19th February 2009 | Draft
Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran
an unexplored strategic opportunity?
- / -
Preamble: Aesthetics and the military
Poetry in other strategic contexts
-- Poetry in the corporate world | Poetry and Islam
-- Poetry and warlords | Poetry and Afghanistan | Poetry and Kazakhstan
-- Poetry and the Caucasus | Poetry and the Middle East
-- Poetic leadership | Poetic protest | Prosaic dialogue
Indicative possibilities of reframing strategic engagement
Clarification of Islamic views
Improvisation in poetic debate
-- Poetic discourse as a lost art | Poetic engagement
-- Lost archetype? | Medieval Europe | Dialogue in Islamic cultures
Examples of poetic interaction
-- Improvisation in oral poetry | Invective poetry | Folk traditions
-- Interactive dialogue projects | Framework for clarification of "poetic debate"
Towards an imaginative reflection on possible "Rules of Poetic Engagement"
-- Collaborative aesthetics | Collaborative creativity
-- Practical concerns | Characteristics of possible "rules"
-- Rhythm and rhyme | Autopoiesis | Clarification of debate | Poetic justice
Also PDF version (0.5 mb)
This exploration is in response to strategic challenges in the region named. It is a development of earlier studies of the interface between strategy and poetry (Poetry-making and Policy-making: arranging a marriage between Beauty and the Beast, 1993; Ensuring Strategic Resilience through Haiku Patterns: reframing the scope of the "martial arts" in response to strategic threats, 2006) as well as in relation to the role of music and song (A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic? 2006; Reframing the EU Reform Process -- through Song responding to the Irish challenge to the Lisbon Treaty, 2008).
The original version of this document arose as a response to an invitation to make a presentation in a session on Caucasus Future Challenges at the Wilton Park Conference on Caucasus 2020: the Future of European Security (January 2009). Wilton Park (Sussex, UK) arranges conferences on international affairs for politicians, officials, academics and others from around the world. In their initial form the notes were communicated to the organizers. Being unable to attend, the focus in that response was on how the challenge of the Caucasus might nevertheless be more fruitfully reframed.clash of civilizations" is readily framed by the West as implying a direct physical threat between cultures. Aside from conventional diplomatic dialogue, no other vehicle is considered appropriate to the engagement between worldviews so framed. It is of course the case that there is a long history of such physical conflict between such cultures.
Michael Bibby (Hearts and Minds: poetry and resistance in the Vietnam Era, 1996) introduces his compilation of poetry of resistance to the Vietnam war within the USA with the comment:
In his extensive discussion of the phrase and its subsequent significance, Bibby notes that more poetry was published in the USA after 1960 than in any previous historical period. However, he notes much of this anti-war, activist poetry vanished without trace in the following twenty years. The topic is also discussed by Lorrie Goldensohn (Dismantling Glory: twentieth-century soldier poetry, 2003).
Eleanor Wilner (Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance? Poetry Magazine, October 2004) describes an initiative of the US National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the US Department of Defense, named Operation Homecoming: Writing the War Experience. Launched in April 2004, it was designed as a project to help soldiers write about their experiences in war, notably by bringing writers to military bases to conduct workshops for soldiers returning from combat. It would seem to have been both an effort to pre-empt the problematic soldier poetry of the Vietnam era as well as to provide a form of therapy for potentially traumatized combatants. The first product contained a mix of writings, including some poetry (Andrew Carroll, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, 2006).
With respect to the Vietnam war, there is also little trace of any strategic importance attached to understanding the poetry that sustained the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese. Its importance is indicated by the remarks of Fred Marchant (War Poets From Viet Nam. Humanities, 1998):
However, it would appear that the strategists of current conflicts have learnt nothing from poet-strategists such as Nguyen Trai and Ho Chi Minh. In addition to Operation Homecoming, the Pentagon has tended to frame its use of aesthetics in the tradition of direct support to military engagement, whether in providing supportive music to its soldiers, enabling them to listen to music whilst operating combat vehicles on search and destroy missions, or as an adjunct to interrogation (notably through sleep deprivation). An exception of relevance to this exploration is the mnemonic value in the US military of rhythmically chanting, or even singing, roll calls or preflight checklists (Bradd Shore, Culture in Mind: cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning, 1996).
