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January 31, 2003 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Poets Against the War At Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War, the story of the recent cancellation (link to Canada's Globe and Mail), by Laura Bush, of a Feb. 12 poetry symposium at the White House. From the G and M article: Stanley Kunitz, poet laureate 2000-01, told reporters, "I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the centre of the poetic impulse."
Hamill is gathering contributions from poets around the world, including Pulitzer Prize-winners Yusef Komunyakaa and W.S. Merwin, National Book Award winner Marilyn Hacker, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, and Adrienne Rich.
This post is not intended the fan the flames of 'War on Iraq: Yes or No', but to explore Kunitz's contention: Is there at the centre of the poetic impulse a particular type of humanitarianism? Is there a space for poets and poetry in political debate? Are poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world"? [more inside]
posted by jokeefe (35 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Relatedly, from nthposition.com, a collection of "over 100 of the world's leading, mid-career and emerging poets who work in the English language, [who] have gathered their work together in a book of new peace poems" (downloads here in pdf). The booklet is entitled '100 Poets Against The War'.
posted by jokeefe at 9:06 PM on January 31, 2003


I'm not sure which is more shocking, the fact that the poet community is in general, anti-war, or that the current administration is not poet-friendly. This is, one would have to admit, a fairly predictable stance from a gathering of poets. Also:

Is there at the centre of the poetic impulse a particular type of humanitarianism? Is there a space for poets and poetry in political debate? Are poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world"?

yes. no. no.
posted by jonson at 9:20 PM on January 31, 2003


IANAP, just a lowly journalist, but it would seem to me, when it comes to something as bare as war vs peace, there is an inherent humanitarianism to poetry. people who wage war don't think about it in the same light that you have to view the world in order to write poetry. they don't have that light. they live in a world that's missing a dimension, a dimension that actually allows you to contemplate your surroundings.

and for those who do wage war and are capable of poetry, that poetry is usually pretty tormented. they're not fight songs.

maybe i'm wrong. can anybody think of any genuinely enthusiastic war poetry? propaganda jingles don't count.
posted by damn yankee at 9:26 PM on January 31, 2003


"Is there at the centre of the poetic impulse a particular type of humanitarianism?"

In the year of our Lord 1314,
patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered,
charged the fields of Bannockburn.
They fought like warrior poets.
They fought like Scotsmen, and won their freedom.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:28 PM on January 31, 2003


why is it when i write about poetry that i come out sounding like some breathless hack?
posted by damn yankee at 9:29 PM on January 31, 2003


There's something at the centre of the poetic impulse, all right, but I'm not sure it's humanitarianism. Given the quality of the overwhelming majority of poetry written, I'd suggest it might actually be cruelty.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:38 PM on January 31, 2003


Nietzsche once said that poets are often nothing more than lackeys of any available moral standards. I won't even get into the question of what do poets know about the reality of policy-making, but I wonder if some of these writers aren't actually using the conflict as an excuse to promote themselves.
There's also the fact that, under the Hussein regime, many of them would no doubt be arrested, tortured and killed if they even remotely attempted to to criticize the government. Like teenagers, they seem to antagonize their supporters and idealize their worst enemies.
posted by 111 at 9:50 PM on January 31, 2003


or, you could look at it that way.

and to a certain degree i'm actually inclined to agree.

(HAH! i'm a poet and ..... ahhh. time to go to bed.)
posted by damn yankee at 9:55 PM on January 31, 2003


One of the many jobs of a poet is to bite the hand that feeds. If some apparat &*^%$ with pretensions of literacy does not understand that then should any of us be surprised? I think not.

Not surprising though given the absolute gruel the potus wives give out as moral lit for kiddies. I spit on Cheney's book and draw mustaches on her characters every time I come across her book in the shop. Shame on them!

I have to wonder what moron thought it appropriate to invite poets in the first place. What are they gonna do write odes to Bush's gravitas? Any cunt who thought that was in the cards surely can't be considered to be a real librarian.

Disgusting!
posted by filchyboy at 10:23 PM on January 31, 2003


Kunitz really should know better -- or perhaps he is engaging in deliberate spin. Rupert Brooke and the war poets of the First World War defined the experience of war for at least a generation -- while participating, many of them capable of avoiding service. Scholarship of the poetry of the American Civil War -- North and South -- is extensive. War poems cover the entire 20th century. Not all of these were wars of men who, damn yankee's cruel musings aside, are "missing a dimension", unless it is the impulse of the Paris example, surrender before tyranny rather than destruction. Many poets clearly chose defense of their country -- or the freedom of other countries -- over 'the humanitarian position'. Nor is war enthusiasm limited to the right; major swathes of liberals in both America and Europe, after all, flocked to the Spanish Civil War to fight the fascists, e.g. Hemingway and Orwell, and wrote about it. More recently, poetry and other artwork have been a well-publicized release for veterans of Vietnam, many of whom were and are conservative.

