A Little Light: Can Poetry Make A Difference?

A Little Light: Can Poetry Make A Difference?

I’ve been so disheartened lately… every time I look at the news I read a list of apocalyptic catastrophes.  It’s hard, in the midst of all these reports of wars, murders, violence, disease, hunger and sorrow to feel that it’s okay to go through one’s day as if everything is fine.  Yet it’s also very hard to know what one can do to make a real difference.

I am a big believer in non-violent action, but even knowing how to make protest effective and positive can be difficult.  I remember hearing the poet Séamas Cain speak in Edinburgh years ago, and he described a protest in America where an entire square had filled with protesters, signs, shouts — all to protest against a particular government building/department — which, it turned out, was closed that day!  He used this example to talk about the huge amount of well-meaning energy that can be wasted in ineffective protest.  And even though protest can be a fantastic way to bring attention to an issue, it can cause its own problems when it stimulates even more bad feeling and extremism rather than actually helping anyone or sorting anything out.  As heart-broken as I have been about what has been going on in Palestine and Israel lately, and as desperate as I have been to try to do something to help, I have also been saddened by seeing aggression on all sides.  There is a particularly unsettling brand of aggression that I’ve noticed (on top of the general explosion of violence), that is generated not directly by war-mongers but by people longing for peace and justice who are, in their anger and desperation, pointing fingers, banning and making accusations, often in ways that seem to add to rather than solve problems.

This morning James, my partner, and I were talking about the terrible murder of James Foley and the flurry of debate it has stimulated around Twitter and social media, and over free speech versus censorship.  It made me think again of Cain’s words, and of something that I have believed in for a long time but realised I probably haven’t written about before, or not for a while — and that maybe this is the time to do so.

I’m not really one for looking at the world through a lens of good and evil.  It seems reductive.  My own experience has shown me that most people I know, myself included, are capable of a vast array of behaviours under the wide range of stresses applied to us in response to our actions in the world.  Arguing that some people (countries, religious, ways of thinking) are bad/wrong/evil and that some are the opposite sets up barriers and engenders untruths.  I’d much rather think that we all have good in us, the potential for good actions and the desire, ultimately, to be happy and find some sort of peace.  In fact, I think that seeking out — in ourselves and in the people and world around us — peace, peacefulness, is one of the most effective ways to change the world.

Some might say that writing poetry, reading poetry, speaking poetry… is a waste of time, a dalliance — certainly in the face of real hunger, violence, poverty and war.  Holding any sort of art-making up against someone who is working on the front lines to bring people food, medicine and shelter is to compare two very different types of activity, and I am grateful every day for those in war-torn countries, in any country, in any government and society who are giving of their life and time on this earth to help others in such tangible, and often physically risky, ways.

However, I believe that making art, writing and creating is very much not a waste.  I think it can help both the maker and the audience (viewer, listener, reader) enjoy, think, stop.  And that stopping, even for a moment — stopping the rush and tumble and flux of life, is invaluable, and is a worthwhile protest.  And much like meditation and mindfulness, can change not only the world but — as science is proving — the actual body and mind.

I had the opportunity to work at the recent 2nd Edinburgh International Culture Summit at the Scottish Parliament — and one extraordinary artist there — Ea Sola — asked just that, so simple and so powerful — what happens if we stop?

Art, of course, can also anger and enrage — but I’d like to think that it’s the sort of anger that is grounded in the artist’s attempt to challenge the perceiver of the work, to stimulate them, to shake them from their normal way of being or point of view, and that if the perceiver can find a way to explore their response they can achieve valuable realisations.

I know many wonderful people make regular, thought-provoking posts on social media, and I decided this morning that I will try to post a tweet every day that is a line from a poem — something that is exquisite, that makes me think, that shines a little light on an aspect of experience.  I’ll use #alittlelight, and I invite you to join me in spreading some moments beauty and stillness over the internet and into the world.  Post a line when you think of it, when one strikes you as magnificent or every day, and add #alittle light.  You might even like to write your own poem or line of poetry to share.

My first Peace Tweet will be a quote from Ezra Pound’s Canto CXVI… “a little light, like a rushlight / to lead back to splendour”.  Pound himself is an example of a poet whose personal politics were more than a little questionable, but whose work is undeniably — in my humble opinion at least — shining.  I can’t accept Pound’s personal politics, but I can’t dismiss the fact that there must have been beauty in him, as I believe there is in all people.

PS… You might like to have a look at this interesting post which I just came across on The Pangrammaticon, also thinking about Pound, editing, philosophy and stopping or standing still.


By jlwpoetry

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire (Shearsman, 2011), Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014), House of the Tragic Poet (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016), After Economy (Shearsman, 2017) and Origin (Shearsman, 2022). Published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into numerous languages. She has read at international literature festivals and venues in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and the US. She wrote the libretto for the opera Snow which debuted in London in 2017, was awarded a bursary to develop a new opera with composer Samantha Fernando at the Royal Opera House and was a librettist for the award-winning 2020 covid-response Episodes project by The Opera Story. Williams curates writing events and creates workshops and professional development activities for poets. She is hopeful about the simple and mysterious power of poetry that allows us to know ourselves, each other and the world more deeply.


  1. Lovely idea Jennifer. The news has been overwhelming and commentary often seems endlessly dualistic. I’m tired of the constant provocation and disrespect, which seems if anything to reduce understanding and compassion. I’ll be following your posts – I believe that the arts are profoundly important, not just in expressing or understanding painful experience but also a focus on what makes life beautiful and worth living, we need reminding

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