To Tyrants: Enough!

how our own speech acts for justice may lead to fruitful and sustaining outcomes

by Gwendolyn Soper. Originally published on Substack, 16 March 2022

Right now, I sit in a heated home. It’s bitter cold outside. It’s painful to observe how our fellow humans are suffering unimaginable horrors in Ukraine, or the many locations to which they’ve fled. I feel helpless, angry, and full of despair. I know I’m not the only one. I’m overcome by the kindness of Poland’s President Duda “everyone is let in.” 

How may we cope with these strong emotions effectively, and at the same time possibly make a difference? One of my acquaintances has three refugees from Ukraine living with her in Austria—a mother and two teenagers. The father has returned to Ukraine to fight. Many of us donate to legitimate charities like World Central Kitchen and UNICEF that supply necessities to Ukraine. What else can we do to help provide for their immediate needs, and demonstrate solidarity?

Pádraig Ó Tuama, a well-recognized Irish poet, theologian, and group mediator, educated people recently online about conflict resolution in conjunction with the Columbia Climate School. He teaches that ‘speech acts’—and other acts of artistic expression like poetryart, dance, or music—can be acts of “co-creation” that often have “fruitful and sustaining” outcomes. The following examples may reflect what he was talking about:

Putin’s actions makes the hate speech reflected in a recent poem by Ukrainian poet, Oleksandr Irvanets, understandable, “I shout out to the whole world. I won’t forgive anyone!” It makes the book, Deaf Republic, by hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-American Ilya Kaminsky, an important act that questions our potential for collective silence in the face of atrocities. 

Suddenly, I’m seeing speech acts everywhere like those of Garrison Keillor, and Simon Armitage, poet laureate of the UK. They validate how I’ve been feeling, make me more aware, and increase my feelings of solidarity with those under fire in Ukraine. Our own speech acts may also be effective through writing our own poems, moving our bodies to music, creating art, even if only in our homes to reduce anxiety.

Ó Tuama recently shared a poem by Joy Harjo titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.” I want to look at the individual words in her title. Conflict: what does it mean? It means to clash. Or to be in a serious disagreement or argument—typically a protracted one. It is at the root of war. Resolution means to find a solution to a problem, dispute, or contentious matter. 

Holy Beings means different things to different people. Right now I see every Ukrainian, living and killed in this attack, as a holy being. British-Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, wrote a poem titled, “The Missing.” It’s a speech act as well. It’s about human souls ascending during the deadly Grenfell Tower apartment building fire in West London (2017). Holy beings. 

My poem, “War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood,” is a reflection of a speech act by the musician Benjamin Britten. His was in the form of music he composed. He titled it War Requiem. Over twenty years ago I had the privilege of performing his War Requiem many times from memory with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Britten composed it so that the baritone and tenor sing text written by World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action only one week before Armistice, 1918. Britten’s goal was resolution in the aftermath of war. 

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral after German bombing, Nov. 1940

In order to emphasize the universal desire for peace, Britten made the symbolic gesture of assigning solos to artistic delegates of former, or current, German, English, and Eastern European decent who had borne the brunt of the horrific conflict during World War II. The soloists in our performances were Thomas Quasthoff (German-born bass-baritone), Ian Bostridge (British-born tenor), and Christine Goerke (soprano).

In the title page of his War Requiem, Britten quoted these words by the WWI war poet, Wilfred Owen:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.

A little information about the origin of this requiem:

After WWII, many cities in Great Britain and elsewhere were rebuilding churches, homes, and places of business—many of which had been razed to the ground. Ukraine will be facing this same challenge of rebuilding.

One of those cities that rebuilt itself was Coventry. The city decided to preserve the ruins of their bombed Medieval cathedral. And, next to the remains they would build the new Coventry Cathedral.

After their new cathedral was built, The Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee was looking for ways to celebrate its consecration. The spirit of the enterprise was one of reconciliation after conflict. It was then that Britten was asked to participate. He agreed to compose a musical piece. In his own words, he offered War Requiem as ‘an act of reparation.’ 

Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot of experience with acts of reparation and reconciliation. He was a former leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community, a country with a long history of conflict. 

During one of his recent poetry labs I asked Mr. Ó Tuama, “Can we do more than just warn of war?” 

He said, “First, the machinists of war need to make much better decisions.” 

Then, referring to Joy Harjo’s poem he said,

“Harjo is trying to take [her speech act] further in her poem. She’s using the imperative in many of her words, that you must speak in the language of justice. She’s not only bearing witness, she’s also trying to enact change. In a certain sense she’s trying to, by the language, create a way of moving forward.”

As all of us observe what is happening in Ukraine and other war-torn parts of the world—I hope we may each consider how we might co-create speech acts with others—whether it be creating (or sharing) poetry, art, dance, or music, in person or via social media—to uplift, speak for justice, and move forward in solidarity with our fellow humans who are in this moment suffering unimaginable violence, loss, and displacement. 

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