Poetry in troubled times

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

In rough times, we often turn to poetry — as readers or writers. Poetry speaks to emotions and its job is to try to express what cannot be said, Nancy Holmes, poet and Associate Professor in Creative Writing at The University of British Columbia, says. “Poetry is our go-to art in times of upheaval and catastrophe.” In the trenches of World War I, The Oxford Book of English Verse was a well-read book.

Addressing the Russians in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian President Zelensky said, “You’ve been told I’m going to bomb Donbass. Bomb what? The Donetsk stadium where the locals and I cheered for our team at Euro 2012? The bar where we drank when they lost? Luhansk, where my best friend’s mom lives?” These lines tell a story and could be lines in a spoken word poem.

This inspired me to read some of my favorite peace/human poems again and search for new ones. Here’s a small collection, from what could be today’s Ukraine to World War I to the old quarters of Jerusalem to children’s voices and more.

Ilya Kaminsky: We Lived Happily During the War

Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting

Yehuda Amichai: On Yom Kippur

Pat Ingoldsby: Isn’t it quiet

Children’s Poems for Peace (an UNICEF project)

Tomas Tranströmer: Romanesque Arches


By Ilya Kaminsky, 2009

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we


but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was

in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month

of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,

our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.


By Wilfred Owen, 1918

Two soldiers meet in an imagined Hell, the first having killed the second in battle the day before. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

Here’s Alex Jennings reading the poem (full text here):


By Yehuda Amichai, translated from Hebrew by Ada Aharoni

On Yom Kippur in the year Tashkah,

I wore dark festive clothes

and ambled to the old quarter

in Jerusalem.

I stood a long time

before an Arab’s nook-shop

not far from the Gate of Shechem,

a shop of buttons and zippers and rolls of thread

of all colors, and tie-tacs and buckles.

A bright light shone forth with many colors,

like an open tabernacle.

I told him in my heart that my father too

had a shop like his of threads and buttons.

I explained to him in my heart

about all the decades of years

and the causes and the events,

that I am now here

and my father’s shop is burnt there

and he is buried here.

When I finished it was closing time.

He too pulled the blind and locked the gate.

And I went back home with all those

who went to pray.


By Pat Ingoldsby

When the Catholics have killed all the Protestants

and the Protestants have killed all the Catholics

and the Jews have killed all the Arabs

and the Arabs have killed all the Jews

and the Muslims have killed all the Christians

and the Christians have killed all the Muslims

and all the graveyards are full

and all the crematoria are burned out

and only one person is left living on this Earth

I hope to fuck they enjoy the peace.

(From See Liz, She Spins, 1997)

Children’s Poems for Peace (an UNICEF project)


See also: Ideas for writing poems about peace


By Tomas Tranströmer, 1989, translated by Robert Bly

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church.

Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.

A few candle flames flickered.

An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me

and his whisper went all through my body:

Don’t be ashamed to be a human being — be proud!

Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.

You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.

Tears blinded me

as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,

together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini —

within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

Want to write your own poems? Check out this article as a starter: How to Write a Poem: Easy Tips for Beginners

Image: Nika Akin @ Pixabay.com

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