by Erica Funkhouser (Copyright Harvard Review 2005)
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
-Bertolt Brecht, “Motto”
Early in 2003, poet and editor Sam Hamill was famously uninvited to the White House. Laura Bush had originally invited Hamill to join her at a February symposium to celebrate “Poetry and the American Voice.” Hamill accepted and then he asked a few friends for poems representing “the conscience of our country.” This was during the weeks leading up to the March invasion of Iraq, when President Bush’s plans to “shock and awe” Baghdad were well publicized: three thousand missiles would strike the city in the first two days of the war, the president promised. Hamill received 11,000 responses to his request for poems. When Laura Bush caught wind of this, she “postponed” the symposium. On February 12, 2003, the day when the original symposium was supposed to have taken place, hundreds of counter-symposia were held across the country. Later that year, Poets Against the War, edited by Hamill, was published with work by 174 poets.
The Hamill anthology, created not in response to an ongoing war but in anticipation of George Bush’s plans for war, brings up several questions about war poetry and anti-war poetry in general. Both originate in strongly held beliefs; and with those beliefs come all the risks that come with writing about anything-one’s dog, one’s diet, one’s mother, one’s faith. The risks are innumerable: sentimentality, over-generalization, over-simplification, distortion, and preaching, to name a few. Can’t the same be said for every subject? Polemic and diatribe will always turn us away from thoughtful and provocative contemplation, but excellent writing, whatever its subject, seeks to reawaken us to ourselves and to the challenges of the world in which we live. As W. H. Auden writes, “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and a moral choice.”
What is the role of the poet in response to war? In the time of the heroic epics, of Gilgamesh and The Iliad and The Aeneid, the poet could still sing “of arms and the man,” assuming that certain ideals were worth going to war for. “The great epics were always war poems,” writes Selden Rodman in his War and the Poet, but such singing is hardly possible in the post-nuclear age. In 1949, the German poet Theodor Adorno declared, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How could lyric poetry, with its underlying rhythms and forms, ever capture the brute incoherence of the events of World War II? Yet poets-both soldiers and non-combatants-continued to write, managing to find ways in which their work could stray from poetry’s traditional preoccupation with beauty and attempt to capture the purpose! ess barbarity of war. Even Adorno relented, admitting that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man to scream.” As early as 1918, Wilfred Owen had written,
This book is not about heroes.
English poetry is not yet fit to speak about them …
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the Pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn …
The post-heroic world is not perforce post-poetic; the art form itself is capable of adapting to new subjects and new attitudes. As Desmond Graham explains, “for the writer from the 1920s on, poetry was no longer wholly identified with beauty, the aesthetic, and with song, whether simple or epic. New potentialities of expressiveness had become normal to the writing of it; poets had turned to new, more open and variable forms; and, above all, there was a move-continuing through to this day-to bring poetry closer and closer to speech.” If poetry is going to capture the tone and texture of a “new” war, asserts Graham, it must edge closer to the speech of its own day. Paul Fussell, who so eloquently describes the “vigorously literary” soldiers of World War I, argues that these officer poets were still writing in the tradition of their nineteenth-century literary predecessors. We hear this in what is perhaps the most famous World War I poem of all, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” a poem whose quotation from Horace (“It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country”) would have been recognized by many soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,” the poem begins, with an almost medieval feel, and goes on to describe the grim march of “lame,” “blind” soldiers, “drunk with fatigue.” When the procession is gassed, one soldier fails to put on his gas mask in time. At this point, the reader is invited into the poem:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen’s poem straddles the border between literary tradition and the new speech, the new experience, of his day. In the wagon, which in a traditional pastoral poem would have been heaped with freshly cut hay or reveling harvesters, we find, instead, the flung body of a gassed soldier. The “real” events of war are posed ironically against “the old Lie” of sentimental patriotism; and the “new” language declares itself in the nouns new to World War I-gas, and gas shells-and in the images of the gassed victims.
Not every World War I poet shared Owen’s perhaps youthful conviction (he was only twenty-five when he died in France, one week before the armistice) that the traditional forms of poetry could contain the experiences of war. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell quotes Alexander Aitken, speaking about the Somme, in September of 1916:
The road here and the ground to either side were strewn with bodies, some motionless, some not. Cries and groans, prayers, imprecations, reached me. I leave it to the sensitive imagination; I once wrote it all down, only to discover that horror, truthfully described, weakens to the merely clinical.
