American poetry has captured the experiences of war spanning from Walt Whitman’s civil war poetry, through Ezra Pound’s World War I poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” to Robert Bly’s 1967 Vietnam Era book The Light Around the Body, to most recently Iraq veteran Brian Turner in his 2005 book about Iraq Here, Bullet. What American poets will say about the current Iraq war remains to be discovered. This is true partially because American commercial and literary magazines continue to publish poetry mostly involving domestic scenes or private emotions. Americans have to search to find poets who concern themselves with war experiences or social reflections. Well, the best things often are hard to find anyhow.
For instance this fall the September, October, and November issues of the Poetry magazine lack a single poem addressing the ongoing U.S.-Iraq war. Does war not matter? This anecdote is typical. U.S. literary publishing’s silence—for, against, or solely documentary about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—mimics the daily detachment of everyday American life for most people beside U.S. soldiers and their families. Likewise the current Executive Branch’s challenging of the very existence of a checks-and-balances government—its use of secret prisons and torture forbidden by U.S. law—is mentioned in published U.S. poetry as much as at polite dinner parties. Rarely. Rather than being in the American tradition, this silence should be seen as a betrayal of the spirit of American poet Walt Whitman. It is a poor heir to the robust debates of the Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and the Constitutional Conventions—whether or not their conclusions were perfect, adequate, or flawed.
U.S. literary publishing’s silence—for, against, or solely documentary about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—mimics the daily detachment of everyday American life for most people beside U.S. soldiers and their families.
American poetry has not always been on the sidelines. When seminal American poet Walt Whitman published his first Leaves of Grass in 1855, he included in “Song of Myself” lines that championed women’s rights and spotlighted the injustice of slavery. Whitman did so back when women could not vote and slavery was legal in the South. Seminal American poet Langston Hughes shows the pain as well as joy of jazz in his famous jazz poems. Hughes talks about dreams in the poem “To You” and also eviction from an apartment in the poem “The Ballad of the Landlord.” In fact historians one day may find that American poets do address today’s social as well as personal issues at open-mikes, in cafes, and through local small presses—but that reputable academic and commercial publications are ignoring this cornucopia.
Before the second Iraq war began on March 19, 2003, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush attempted to have a symposium on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson in February 2003. One poet invited to that symposium was rumored to be preparing a statement against it. This West Coast poet, Sam Hamill, was being true to the legacy of American poetry by choosing to address a major social issue before it affected so many. In response Ms. Bush cancelled the symposium before it began. As a result Mr. Hamill began collecting poems online—over 11,000 poems against the then-impending war. A Poets Against the War movement was born, and their Web site www.poetsagainstthewar.org remains active.
American poets do address today’s social issues at open-mikes, in cafes, and through local small presses—but academic and commercial publications are ignoring this cornucopia.
I myself became inspired by this to combine my own activism and writing. I knew U.S. poets would not be able to find publishing opportunities for their verse that glanced beyond immediate lives to issues concerning us all. I wanted to provide a forum for these poets to get their words out, and so in May 2003 began publishing Poems Against War: A Journal of Poetry and Action in 120-copy editions. In 2007 it now can be found at www.poemsagainstwar.com, and the entire series is archived at the University of Wisconsin, Madison library, Special Collections Department. This work also has led me to review how war has appeared in American poetry. Let’s turn to Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman in his poem “Not My Enemies Ever Invade Me” realizes that while war is frightful, the most difficult fear we face is love. Violence may be an escape from feeling “helpless” and “utterly abject.” Whitman writes:
Not my enemies ever invade me—no harm to my pride from them I fear;
But the lovers I recklessly love-lo! how they master me!
Lo! me, ever open and helpless, bereft of my strength!
Utterly abject, groveling on the ground before them.
Whitman volunteered during the U.S. Civil War as a nurse to wounded soldiers. In response he writes of reconciliation after war:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and
ever again, this soil’d world;
. . . For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
Walt Whitman in his poem “Not My Enemies Ever Invade Me” realizes that while war is frightful, the most difficult fear we face is love.
Ezra Pound after World War I echoes the British poet Wilfred Owen (who died in battle) that to die for one’s country was not fitting or sweet—as a famous Latin phrase by the Roman poet Horace goes. Owen wrote against this notion while witnessing his fellow soldiers die from poison mustard gas, and Pound felt this carnage even more gruesome when he began to see the causes behind World War I to be vainglorious and maybe even shallow. World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, and its end brought down the rest of Western Europe’s monarchies. Pound writes in Part V of his poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues
For a few thousand battered books.
American poets and Vietnam veterans such as Bruce Weigl have written powerful documentary poems about Vietnam. Weigl writes in the poem “The Last Lie” from his book Archeology of the Circle:
Some guy in the miserable convoy
Raised up in the back of our open truck
And threw a can of c-rations at a child
Who called into the rumble for food.
He didn’t toss the can, he wound up and hung it
On the child’s forehead and she was stunned
Backwards into the dust of our trucks.
Across the sudden angle of the road’s curving
I could still see her when she rose
Waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
Wildly swinging her other hand
At the children who mobbed her,
Who tried to take her food.
I grit my teeth to myself to remember this girl
Smiling as she fought off her brothers and sisters.
As if she thought it were a joke
And the guy with me laughed
And fingered the edge of another can
Like it was the seam of a baseball
Until his rage ripped
Again into the faces of children
Who called to us for food.
Since the 1960s contemporary poet Antler has written most of his work out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin or after coming back from wilderness backpacking trips. The sting of insight does not always come from the gut of experience. From his 1985 book Last Words, Antler writes in “Written After Learning Slaves From Ancient Greece and Rome Had 115 Holidays a Year”:
Instead of creating better murder weapons
to “protect” ourselves
Better create loving boys and girls
who become loving women and men.
Instead of a higher standard of living
why not a higher standard of loving?
Has our society prioritized zealous work and necessary living over zealous living and necessary work?
Later in the poem he notes: “Thoreau could live a whole year / on money from working 6 weeks.” Has our society prioritized zealous work and necessary living over zealous living and necessary work? That is the question Antler seems to ask.
Jonathan Cohen published his poem “Walt Whitman in Ohio” on the Poets Against the War Web site. He uses his imaginary visit with Walt Whitman to consider where America has come since Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855. Cohen writes:
Walt Whitman has come to visit me in Ohio
I look at the beard of my old teacher and friend
like a gray spider web of rain
I look at his boots covered with American mud
In two rocking chairs
we sit out on the back porch
Whenever he looks
causes the shoot of a poem to grow
Where is your kosmos? I ask him
Where is the Western world one and inseparable?
The democracy? The eternal progress?
Rain drips down from his eyelids
into the constellation of his beard
His shoulders bend
under the invisible weight
That’s up to you, he says calmly,
I am expecting the main things from you.