Yes, Kunitz would like to believe that poetry enables, or embodies, a certain political discourse, but the verdict of history shows otherwise. Comforting it may be to characterize poetry as humanitarian, but the language belongs to no one. Soldiers and patriots, too, may be poets, and generally were until modern times.
posted by dhartung at 10:35 PM on January 31, 2003


[see also : Vogon poetry]
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:41 PM on January 31, 2003


There are poets that have been willing to die for war causes but it seems most served the wounded more than the rifle.Walt Whitman was a battlefield nurse in the Civil War. Hemingway was a medic in WWI.

And the best anti-war poem

preponderatingly because unless statistics lie he was more brave than me: more blonde than you
posted by drezdn at 11:04 PM on January 31, 2003


Did Kunitz say that poets were against any war whatsoever? No, gosh no, he said the potential war now being discussed - and the "Shock and Awe" plan, etc. - is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the centre of the poetic impulse, not war itself. Say what you will about the above opinion, but don't screw his words around. He absolutely did not say that those poets hailing the Union in the Civil War because of their opposition to slavery, say, were lacking some essential poetic impulse.
posted by raysmj at 11:06 PM on January 31, 2003


i'm having an incredibly hard time wrapping my brain around an argument to counter you with, dhartung, and i don't know whether i'm just too tired to formulate what i want to say or if you have a point.

i'm inclined to think the latter, but i'm going to go sleep on it. ;)
posted by damn yankee at 11:07 PM on January 31, 2003


Here's one for dhartung to suggest that soldiers and patriots, too, may be humanitarian.

At any rate, no, there is no space for poets and poetry in "political debate;" in fact, there is no space for most of us.
posted by transient at 11:18 PM on January 31, 2003


and for those who do wage war and are capable of poetry, that poetry is usually pretty tormented. they're not fight songs.

maybe i'm wrong. can anybody think of any genuinely enthusiastic war poetry? propaganda jingles don't count.


The last stanza of "In Flanders Fields" by McRae, for reasons unknowable to me usually thought of as an antiwar poem:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


I think threatening to haunt those who refuse to add more bodies to the pile counts as a certain grim enthusiasm.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:42 PM on January 31, 2003


see also any number of ancient poems. The Iliad and Odyssey both directly praise martial prowess.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:44 PM on January 31, 2003


threatening to haunt those who refuse to add more bodies to the pile

I don't see that at all, ROU_X. The aim isn't actually to kill people for the joy of it, but to make sure that those who have already died did not do so in vain.

The Iliad does praise warriors, but it's also full of elaborate and affecting scenes of mourning. It's not a pep piece, and I think the tone is one of obligation to fight, rather than eagerness to do so. I'm not saying there aren't any truly pro-war poems, but I don't think those examples are the best.
posted by hippugeek at 12:03 AM on February 1, 2003


dhartung:

Sure, Rupert Brooke felt compelled to propagadandize the First World War, but he died before he could even make it to the Dardanelles; those who did make it the front tended to have a slightly different take on the whole thing, as I recall. Somehow, although it's written by a 'soldier' and presumably a 'patriot', I don't think you could describe dulce et decorum est as a chipper endorsement of British military policy c. 1917.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:07 AM on February 1, 2003


I don't see that at all, ROU_X. The aim isn't actually to kill people for the joy of it, but to make sure that those who have already died did not do so in vain

Exactly. And "not dying in vain" means VICTORY! Make the Hun pay!

It's pro-war in that it condemns those who might end the war as a colossally stupid endeavor if they dare to stop before victory, and it's pro-war in that it says that they were dying by the townful for something worthwhile, instead of being the victims of their governments and countrymen and their own addleheaded notions of King and Country, condemned to a pointless war that nobody could be bothered not to have, callously "expended" with no other goal than to have the other side expend its own young men relatively faster.

To be sure, it's not vapid propagandizing. But compared to the reality of World War I, this is a downright romantic picture.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:18 AM on February 1, 2003


At any rate, no, there is no space for poets and poetry in "political debate;" in fact, there is no space for most of us.

Um, isn't that what democracy is supposed to provide?
posted by jokeefe at 12:20 AM on February 1, 2003


I think that might be transient's point, jokeefe. Key words being 'supposed to.'
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:00 AM on February 1, 2003


Poetry is - almost by definition - a more complex mode of expression than political rhetoric. As such, the Illiad cannot be classified as staunchly for or against War. The same holds for Beowulf and Shakespeare, and probably for any poet of great quality you care to think of.

Pure Speculation, Generalization, and Probably Bull:

Poetry is commentary on the world and life of the poet. Sometimes the commentary focuses on a physical space, such as Harlem, sometimes a mythic place, such as a grove of falling cherry-blossoms, and sometimes a wholly conceptual space. But still it is commentary on particulars, and I don't see how a poet could ever indict War, the non-existant concept, since we have no direct connection to this pure concept on which to comment. Only particulars.