Fussell goes on to write,
But what was needed was exactly the clinical-or even obscene-language the literary Aitken regards as “weak.” It would take still another war, and an even worse one, before such language would force itself up from below and propose itself for use.
Fifteen years later Fussell has found that language forced “up from below.” In his introduction to Leon Stokesbury’s anthology of World War II poetry, Articles of War, Fussell acknowledges that “war poetry” almost inevitably suggests the poetry of the First World War. What was left to say about warfare after World War I, Fussell asks. The same question was posed by Simone Weil in her essay on The Iliad, written during World War II. War, she writes, is a “force,” an “x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” But if men are reduced to things by war, then what becomes of the words we speak? Is the debasement of language another of war’s inevitable casualties? During World War I, Henry James observed that “the war has used up words: they have weakened, they have deteriorated.” Fussell does not argue with that; but he proposes that the deterioration of one kind of language led to the invention of another. “The mode of second War poetry,” writes Fussell, “represents a general skepticism about the former languages of glory and sacrifice and patriotism. Sick of the inflated idiom of official morale-boosting tub-thumping and all the slynesses of wartime publicity and advertising, the poets now preferred to speak in understatement, glancing less at the center of a topic than at its edges.”
The new style was cool, nonchalant, and laconic, and also more detached. While the soldiers in the trenches of World War I had, by and large, fought man to man, the technological advancements of World War II typically placed the killers at a distance from one another. The best-known American poem from World War II is Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” set in the very belly of advanced technological warfare, a B-17 or B-24 bomber. The poem’s bare minimalism demonstrates a new attitude toward the experience of war: the anonymous hero’s life is compressed into five lines:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The detachment becomes more clinical in Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts,” a schizophrenic duet between the voice of spring and the voice of the British Army. If we hear the soldier’s voice at all, it is only in the punning overlay between the formal literary appeal to spring and the rhetoric of the army’s basic training manual.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
In Alan Dugan’s frank description of a fellow soldier in “Portrait From The Infantry,” we find language even closer to speech. Rather than speaking for his subject, Dugan quotes his fellow infantryman directly:
He smelled bad and was red-eyed with the miseries
of being scared while sleepless when he said
this: “I want a private woman, peace and quiet,
and some green stuff in my pocket. Fuck
The only lingering hint of pastoral, and it’s an ironic hint, lies in the “green stuff” in his pocket.
The above poems come from American and British soldiers. Naturally, the wartime writing of Europeans and Asians presents a much fuller range of experience, with more diverse perspectives, and a wider spectrum of horrors, as these poets are writing not only from the battlefield but from the bombed cities, the refugee camps, the gulags, and the death camps. In her anthology, Against Forgetting, Carolyn Forché assigns to this wide variety of political poetry the term “the poetry of witness.” One of these writers, as Forché points out, is the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944), who, in 1944, was sent to a forced-labor camp where he wrote the last ten poems of his life in a notebook that he had somehow managed to procure. When, after the war was over, Radnoti’s wife and others exhumed the mass grave in which the poet and twenty-one others had been dumped, she found the little notebook “soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth,” as the coroner’s report for corpse #12 noted. Here is the ending of one of these poems, “Picture Postcards,” in which a man about to be executed pens a postcard-something we normally think of as being sent from a pleasant holiday resort.
I fell beside him; his body turned over,
already taut as a string about to snap.
Shot in the back of the neck. That’s how you too will end,
I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.
Patience now flowers into death.
Der springt nodi auf, a voice said above me. [He’s still moving]
On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth.
This is a classical example of art, of a private poetic voice, transcending a political moment, first of all by a great stroke of existential luck-the notebook did not rot in the dead man’s pocket, and the dead man’s wife persisted until she discovered his grave. But the poem itself, still speaking to us powerfully after sixty years, stands for another, more important attribute of art: the ability of the human imagination to transmute intensely felt personal experience into a universally understood expression, even a political expression. The brave scribe of Radnoti’s postcard flaunts his own descriptive power, even as he’s being executed, shaping an instant of history into an eternally intimate image in the manner of the Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo paintings of Francisco Goya. Between World War II and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, dozens of brilliant and original European and Russian writers proved that poetry could flourish in the most hostile state. What better illustration of this than the image of Nadezhda Mandelstam memorizing her husband’s poems so that they would be remembered when it was not safe for them to be written down? When Mandelstam bemoaned the fate of the persecuted poets whom she called “the Soviet Union’s exemplary dead,” her husband said, “Why do you complain? Poetry is respected only in this country-people are killed for it.”