It is far less clear to what extent such aesthetics have been used to engage opponents -- on terms meaningful to them -- in any effort to win "hearts and minds". This is very curious given the deliberate effort by Elizabeth Samet to teach poetry to military cadets, as described by Marjorie Kehe ('Soldier's Heart': why we ask West Point cadets to wrestle with poetry, 2007) and through an interview.
By contrast, the Communication Initiative Network reproduces a report for the UK government on a region of Afghanistan by Gordon Adam (Winning Hearts and Minds in Helmand, 2008). This notes the critical need for an emphasis on participation -- not propaganda. In that respect it notes how little Pashto language media was reaching rural Afghans in the conflict areas. It recommended a professional news service closely attuned to local events, and entertainment in the form of music, local poetry, and literature and drama. By contrast, as reported by the International Crisis Group in 2008, the Islamist militia was making making a violent comeback, particularly in that area -- making sophisticated use of media with many messages coming as songs, religious chants and poetry (Herbert A. Friedman, Psychological Operations in Afghanistan, 2008).
There would appear to be no trace of any attempt at strategic engagement through poetry with cultures that value that medium -- even, notably, as a function of PSYOPS (Psychological Operations). Ironically the US Defense Secretary responsible for the initiation of intervention in the Middle East was a known source of "poetry" in that period (Slate, Rummy's Ruminations: the collected poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, 2006) of which one such poem has continued to be of strategic significance (Unknown Undoing: challenge of incomprehensibility of systemic neglect, 2008).
The danger of such aesthetic negligence in any "hearts and minds" exercise can perhaps be succinctly stated in the form of a well-known question relating to World War II, namely why it was that the Germans "had the best tunes", and why that conclusion was associated with their demonization.
The challenge would appear to be to understand why poetry is valued in cultures with which effective engagement has been frustrated over many years and to determine what are the fruitful rules of engagement within that framework. No attention would seem to have been given to this possibility. However the possibility should not be treated simplistically, as helpfully concluded by Ramsey Nasr (Poetry and Engagement, 2004):
However missing from this comment is the strategic challenge of how one engages with another through poetry -- where the aesthetic values may be radically different. What then are the rules of engagement? The challenge may be highlighted by the following juxtaposed images
Aside from insights from the reference above to the relevance of haiku to military strategy (Ensuring Strategic Resilience through Haiku Patterns, 2006), it is appropriate to note that Morihei Ueshiba, the Japanese founder of a more recent martial art, aikido, articulated insights relevant to its practice in poetic form (Doka: The Poems of Ueshiba Morihei -- Insights for a Modern Way of Life. Furyu: The Budo Journal, Winter 1996). Five of the principles articulated have been incorporated into regular training by Seidokan Aikido. It remains unclear whether such insights could be used in poetic engagement with a potentially hostile opponent. Nevertheless some have argued that aikido is poetry.
Poetry in the corporate world: In contrast to the failure to explore the value of poetry to military and diplomatic engagement, the Financial Times notes the role of poetry in the corporate boardroom (David Honigmann, Vision in verse from the bard of of the boardroom, 17 March 2009). This describes the work of poet David Whyte who works over a period of days with senior management, seeking to recognize "an uncomfortable and unpsoken truth" which poetry can help to articulate. As he says"
The titles of his prose reflections on the context for these explorations point to the relevance of extending such work to engagement of policy-makers with regions such as Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran (The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. 2009; Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, 2001; The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, 1994). Arguably such initiatives are specifically relevant to the issue of "hearts and minds".
