Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.

13 Responses to “Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament”

  1. P. Safiya Gabriel August 5, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    We have been following your writings for quite awhile now. There is no doubt that you have been unfairly and viciously attacked. You are very much needed to continue to expose injustices that are being committed against innocent people. We continue to support tremendously what you do!
    P. Safiya and Najib

    • Richard Falk August 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

      Thanks so much for these supportive words, which encourage me, and are much appreciated.


  2. david singer August 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Mr Falk:

    I welcome your intention to address the message and not the messenger – as you make clear from your following statement:

    “use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance”

    In the spirit of that commitment are you going to now withdraw your endorsement of the following comments made on your site about myself after I sought your response to an itemized list of specific criticisms made by me of matters in your following article:

    “Walker percy July 28, 2012 at 12:02 am#

    It’s not necessary to respond to even to read your itemized list. Defenders of Israel on the Internet are known to be paid for promoting a set of talking points exactly like yours. The strategy is to sprinkle around some vehement defenses of Israel, in a desperate effort to show that there are two sides to the story. But everyone knows about this now, so you should quit. It only makes Israeli actions appear that much more unseemly.

    Richard Falk July 28, 2012 at 1:12 am#

    I agree with you, and thank you for the sensible advice. At the same time, I have recently written that I welcome differing views if expressed within an idiom of civility, and feel obliged to be as responsive as possible in most instances.

    I realize in part I am exploring whether some ethical boundaries are needed to evolve a healthy and beneficial blog culture, and your message helps me with respect to this exploration.”

    Indeed are you going to address those specific criticisms – which still remain unanswered?

    For ease of convenience they are set out below:

    “Dear Mr Falk

    I think you need to display greater intellectual honesty than you have in this article.

    As examples:

    1. You state: “Dayan’s first premise contends that the settler movement is entitled to the territory obtained in 1967 because it was the Palestinians who at the time were threatening Israel with the prospect of annihilation ”

    This is what Dayan actually said:

    “Arabs called for Israel’s annihilation in 1967″

    There is a big difference.

    2. You state: “The moral and legal premises that underlie Dayan’s insistence that the settlers will never leave the West Bank are without substance,”

    They do have substance.

    Your comment fails to take into account the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and article 80 of the UN Charter which conferred the legal right on the Jewish people to reconstitute the Jewish National Home in the West Bank.

    You also overlook the fact that the West Bank is also the ancient and biblical homeland of the Jewish people – as strong a moral claim as you might find anywhere in the world..

    3. You state: “This rejection was expressed in the authoritative and unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 242 passed in 1967 calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories that had been occupied in the Six Day War. No Israeli leader, including even the rejectionist Netanyahu, has openly challenged this line of interpretation

    Resolution 242 called for withdrawal “from territories” – not “from the territories”.. Israel has already withdrawn from more than 90% of those territories.

    Professor Ruth Lapidot has written:
    “… Israel’s interpretation is based on the plain meaning of the English text of the withdrawal clause, which is identical with the wording presented by the British delegation”

    4. You state: “.In contrast, Dayan is totally self-serving and one-sided when he also claims that inalienable rights support his conception of Greater israel. Such a claim overlooks the relevance of the generally accepted reading of Article 49(6) of Geneva Convention IV that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to an occupied territory or altering the character of an occupied society”.

    Dayan’s claim is again supported by the Mandate for Palestine and article 80 of the UN Charter.

    The applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention has been seriously questioned as recently as the release of the Levy Report two weeks ago.

    Presenting as an absolutist position something that is very contestable should not be done by an academic.

    5.You state: ” Dayan’s views also seem blind to the immorality of displacing the Palestinian people who have lived on these lands for centuries even if one grants the underlying Zionist claim to a homeland in historic Palestine.”

    The “Palestinian people” were not defined until the PLO Covenant was enacted in 1964. Jews and non-Arab Christians who lived in Palestine are not included.

    So – from being part of “the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” in 1920 to dividing Palestine into an “Arab State ” and a “Jewish state” in 1947 – we now have according to you “the Palestinian people who have lived on these lands for centuries” How come the members of the League of Nations and the United Nations were so ignorant?

    Palestine included the West Bank and Jews lived there prior to 1948 when they were driven out during the 1948 War. They returned after 1967 as they were legally entitled to do under article 6 of the Mandate and article 80 of the UN Charter.

    How can you as an academic simply dismiss these factual realities from your thoughts.?

    6. You state: “The fact that the Palestinian leaders and the neighboring Arab governments rejected the UN endorsed partition plan back in 1948 does not mean that the Palestinian people implicitly waived or lost their right to self-determination, which is genuinely inalienable.”

    The rights the non-Jewish communities were given in Palestine was that their civil and religious rights would not be prejudiced. Arab rights to self-determination were to be exercised within the captured Ottoman territories under the Mandates for Syria and Lebanon and Mesopotamia. Palestine was to be the area within which the Jewish National Home was to be reconstituted,

    True the Arabs were subsequently offered self determination in Palestine
    in 1937 and 1947 – and rejected such offers.

    They had another 19 years between 1948-1967 to exercise such self-determination in the West Bank but chose to unify it with Transjordan.

    They again rejected self-determination in 2000 and 2008.

    There is a doctrine of waiver in law and in my opinion they have by their conduct well and truly waived any claim to self determination offered as a departure from the clear terms of the Mandate, . The concept of “Inalienability” cannot in my opinion be applied to any claims by Palestinian Arabs to self determination – since no such rights were ever promised to them by the Mandate.

    Reunification of the West Bank with Jordan – so far as is now possible – to restore the status quo ante existing before the 1967 war is a solution that accords with the history geography and demography of former Palestine.