In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the entry on political poetry makes the point that what counts as a political subject is a question of audience. A poem that seems “only vaguely political in peacetime,” may, in time of war, “be understood to be insistently partisan.” Political poetry will offer no more than a sentimental appeal to the reader’s political beliefs if the writer’s historical moment is not comprehended to its fullest. The challenge of comprehending both personal and national “historical moments” was so intensified and so widespread during and after World War II that the literature of that period naturally comes to us from many civilian writers as well as soldiers.
In the following poem of Marina Tsvetayeva’s (1892-1941), written during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, we hear the ancient devices of oral poetry applied to a contemporary horror. Note in this extract from “Poems for Czechoslovakia,” translated by Elaine Feinstein, that just where the collective “we” speaks most like a soldier, it expresses its most defiantly poetic idea: “But while our mouths have spittle in them/The whole country is still armed.”
They took quickly, they took hugely,
took the mountains and their entrails.
They took our coal, and took our steel
From us, lead they took also and crystal.
They took the sugar, and they took the clover
they took the North and took the West.
They took the hive, and took the haystack
they took the South from us, and took the East
Vary they took and Tatras they took,
they took the near at hand and far away.
But worse than taking paradise on earth from us
they won the battle for our native land.
Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles
minerals they took, and comrades too:
But while our mouths have spittle in them
The whole country is still armed.
In Lily Brett’s poem, “I Keep Forgetting,” a very specific historical “I” struggles to keep track of “the facts and statistics” of her life.
over and over again
that one third of Warsaw
and in the ghetto
they crammed 500,000 Jews
into 2.4 per cent
of the area of the city
and how many
bodies were they burning
at the peak of their production
twelve thousand a day
I have to check
Brett, who was born in 1946 in Germany, was not herself a witness to the events of the Holocaust; yet the task of witnessing the history of one’s own time is the poem’s subject. Without retaining her litany of horrendous historical facts, the speaker is no one. She must determine a way to hold them in her conscious memory, the same memory where she stores hundreds of phone numbers and idle conversations. The facts and the statistics themselves become the new vocabulary of the Holocaust, the necessary news without which we cannot distinguish this war from its predecessors.
In Nobuyuki Saga’s “The Myth of Hiroshima,” the burden of memory is even more directly linked with the burden of responsibility. The poem begins with a question-“What are they looking for,/running to the summit of lost time?”-a question one might ask of the figures in a classical Japanese print as they make their way toward Mt. Fuji in the distance. But the figures in the poem, hundreds of them, are not on their way to a sacred mountain; they have been vaporized by the atomic bomb, and they continue to walk and speak. Having “skipped over death,” they are now spirits asking for a “real, human death.” One of them suffers an even more paradoxical fate: his flesh is gone, but his shadow has been branded onto stone steps, where it remains, “the twentieth century myth.” “Who will free this shadow from the stone?” asks the poet on behalf of the incinerated person.
"Shame," writes Carl Dennis in his essay "Political Poetry," "is one of the most common conditions of any citizen in a powerful democracy who feels that his country is doing evil in his name…. If we are to write useful political poetry, we have to figure out how to begin with shame and then move beyond confessions of failure, affirming the power to give some shape to our lives." Denise Levertov’s "What Were They Like?" explores one citizen’s wartime shame by imitating the tone and procedure of a military debriefing during the Vietnam War. Unlike Henry Reed in "Naming of Parts," Levertov does not appropriate the vocabulary of soldiering; she borrows only the structure of the Q&A session that a soldier might expect upon returning from an evening raid on an enemy village.
1) Did the people of Vietnam use lanterns of stone?
2) Did they hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone, It is not remembered whether in gardens stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom, but after the children were killed there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics poses the problem of “shame or blame” in slightly different terms, suggesting that political poetry lies, historically, along a continuum between praise and blame, and that in modern history the poems of “sheer blame” have been more widely appreciated than the poems in praise of the state or state-sanctioned activities. Hayden Carruth, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, voices his protest entirely in terms of blame in “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam:”
Well I have and in fact
more than one and I’ll
tell you this too
I wrote one against
Algeria that nightmare
and another against
Korea and another
against the one
I was in
and not one
breath was restored
mans womans or childs
not one not
one but death went on and on
never looking aside
except now and then like a child
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.
