out the message by the double meanings readily available in English. While still, I hope, maintaining the integrity of my original intent, the verse form allows a reader to add his or her own experience to the words in ways a straight prose passage could not.

I’m attempting to depict violence as a living and vital force—perhaps equally or more energetic than peace if continually fed by the activities of humankind. If we are consciously and unconsciously lending our collective life force to violence, what else could the case be? If the energies of humankind are focused on this one “solution” and outcome, ongoing violence seems inevitable. In canto two, I discuss the internalisation of outward conflict and how this leads to recurring violence:

The outer influence
The inner conflict results.
It does not spring from nothing
And only prospers in a society which encourages it.
A society that allows
The outer and inner conflict,
Where the two co-mingle
Violence grows.

Yet, though these are overarching structures that seem to engulf peoples and cultures from antiquity—and are apparently on course to continue unabated into the future, I propose that violence is ultimately the result of a choice (albeit one in which many people, as individuals, do not have a notable say). The ending of violence is also a choice; again, from canto two:

Consequently, the end of violence
Means a complete abandonment of the society
Which begets it.
The end of violence is a decision,
Not an act of force
or resistance.

I’m specifically incorporating elements of non-violent resistance and the “letting go” of Taoism. The structure of the poem is informed by The Tao Te Ching and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The didactic voice of The Tao Te Ching seemed appropriate to a poem concerned with underlying themes that cross personal, familial, and civic relationships. I’ve borrowed some specific phraseology from Eliot, as The Waste Land speaks both from an individual’s viewpoint concerning the disillusion of society and incorporates a larger “trans-personal” voice that speaks for past and future societies.

I attempt to mimic Eliot’s archetypal imagery of planting, growth, budding, and decay (in both a positive and negative sense); In canto five, the energies of fear and the energy of well-being vie for the consciousness of humankind:

The expression of goodwill
The substantial words lived out.
As a society built upon fear
Feeds itself with fear;
An individual composed of well-being
Grows and spreads that energy
—We are an infections breed
The mindset, the purposed thought, from one healing—the healing
Of society follows.

Eliot ends The Waste Land on a debatably ambiguous note; it is not clear if the world is fated to decay or poised on the brink of re-birth. My ending lines are meant to read either way concerning violence (as the poem is not necessarily meant to be entirely prescriptive); I would rather leave open the opportunity for the reader to raise his or her awareness.

A man’s heart
And the Earth he despairs
Are one substance.
Without respect of one, the faltering other will break.
Without respite from violence
What hope have we for life;
What else may we imagine?

It is the imaginings of men that determine whether the heart and Earth will live or “break”. Note that I am specifically saying “man” here rather than choosing a more gender-neutral language; earlier in the poem, I elaborate on the collective of responsibility to choose between violence and life. Here I mean to comment on the choices that are usually made by men to despair of the Earth and proffer violence. However, the “we” in the last two lines is meant to read inclusively; it is the unified imagination of all humankind that will either bring hope and resolution or, alternatively, imagine yet more destruction.