    I am afraid the opportunity to create an independent State between Israel and Jordan for the first time ever in recorded history has become ancient history after 19 years of fruitless negotiations..

    I could add my criticisms of many more factual statements made by you in your less than objective analysis – which are misleading and distort and misrepresent.

    If you want me to do so – I will happily post them for you to consider..

    Your responses to the above with suitable corrections would be a welcome first step.”

    Can we go back to the beginning – get your answers to the above – and then engage in a genuine discussion based on your responses?

  3. walker percy August 5, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    “…the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use.”

    Precisely. You remind us of how horrible it must feel for a large, ancient country to be targeted 24 hours a day by nuclear-tipped missiles, and the trigger is held by, what appears to them, to be a small group of invaders who are injuring fellow Muslims in and trying to dominate the region. During the cold war, at least we knew that we would blow them up, too, which is some satisfaction.

    Oh, by the way, Nice Manifesto! You are a hero, thank you for what you are doing.

  4. Fred Skolnik August 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    When all is said and done, what you are doing, endlessly and even obsessively, is telling starving people who is responsible for their hunger, without bothering to tell them that there is a basket of food just outside their door.

    If you were generally concerned about alleviating this hunger, you would be telling them to open the door. But you do not, and are not. All you are telling them is that Israel is a monster, which gives them another reason to want to destroy it. And yet I have the feeling that you derive great satisfaction from building a case against Israel whether it helps the Palestinians or not. And certainly your followers are hungry for more “evidence” that will justify their hatred of Israel and Jews, which is clearly the unifying element among them. Some of them even seem to have compiled private cut-and-paste dossiers cataloguing Israel’s “sins,” which does not strike me as a normal or healthy occupation. Jew haters first hate Jews and then look for reasons to. You know that as well as I do.

    As you now seem to be a great friend of Turkey – though you might devote a few of your indignant blogs to the “legitimate aspirations” of the Kurds and the way they are being treated by the Turks – and since Turkey presumes to be an arbiter in the Middle East, you might also counsel it to urge Hamas to disavow terrorism and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, because that is the only way they are going to get their state and, hopefully, put an end to their misery, for which their leaders and fellow Arabs are solely responsible. In such negotiations the Israelis would begin with a position that the Palestinians might find unacceptable and the Palestinians would begin with a position that the Israelis might find unacceptable, but in the end they could conceivably arrive at an agreement whose basic outlines have been understood by everyone for quite a few years now. And if the negotiations fail and it is clear that it is Israel’s fault, then you will have made your point with the added bonus of embarrassing America and showing Israel up, far more effectively than in a blog whose sole aim is to discredit and vilify Israel. And then your readers will have an even better reason to hate Israel.

    I am going to drop out of this forum, which serves no good purpose, but may look in on you from time to time and even respond to what strikes me as particularly dishonest. Your followers will of course continue to fulminate about JewZionists who are looking to dominate the world and you will of course continue to encourage them and even thank them for their insights and then wonder about your reputation among balanced people.

    • walker percy August 6, 2012 at 9:01 am #

      “Your followers will of course continue to fulminate about JewZionists who are looking to dominate the world and you will of course continue to encourage them and even thank them for their insights and then wonder about your reputation among balanced people.”

      How repulsive: making veiled threats of character assassination if Prof. Falk refuses to suppress comments you think are “bad for the jews”. Read the writing on the wall! It’s over, you lost because of the lies and dirty tactics.

      • Richard Falk August 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

        When disagreements are converted into ugly accusations it is time to stop the argument, and clarify the reality as much as possible, hoping that in the end history will empower the weak and oppressed among us, but also endow them with wisdom and restraint, so that they do not do to other the hateful things that were done to them. Thanks, Walker, for your steadfastness.

  5. Terrell E. (Terry) Arnold August 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    Richard: I am reminded of lines from Omar Khayyam:
    “I sometimes think that never blows so red
    The rose as where some buried ceasar bled
    and every hyacinth the garden wears
    fell in its lap from some once lovely head.”
    By such artistic conivance we are led to a
    tolerence for violence.

    Terry Arnold

  6. monalisa August 6, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    Dear Richard,
    thank you for bringing these thoughts !

    Poems usually are written when an individual is motivated because of special life experiences need to be heard and/or flashes of thoughts are persistent and don’t want to get away; these feellings could be personal or because witnessing times full of turmoil and terrible things occuring and when nothing seems balanced in a country and people are living in misery.

    Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favorite poet and writer.
    One of his poems is my constant escort for more than twenty years.

    Please don’t give up !

    Take care of yourself,


    • Richard Falk August 6, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

      Thanks, monalisa, for your words of kinship, and our now shared love of Rilke’s poetry! I have tried not to get bogged down (or should I say ‘blogged down’) by the arguments that have been raging in the comments section. The best that I can do is to be a witness who retains the power of speech.

      My warm greetings to you, Richard

  7. Brewski August 7, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    My literary tastes are possibly a little old-fashioned – my favourite themes are usually the eternal verities.
    This is rather modern, not heavily crafted and it is perhaps as much performance art as poetry but it captures the struggle against wilful ignorance and false narratives.
    On second thought, maybe that is an eternal struggle.

    Rafeef Ziadah – ‘We teach life, sir’

  8. Levi August 7, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    I really appreciate your first two guidelines: sustain integrity and admit mistakes. Demonstrating the honesty and humility required for both principles is a great exercise in some of our (that is, human being’s) best characteristics. I also found this line from your first paragraph quite captivating: “When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another…”


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament - August 6, 2012

    […] Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).Go to Original – richardfalk.comClick to share this article: facebook | twitter | email. Click here to download this article as a […]

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