In the work of Clarence Major, the war in Vietnam is seen in the larger social and political context of the United States in the sixties and the state is blamed for more than its most recent war. His poems are about racism, particularly about the extent to which people of color and poor people bear the brunt of American war. “Vietnam 4” is not set in the battlefield; it’s not set in Vietnam at all; instead it gives us one “cat’s” opinion, delivered in street vernacular, as in these lines: “dig man/how come so many/of us/ niggers/are dying over there/in that white/man’s war/they say more of us/are dying/than them peckerwoods …”
Possibly the most famous of the Vietnam-era poetry books is Michael casey’s Obscenities, which won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1972. This war, writes Stanley Kunitz in his foreword to the book, more than its recent predecessors, offers little opportunity for unconflicted heroism. “casey begins as a poet with an act of rejection … He has had the original insight and the controls to produce a kind of anti-poetry that befits a kind of war empty of any kind of glory.” Part of this anti-poetic effect comes from casey’s use of language that, like Major’s “Vietnam #4,” seems to be casually overheard-only in Casey’s poem the American street corner is replaced by the rice paddy. In “A Bummer” we hear the soldiers’ slang and their nicknames as they proceed with their “mission” of ravaging a farmer’s fields. Here the war poem overlays the pastoral like a grotesque transparency.
We were going single file
Through his rice paddies
And the farmer
Starting hitting the lead track
With a rake
He wouldn’t stop
The TC went to talk to him
And the farmer
Tried to hit him too
So the tracks went sideways
Side by side
Through the guy’s fields
Instead of single file
Hard On, Proud Mary
Bummer, Wallace, Rosemary’s Baby
The Rutgers Road Runner
Go Get Em-Done Got Em
Went side by side
Through the fields
If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home
In Yusef Komunyakaa’s battlefield poem “Starlight Scope Myopia,” the infrared scope of the title brings the enemy closer still. Figures that start out as “Gray-blue shadows” become, through the scope, men within killing range, men so clearly and intimately observed that they promise to remain “inside our skulls years/after this scene ends.” Even the conversation of the Vietnamese becomes nearly audible: “Are they talking about women / or calling the Americans / beaucoup dien cai dau [insane]?” As the language of the enemy enters the poem, the soldier speakers begin to empathize with the enemy. “This one, old, bowlegged, / you feel you could reach out / & take him into your arms.” One peers down the sights of his M-16 and observes “the full moon/loaded on an ox cart.” A perfect pastoral image. Will it be shattered by machinegun fire?
Bruce Weigl’s “Burning Shit at An Khe,” approaches the war not from a civilian’s perspective and not from the perspective of a fighter on the battlefield but from the point of view of a soldier engaged in the routine activities of war. Armed with “a rake and matches,” the speaker
climbed down into my fellow soldiers’
Shit and began to sink and didn’t stop
Until I was deep to my knees. Liftships
Cut the air above me, the hacking
Blast of their blades
Ripped dust in swirls so every time
I tried to light a match
And it all came down on me, the stink
And the heat and the worthlessness
Until I slipped and climbed
Out of that hole and ran
Past the olive drab
Tents and trucks and clothes and everything
Green as far from the shit
As the fading light allowed.
Only now I can’t fly.
I lie down in it
And finger paint the words of who I am
Across my chest
Until I’m covered and there’s only one smell,
Weigl’s poem draws on the tradition of First and second World War poems in which writers described soldiers’ breakdowns, but here he appears to be writing not about a comrade but about himself, adding the self-consciousness of the confessional poem to the wartime reminiscence. There is an element of journalistic bravado in the precisely rendered details and the youthful boasting, but this is also a personal horror story, perhaps even a cry for help.
While the first anthologies of Vietnam war poetry came out a good ten years after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, Sam Hamill’s Poets Against the War was assembled in response to plans for war. Is there a whole category of poetry about the dread of war, I wondered, and of course the 1930s came to mind as a time when the memory of one recent war informed the imaginations of writers as yet another war approached. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), writing in 1934, recalls the caution of Wilfred Owen’s “All a poet can do today is warn,” but MacNeice’s is a warning without hope. While an aubade traditionally alerts sleeping lovers to the coming of day, MacNeice’s dawn song announces the arrival of yet another war:
Having bitten on life like a sharp apple
Or, playing it like a fish, been happy,
Having felt with fingers that the sky is blue,
What have we after that to look forward to?