Contrast this with the U.S. government's approach to drugs and terrorism.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:17 AM on February 1, 2003


thinking a bit more...

It occurs to me that what I'm actually talking about here is the feasability of Platonism. The Administration is very much into Platonism, while the rest of the world isn't so big on the thing right now. My Paragraph of Bull amounts to saying that no poets are Platonists, which probably isn't true. Hm. Gives something to think about though: why does political rhetoric tend towards a kind of simplistic Platonism while poetic expression seems completely divorced of this world-view?
posted by kaibutsu at 2:21 AM on February 1, 2003


What a marvelous episode. Bravo poetry. Like raysmj, I see little in Kunitz' remarks that places poetry always in a strictly pacifist camp. But I agree completely with his spot-on assessment of the incompatibility of lies designed to foster an invasion over money with what we can loosely call "the poetic impulse."

I also think the act of making poetry (or any art) is an inherently political move. And then, of course, there's the freaky notion that violence and torture can be sometimes be raised to the level of "art."

The lines are complex.
posted by mediareport at 2:58 AM on February 1, 2003


can be sometimes be raised

Er, that was poetry.
posted by mediareport at 3:01 AM on February 1, 2003


To Lucasta, on going to the wars

Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind
  That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind,
  To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
  The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
  A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such
  As you too shall adore;
I couild not love thee, Dear, so much,
  Loved I not honour more.

Richard Lovelace, 1618-1658
posted by anewc2 at 7:14 AM on February 1, 2003


A number of the finest poets of the 20th Century, were, or became, great conservatives -- W.S. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, etc. -- and many great poets, regardless of ideological motivation, were happy to celebrate war and heroism.

It is unsurprising that the bulk of today's poets are left, because the bulk of professional artists, of any time or era, are captives of trend and notoriously simple thinkers in terms of the dynamics of power and patriotism.
posted by MattD at 7:52 AM on February 1, 2003


I wish I could find a copy of Greg Kuzma's "Peace, So That" to add to this discussion. Anybody else who has one wanna help me out here?
posted by alumshubby at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2003


I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.

Wow. What a striking thought.

the bulk of professional artists, of any time or era, are captives of trend and notoriously simple thinkers in terms of the dynamics of power and patriotism.

You could probably say that about the bulk of any profession, MattD. But I say horseshit anyway; every poet I've ever met who I felt was worthy of the word has been far more able to handle the complexities of "the dynamics of power and patriotism" than most other people.
posted by mediareport at 10:17 AM on February 1, 2003


I think that might be transient's point, jokeefe. Key words being 'supposed to.'

*smacks forehead*
*makes note not to respond to Mefi posts after midnight*

Note: re Lovelace, the European ideal of honour in battle, I believe, came to at least a partial end in the trenches. Can't think of any poetry from WWII that addressed a similar idea--point taken about Spain, though I'm thinking here also about Picasso's Guernica. And about the conflicted response of the modernists to fascism.
posted by jokeefe at 11:11 AM on February 1, 2003


For a well-informed general description of how many poets/writers/intellectuals were overtly pro-war just before WWI, I'd recommend the section "The Great Illusion" on Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence". Regarding the current situation, the fact is that these "100 poets" works are irrelevant; it's their stance that reaches the public at large, regardless of one's own views on the conflict.
posted by 111 at 12:28 PM on February 1, 2003


Is there at the centre of the poetic impulse a particular type of humanitarianism?

There may be a particular way of seeing, for instance a certain attention to detail and connections. but that way of seeing has no inherent political content. For every Whitman, walking through a Civil War hospital and lamenting the terrible waste, you have a Wagner, celebrating heroic sacrifice.

The idea that poets (or any other artists) are inherently more moral than the rest of us is a useful conceit for poets, but doesn't have much basis in reality.
posted by kewms at 12:46 PM on February 1, 2003


i would be worried if Kunitz was for military action

Can't think of any poetry from WWII that addressed a similar idea--point taken about Spain, though I'm thinking here also about Picasso's Guernica

Jarrells', 'Death of a Ball turret Gunner'. Similar? more so then dissimilar...confides of war in terms of spatial relations (trench-ball turret) utter horror and a quick death....routinized doom.

'Guernica' always seemed like a advertisement of the Stuka.
posted by clavdivs at 7:37 PM on February 1, 2003


Speaking of Guernica, the most recent issue of Garth Ennis' "War Stories" is a beautiful little tale of 4 very different soldiers meeting in a foxhole during the Spanish Civil War. Ennis uses one of them to tell the story of the bombing of Guernica from the viewpoint of someone on the ground. Gripping stuff, with lots of sharp points made against all sides in that conflict. Scroll down here for a review.
posted by mediareport at 2:30 PM on February 2, 2003


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