Poetry and Islam: Most striking, in contrast with the West, is perhaps the role of poetry in Islamic cultures. A notable feature is the use of saj' -- a form of rhymed, rhythmic prose charactetistic of Arabic literature and diction to which the Arabic language lends itself because of its structure, the mathematical precision of its manifold formations and the essential assonance of numerous derivatives from the same root supplying the connexion between the sound and signification of words. As such it has been valued for its mnemonic qualities. It was notably used in pre-Islamic times as a mode of dignified discourse. Because of its association with these pagan practices its use in the early days of Islam is said to have been forbidden by Muhammad with the phrase: "Avoid ye the rhyming prose of the soothsayers or diviners."
And yet, in introducing his study of Arab culture, Vicente Cantarino (Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age, 1975) notes:
The importance and strength of Arabic in this respect is noted by Muhammed I. Ayish (Communication Research in the Arab World: a new perspective, The Public, 5, 1998, 1, pp. 33-57):
The strength of the arguments of Mohammed was recognized in part because of his oral skills -- within a tribal context in which poetic expression was highly valued in the encounter between tribes -- typically througha degree of poetic jousting. Cantarino indicates with respect to Arabic tribes:
The poetic qualities of the Qur'an, for example, continue to be much admired by those persuaded of the merits of that culture. The repeated media presentations of the body language of students engaged in rote learning in madrasahs fail completely to indicate that to a significant degree they are learning "poetry" -- and doing so willingly. Should madrasahs be better understood as the schools of "poetry" of that culture?
However, even though the musical-poetic nature is a key to appreciating the Qur'an, paradoxically Islam believes it totally inappropriate to consider it poetry -- because poetry is held by its teachings to be intrinsically human rather than divine. The sacred text of the Qur'an is therefore not poetry. Islamic theologians formally refuse to admit the existence of any poetic character to the Qur'anic text, although the precise significance of this refusal has been much debated (as helpfully summarized by Cantarino).
This complex situation (discussed below) is partially clarified, with citations, by Abul Kasem (Islam and Poetry, Islam Watch, 27 May 2002). Another comment is provided by Asad Seif (Islam and poetry in Iran). An authorized view is provided by Mufti Bilaal Cassim (Islam and Poetry, Albalagh, 15 September 2002). Arab historians in fact report that Mohammed made use of poets very much in the same way as other tribal leaders who were not poets themselves., even though he condemned pagan Arab poetry and its poets. This is confirmed by M. M. Badawi ('Abbasid Poetry and its Antecedents, 1990) arguing: The view once widely held that Muhammed and Islam discouraged poetry and poets is now generally discredited.... (p. 147).
Despite any such reservations, Cantarino cites a frequently quoted definition of poetry by Ibn Qutaiba ('Uyun al-akhbar, 1964, vol. 11, p. 185):
Ironically, in a war-torn country, the Somalis of today are famous for their skills as poets -- being almost as important to that culture as the Islamic faith. Poems may be put to political use by the government or in criticism of politicians and warlords. This has even led Ali M. Ahad to explore the question Could Poetry Define Nationhood? the case of Somali oral poetry and the nation (Journal of Historical and European Studies, 2007).
With respect to Yemen, according to Steven C. Caton (Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University):
A colleague, Jim Wilce, reports that:
A more extensive account, situating practices in Yemen within Arab culture, is provided by Rachel Galvin (Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics. Humanities, 2002). She records comments by Arab observers that poetry remains a central part of Arab culture.
Poetry and warlords: As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, since 2005 the Taliban's web site, Al Emarah, or The Emirate, has featured poetry glorifying their resistance, in addition to religious commentary and battlefield updates.
Of relevance is the keynote speech given by John Paul Lederach (Tajikistan: Talking Poetry With the Warlord, 2005) at the Association for Conflict Resolution's Annual Conference (Sacramento, CA, 2004) -- reproduced in his The Moral Imagination: the art and soul of building peace (2005). This is a factor presumably considered irrelevant to the need to despatch a further 17,000 troops to bring order to a region perceived as highly dangerous.. It might be asked, as in the case of poetry, whether there are not a range of understandings of "order".