Not the twilight of the gods but a precise dawn
Of sallow and grey bricks, and newsboys crying war.
Although we do not think of Yeats as a poet of the second World War (neither he nor Pound nor Eliot fought in the war), he did write “The second Coming” in anticipation of World War II, and in this poem one senses the tragic inevitability of coming events:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
But it is another of Yeats’ poems that brings into focus the questions raised at the beginning of this essay: What is the difference between war poetry and anti-war poetry? Is the poetry written by soldiers necessarily better (or stronger or truer or more trustworthy) than that written by civilians? Here is Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” spoken by an airman, not unlike Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, except that Yeats’ speaker is engaged in the war not as a fighter committed to any one side but as a mercenary.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltarten’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
If poems about war and times of war are going to endure, they must be as much about language as every other excellent poem, and they must bear an intimate and an original relationship to the news of the day, however distasteful or tragic. In the nineteenth century, Shelley claimed that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That confidence was given a zanier slant in the sixties, when George Oppen revised it to read, “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.” Today, I think John Ashbery’s words in “The Skaters” ring with a cautious truth:
Yet it is all offered as “today’s news,” as if we somehow
had a right to it, as though it were a part of our lives
That we’d be silly to refuse. Here, have another-crime or
revolution? Take your pick.
On the one hand, we are too detached from the news (it is, so often, unbearable), on the other, we are entirely wound up in it. It is about our planet and our species, and it comes to us over the radio and TV and via newspapers, magazines, and the Web in a language that consists, in Robert Kelly’s formulation, not only of “flowery or poetic language … privileged over any kind of language,” but of the “incoherent speeches of current politicians,” of the “noble sentiments that I try and scribble down in my notebooks” and of the “schoolmasterly language used by the secretary of defense.”
The pressure to make our language respond to the bombing of Iraq, and to the United States’ unilateral pursuit of war in the Middle East, is undeniably acute. Witness the avalanche of poems received by Sam Hamill, or the dozens of antiwar poetry sites on the web, or the fact that poetsagainstthewar.org, established in January of 2003, continues to showcase new poems every week from countries as far distant as Bangladesh and South Africa. Google “Poets Against the War,” and over a million results will turn up. “A true patriot,” writes Hamill, “is born in the act of questioning and in acting upon a reasoned response. Poetry, too, is born in the act of questioning.” Questioning, I would add, one’s own language as well as one’s critical responses to the events of the day.
It is her doubt about the ability of poetry to address politics that concerns one of the anthology’s poets, however. Katha Pollitt’s poem, “Trying to Write a Poem Against the War,” is addressed to her daughter, who “hates politics” and “stalks off to her room,/to confide in her purple guitar …”
of course: bombs will be hurled
at ordinary streets
and leaders look grave for the cameras,
and what good are more poems against war
the real subject of which
so often seems to be the poet’s superior
In the end, the mother’s debate with her daughter comes down to the simultaneously grandiose and modest question that every artist must ask of herself: “what can we do/but offer what we have?”
Will the poets of the twenty-first century find a genuine language in which to describe the first war of the century, a war so anticipated and dominated by the media that it comes to us in images and words already many steps removed from whatever is really going on in Iraq? It is perhaps too early to judge. Most of the poems in Poets Against The War address a war that is still to come, a generalization, and the tone is therefore generally fearful and angry. Many of the poems in the anthology borrow their images and their language from radio and TV. A poem by Tony Hoagland, “The Kind of Shadow that Calls out to Fate,” written after a much-publicized incident in the bombing of Afghanistan, responds to the reports of that event at the same time as it questions the reliability of the reporting.
Early in the day reports said our planes
had bombed a wedding in a distant country-
We could tell it had really happened
from the way the spokespersons on TV hesitated
before denying it-from the way they cleared their throats
and said it was pending investigation.
You know those crazy natives and their customs,
well, apparently it was their way of celebration
to shoot their rifles into the air
and jets showed up soon afterwards-forty dead,
and some of them horses.
We are given little information about the incident itself except for the exotically clichéd images of “the colorful wedding clothes,” the dying bride’s bright blood, and “forty dead, / some of them horses.” Then, in a tone reminiscent of petty burglars who suddenly get a bad feeling about their most recent job, the speaker admits, “We sensed we couldn’t get away with this one.” The speaker goes on to compare the bombing of the Afghan wedding to an incident in a Greek play an incident that “would initiate a sequence of events/that turns inexorably back to bite/the hand that set it into motion/-and we knew we also were part of the plot.” In the forty years since Vietnam, the poet’s sense of shame has grown into a sense of collusion.
