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Address to the International Meeting of Writers

Denise Levertov

September 28, 1980 – Sofia, Bulgaria


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

At times during the Peace Parliament I felt discouraged because I feel that though we all sincerely desired a lasting world peace we were only talking to each other. How can we really change the policies of those who continue to escalate the arms race? But when I read the Appeal launched September 24 I felt more hope, especially when I read these words: “To be concerned is not enough! To be alarmed is not enough! The people have the power to preserve their basic right! Act now!” I believe that as writers we have a special responsibility to ask ourselves exactly what this means and what form our contribution to such immediate action ought to take. Every kind of person has that responsibility, but writers, because they have the gift of verbal expression and because they have, in varying degrees, some ready-made access to the public, have even more obligation than those who do not possess those privileges.

These are some suggestions for how we can make our particular contribution:

1. One of the greatest obstacles to peace is the combination of ignorance about the exact nature of nuclear force and its effects with the feeling of powerlessness which most average people experience. Whether they trust their governments and therefore say, “Leave it to the experts, they must know best,” or whether they distrust them (probably with very good reason) and therefore say, “What’s the use, we ordinary people have no influence,” there are millions and millions of people who never assert their basic right, as living creatures, to survive. The role of the writer, as an articulate person, vis-a-vis this phenomenon seems to be (a) that we should do our best to inform ourselves both of what the actual physical consequences of technological warfare are, and of the profound immorality and absurdity of even thinking in terms of possible “limited” nuclear war; and also of the inextricable interweaving of so-called peaceful use of nuclear power with the process and continued threat of war. (b) That we use our verbal gifts to disseminate this knowledge so that it enters the imagination of others in a way which will awaken their determination to take action against the threat of global suicide. We may be able to do this in our poems or fictions, or we may not find the inspiration to do so. It is not useful to create bad art for a good cause, and I do not believe in forcing ourselves to write such poems; but what we can do is write articles, speak in public whenever we have (or make) the opportunity, incorporate our knowledge of these matters in our classes and lectures if we are teachers, as many of us are, talk to people individually, and utilize whatever prestige and leverage we have as artists (in addition to what we can do in our primary creative work).

2. Because as writers we do have access to readers and listeners, we are in a position to encourage people to remember that all people everywhere have one great nonviolent recourse–the general strike. An international general strike for disarmament–what a magnificent vision! No doubt many of you will reply, “How ridiculously ideal!” Yes, I understand that there are many obstacles to such an event; yet “they” could not kill all of us, and the greatest obstacle is the mixture of ignorance, lack of imagination, and lack of self-confidence which we, brothers and sisters of the tribe of the world, can help to alleviate. But we must accelerate our activity, for while the superpowers are engaged in an arms race, weare inevitably racing against time.

3. Finally, something which cannot change in a moment, certainly, but which is to my mind very urgent nevertheless, and absolutely fundamental:

I believe that behind all the truths which we can learn from a study of political science (such as the economic forces behind apparently ideologically motivated events, the structure of capitalist societies, etc., etc.) is something even deeper and more widespread, namely the arrogantly anthropocentric view of life which leads mankind to exploit Nature instead of respecting and harmonizing with Nature. In my speech at the Peace Parliament’s commission on the Environment and Energy I used the term “intellectual and cultural imperialism” of man towards other forms of life and towards the elements themselves. It is this which infects even socialist societies with a consumer mentality. I believe that unless we humans revise this self-image, which is at the root of our competitiveness, aggressiveness, and acquisitiveness as a species, we are on a suicidal path even if we manage to avoid war. We must learn to regard ourselves as one part–not the most important–of a global ecosystem. We must learn to grow and distribute enough food for all people, and to provide the other fundamental rights–housing, clothing, education, and the opportunity to work and live in freedom and dignity–without destroying our very environment in the process. To struggle for justice, we must have a world to struggle in. We must develop all the renewable sources of energy, and like the ancient tribal peoples (whose wisdom we have ignored on all the continents while we trampled upon their sacred places and attempted, at various epochs of history, to destroy them altogether) we must recognize again that the Earth is our Mother. If poets cannot understand this, who will? And if we do understand it, then indeed, we have a role to play, a task to perform: we must use our poet’s imagination and our gift of language to bring these realizations to others. Let us take very seriously what the manifesto of the Peace Parliament says in conclusion:
“Let our voice be heard as never before!”



Source: Light Up the Cave by Denise Levertov, New Directions Publishing, 1982.
Copyright Denise Levertov Goodman, 1980. All rights reserved.