There are many web references to warlords and their poetry. A long-term Colombian warlord is recognized for his poetry (Toby Muse, Requiem for a Warlord, Slate, 2004). In Europe, warrior-poets have played a central role in Icelandic culture (Diana Whaley, Sagas of Warrior-Poets, 2002).
Poetry and Afghanistan: It is even less well-recognized that this poetic tradition has a role in Afghanistan where the warlords are indeed valued for their poetic competence. It has only recently been recognized that Osama bin Laden is a skilled poet (Michael Hirst, Analysing Bin Laden's jihadi poetry, BBC News, 24 September 2008). As noted by Coleman Barks (Rumi's American Popularizer Tours Afghan Poet's Homeland, America.gov, 22 April 2005):
Steve Coll (Restoring Poetry to Afghanistan, NPR, 24 January 2005) reported on the publication of a set of poems of a former Afghan poet laureate Khalilullah Khalil, collected by his son, currently Afghan ambassador to Turkey (Masood Khalili and Whitney Azoy, An Assembly of Moths: selected poems of Khalilullah Khalili, 2004). The book's introduction includes remarks on the role of poetry in the midst of chaos:
An alternative use of poetry is made through improvisation of Pashtu landays, notably by women (Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry, 2003; Rahmat Shah, Tappa). A landay or tappa is an unrhymed couplet of nine syllables in the first hemistich and thirteen in the second. This is one of the oldest poetic and sung styles of that culture. It is a mixture between a singing duet and a poetic jousting match (Zarsanga: Songs of the Pashtu). As noted by Abdulhadi Hairan (Tappa, world's shortest poem, 25 September 2008):
Tappa is commonly found in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province -- precisely the area considered the most challenging by NATO's. UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They are generally sung on the occasion of weddings, possibly as a two-person duet, and deal with any topic: love, passion, anger, hate, wars, history, heroes and villains. To what extent do foreign coalition forces engage with the people of Afghanistan through poetry?
A problematic assessment of the engagement in Afghanistan has been articulated in poetic form by a British solider, Andy McFarlane (British soldier's scathing poem attacks politicians over the war in Afghanistan - as death toll reaches 204, Daily Mail, 17 August 2009; Poetry Surges from the Front Line Again, Daily Express, 17 September 2009). This contrasts with the question regarding the Iraq-Afghanistan conflict zone of Daniel D'Arezzo (Where Have All the War Poems Gone?, The Conversation).
Poetry and Kazakhstan: As noted by Marat Yermukanov (Kazakh Folk Poetry Slams Corrupt Establishment, 21 February 2007) of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute), folk poets (aqyns) give vent at weekly festivals (aitys), engaging in contests that are a national focus of attention via television. They publicly lambaste social ills, such as deep-rooted corruption, mismanagement, disrespect for national interests and missteps in foreign policy. In a society with limited press freedom and rigid codes of social behavior imposed from above, the aitys is the most available and a safe way to give vent to public feelings.
Satirical verses of poets often target the inefficient legislative system. The traditional folk poetry is a unique form in the poetic culture of Central Asia, is recognized as a manifestation of the reshaped ethnic consciousness of Kazakhs.
Poetry and the Caucasus: The Caucasus became a romantic region for Russian poetry owing to its natural contrasts, as well as the original and somewhat hostile culture of its tribes people. Nature and history have combined to make Georgia a land of poetry, so recognized by its peoples (Peter Nasmyth, Georgia: in the mountains of poetry, 2006).
Mugham is a unique phenomenon of Azerbaijani folk music heritage that perfectly reflects the national way of thinking; the vocal form in an organic harmony of music and poetry which may involve the alternation of changing and constant elements, of improvised and concentrated episodes.