It is still too early to speak about the poetry of the War in Iraq as written by the soldiers engaged in fighting that war; but the notion of how and when those soldiers will respond to the war has already surfaced in the poetry community. The role of the soldier poet was acutely dramatized during the spring of 2004 when the NEA announced that as part of Operation Homecoming it would support the printing of an anthology of wartime writing by active U.S. military personnel and their immediate families. Part of the NEA’s plan involved bringing writers to military bases to conduct workshops for soldiers returning from combat. The project was sponsored by the NEA in cooperation with the Armed Forces and the Defense Department and the Southern Arts Federation, and it was funded ($250,000 of its $300,000 cost) by the Boeing Company, one of the country’s leading defense contractors. As demonstrated by a flurry of letters published in Poetry magazine, there was much disagreement in the poetry community about Operation Homecoming.
Elinor Wilner began the debate with a letter entitled: “Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance?” in which she worried that the returning troops engaged in Operation Homecoming would be employed by the Defense Department as a kind of human shield “against the scrutiny of the very policy which put them in harm’s way in the first place.” She went on to question whether the freshly returned soldiers would be able to write about their combat experience, especially on military bases where, presumably, they would be overseen by their commanding officers. Wilner quotes the following from Kevin Bowen, writing in the on-line veterans magazine, Intervention: “Beyond the language of self-help and ‘therapeutic’ aspects of writing, beyond the back-patting, it is not difficult to see in the project an effort to establish an official canon of writing from the century’s first wars, neatly packaged, ready for mass distribution and classroom use.”
Letters of reply came back to Poetry from all directions. Reginald Gibbons saw in the NEA’s alliance with Boeing “an unprecedented PR covenant” with an arms manufacturer, and argued that the project could not possibly be free of partisan politics or “implicit emotional coercion.” Yusef Komunyakaa, remembering “our soldier poets in Vietnam,” who, “for the most part. .. penned … ‘the boondock doggerel of blood and guts’ which was printed by the Stars and Stripes,” noted that poetry-writing “cannot serve as an emotional bandage for the blood and guts of warfare.” He encouraged the NEA, instead, to fund once again poetry-writing programs in the schools.
One of the participating writers in Operation Homecoming, Daniel Rifenburgh, wrote to Poetry to say that, some of the writing produced by this project will, it is hoped, produce works of “genuine artistic merit.” Wyatt Prunty makes the case that Operation Homecoming “has the potential for populist good not unlike the Favorite Poem Project,” and then goes on to revive the one language/two languages debate. “Two kinds of language under consideration here,” he writes, “are that of poetic thinking and utilitarian thinking, the first a will-less willing that uses language to explore and expand our world, the second a use of language meant to dominate situations-in the military to survive combat.” In the end, Prunty agrees with Sam Hamill that poetry originates in the act of questioning.
Is Operation Homecoming intended to promote art, meant for social and personal therapy, or meant as PR for the government? Is a government that can be voted out of office wise to be worried what its soldiers, their families and the voting public think? Yes, to all of these, and that is what our system requires. But no one’s “propaganda” is weakening anyone’s questions.
A letter from Jon Parrish Peede, Director of Operation Homecoming for the NEA, addresses directly the issue of propaganda. “The DOD will not be involved in the selection of writing for the anthology,” he explains before going on to quote Dana Gioia, the Chairman of the NEA: “We don’t tell the writers what to teach. We don’t tell the troops what to write.” Another letter, from Marilyn Nelson, who explains that the idea for Operation Homecoming originated in a conversation between Dana Gioia and herself, goes on to assert that “submissions will be based on artistic merit,” chosen by editors with “a wide spectrum of political viewpoints” who have “been assured that they will be given free rein.”
Given the power and originality of the poems written by the poets who happened also to be soldiers in previous wars, it seems to make sense to encourage the soldiers returning from Iraq to write about their experience. Few of them will be able to create enduring literature, but the ones who do will undoubtedly give us poems that describe what Walt Whitman called the “red business” of war more truthfully, more personally, and less ideologically than it has been described by Fox News and the secretary of defense. The larger issue brought up by the debate over Operation Homecoming stems, I think, from American poets’ ambivalence about the writing of poems in response to immediate political events. Some of the concern naturally derives from the need for reflection before any experience, political or not, can be transformed into art. A report in the March 7,2005, New York Times noted that it was nearly four years after the events of 9/11 that serious literary novels addressing that event first began to appear in print. But the issue goes even deeper than that. It has to do with questions about how much politics, how much of the present historical moment, a lyric poem can contain.