Poetry and the Middle East: It is curious that this conflict takes place in the midst of an Arab world much influenced by poetry, notably that of Al-Mutanabbi (11th century, Baghdad), considered a master of Arab poetry. Mahmoud Darwish, repeatedly named for a Nobel Prize, is considered the poetic voice of Palestine -- engaging himself in poetic dialogue with Israel.
Is there no scope for negotiation with Israel through poetic forms that would give rise to an agreement of a new kind -- expressed in (epic) poetic form? Who would be opposed to such an exploration and why? One step in that direction has been a recent film. There is an active literature on Palestine-Israel issues from a poetic perspective.
Poetic leadership: More striking perhaps, as a matter of history, is the fact that Joseph Stalin, as a Georgian, was notably appreciated for his poetic and singing skills -- in a culture which values song in ways unsuspected elsewhere. This is true of other such leaders, including Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh (as noted above) -- whether or not their leadership was commensurate with their aesthetic insights or skills. Although claiming to be an artist rather than a poet, the possibility of Adolf Hitler being a poet is a continuing matter of debate (The Hitler Question - Poets vs. Poetry, Asian-American Poetry, 2005). There is the ironic possibility that the "clash of civilizations" between the values acclaimed by the "West" and those cultures by which it is most challenged is in part reflected in the proportion of leaders opposing those values who make some claim to be poets. A current example is that of Hugo Chávez.
It is not clear how many leaders of "Western" countries are new celebrated as poets -- as opposed to the number thsat have been praised or satirized in poems. Dag Hammarskjöld, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, may be an exception as was Winston Churchill (Collected Poems, 1981). A website has been created by Peter Armenti (Presidents as Poets: Poetry Written by United States Presidents) providing links to the poetry of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter (Always a Reckoning, 1995), and Barack Obama. The latter has also been widely appreciated for his "poetic" rhetoric and even organized a "poetry jam", claiming he was fond of poetry (Ewen MacAskill, Obama to host poetry party at White House, The Guardian, 12 May 2009).
Poetic protest: It is also of relevance to note a corresponding role that music, song, and poetry (as indicated in relation to Vietnam) have played in the recent articulation of Western popular cultural values -- especially amongst those alienated from conventional approaches to governance. Such cultural products have been widely appreciated around the world -- although not necessarily in those parts upholding Islamic values and opposed to their Western vehicles.
Prosaic dialogue: It is relevant to note the widespread recognition of the very limited number of Arabic or native speakers available to the intelligence services in the lead up to intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whilst "interpreters" may have subsequently become available, questions could usefully be asked about their competence in the poetic traditions of those cultures. "Poets" have an unusually problematic status in the West, as does their poetry. The aesthetics of poetry are not as widely appreciated as in Islamic cultures -- by all classes.
It is highly improbable that the "interpreters" sought in support of any strategic conflict would now be selected or appreciated for their poetic insights. This imposes an unnecessary constraint on strategic opportunities. Western discourse with such cultures would then be appreciated as "prosaic" at best -- and, as such, viewed with a degree of disdain as lacking any appropriate "voice" for their values..
Given the challenge of Islamic reservations regarding poetry, fundamental to the possibility of poetic debate, valuable clarification is provided by Patrick Colm Hogan (Philosophical Approaches to the Study of Literature, 2000):
Hogan then continues:
Of particular relevance are Hogan's comments on the Islamic understanding of the manner in which poetic discourse should cultivate an image:
Takhyil is the focus of a more recent commentary annotating classical texts (Geert Jan van Gelder, et al., Takhyil: the imaginary in classical Arabic poetic, 2008). This focus enables Hogan to clarify Islamic concern about poetry:
R. Rubinacci. (Political Poetry. In: 'Abbasid belles-lettres 1990, pp. 181-201 argues:
Presented in an annex with the following sections:
Presented in an annex with the following sections:
Presented in an annex with the following sections:
Presented in an annex with the following sections:
Because of the number and range of relevant references, these have been placed in a separate document: Strategic Dialogue through Poetic Improvisation: web resources and bibliography
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.