Carl Dennis, observing the “dearth of successful political poetry in America today,” suggests that the “problem may stem from the belief that public issues are inherently unpoetical, a notion that has its classic American formulation in the aestheticism of Poe that pits truth against beauty and defines beauty as ‘the sole province of the poem.’” The solution may be, as Dennis posits, “a more enlightened poetics,” but even a poetry of enlarged interests will, he admits, run into the “rhetorical problems peculiar to the genre.” Among these, he identifies “party thinking” and “party language,” or propaganda and the presumption of the powerlessness of the individual, which defeats any faith in political transformation. One way to overcome this sense of shame, of being a victim of political forces, Dennis suggests, is “to place public issues in private contexts.” History is so complicated, and the lyric so specific, that the fit will of necessity be a tight one. Still, the expansive voice of Whitman echoes in Dennis’s observation that “Once writers begin to think of political life not as something determined by inaccessible governments but as shaped, at least in part, by the daily actions of ordinary citizens, they can view their own local acts of imagination as relevant to the shaping of a political order.”
In Against Forgetting, Carolyn Forché addresses the uneasy border between the personal and the political. “We distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ poems,” she writes,
the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary. The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of individuality.
The challenge, then, is to combine three essential elements-the compression and intensity of the traditional lyric, the complex and disputed events of history and politics, and a strong personal voice in the act of discovering an original contemporary language capable of bearing its full range of intelligence and feelings.
What we ask of the war poem, pro- or anti-, is no different from what we ask of any poem. Any easy attitude, any easily implied morality or easily slung language, whether pro-war or anti-war, will ring false in a poem. Randall Jarrell articulated the dangers of assuming any morality at all in the 1945 essay, “Poetry in War and Peace,” in which he takes Marianne Moore to task for her poem “In Distrust of Merits.” “Miss Moore thinks of the war in blindingly moral terms,” Jarrell writes, arguing against Moore’s lines: “If these great patient / dyings-all these agonies / and woundbearings and bloodshed/can teach us how to live, these dyings were not wasted.” No, protests Jarrell, “They taught us to kill others and to die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is ‘taught to live’ by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death?”
If the poets of World War II and Vietnam were able to invent new means of expression in order to convey the particular horrors of those wars, then we can assume that the same kind of invention will eventually occur in response to the war in Iraq. Who knows where the new forms will come from? Perhaps the war will force poets to find an alternative to what Henri Cole describes as the bipolar worlds of “prolix narrative and elliptical abstraction” in which American poetry is currently stalled .Possibly we will go back to the ancient forms, to the letter, the love poem, and the pastoral, as so many previous soldiers and wartime sufferers have done, and seek from them some clue as to how our contemporary praise and protest might be framed. Perhaps it’s time to restore the epic, however challenging it might be to identify a twenty-first-century hero. Could this be the moment to invent a new vocabulary, an utterly personal, utterly political vocabulary in the control of a spirit as comprehensive as Whitman’s? The poet, whether soldier or not, who succeeds in putting his or her experience of this war and this time in history into enduring words will be continuing the work of all writers in all ages. As Czelaw Milosz asks in his poem, “Dedication:”
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
NOTES: Citations in this essay are taken from the following works: W. H. Auden and John Garrett, Introduction, The Poet’s Tongue, eds. W. H. Auden and John Garrett (Bell, 1935); Selden Rodman, “Introduction: The Vision of Armies,” in War and the Poet, eds. Richard Eberhart and Selden Rodman (The Devin-Adair Co., 1945); The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (New Directions, 1965); Desmond Graham, Introduction, Poetry of the second World War, An International Anthology (Chatto & Windus, 1995); Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1975); Carolyn Forché, éd., Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (W. W. Norton & Company, 1993); Carl Dennis, Poetry as Persuasion (University of Georgia Press, 2001); Robert Kelly in an interview with Celia Bland, Poets and Writers Magazine, May/June, 2004; and Henri Cole, American Poet, vol. 27, Fall 2004.[Author Affiliation]ERICA FUNKHOUSER’s fourth book of poetry, Pursuit, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002. She teaches the poetry writing workshops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.