Poetry and War, Again

The old question of poetry’s authority in political life has been in the news again. Poets protesting the Bush administration’s policies—especially its plans for war in Iraq—by declining invitations to Mrs. Bush’s White House poetry event on Feb. 12; poets (some of the same ones) protesting when Mrs. Bush canceled the event; critics praising the poets or deriding them.

These events recall the long history of poetry and war, from the Homeric poems to the Vietnam War teach-ins, with Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg marching on the Pentagon. Here are some of the poems that went through my mind in response to the recent controversy. First, two drastically different ways of dealing with the question of political engagement or disengagement. On one side, William Butler Yeats’ poem “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:


I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling, who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

Of course this poem is political: written by an Irish poet in relation to the English participation in World War I. But Yeats’ title carefully puts the focus on the request for a war poem; he declines to “meddle” on a specific occasion. On the other hand, Yeats wrote a great poem, “Easter 1916,” that certainly does engage political material—in this case, the famous IRA uprising in Dublin on that date—though the power of that poem lies in its ambivalence.


Political in a quite different and more overt way is Yvor Winters’ poem “Before Disaster,” comparing countries to car traffic on the highway—still a relatively new and terrifying sight in the early 1930s:


Evening traffic homeward burns
Swift and even on the turns,
Drifting weight in triple rows,
Fixed relation and repose.
This one edges out and by,
Inch by inch with steady eye.
But should error be increased,
Mass and moment are released;
Matter loosens, flooding blind,
Levels drivers to its kind.
Ranks of nations thus descend,
Watchful, to a stormy end.
By a moment’s calm beguiled,
I have got a wife and child.
Fool and scoundrel guide the State.
Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.  
Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel.


Winters’ poem, with its sense of immense lethal forces barely controlled and soon to be released, seems particularly suited to this moment of waiting for war—more so, perhaps, than the Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg poems of trench warfare that have been recently read at public events. 

Unfortunately, World War I’s poetry of military horror may become more germane any minute. Here is Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” with its terrifying evocation of mustard gas—no longer just an archaic period reference:


Bent double, like of old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind:
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!— An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in sonic 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 talk with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


These poems were written in the 20th century; older poems speak to the moment with another kind of authority. The most ancient poem I have heard at any public reading these recent weeks is Tom Sleigh’s version of an ancient Babylonian text. The city of Ur is in modern Iraq—partially under an Iraqi airbase, I am told.


2000 B.C.
Like molten bronze and iron shed blood
pools. Our country’s dead
melt into the earth
as grease melts in the sun, men whose
helmets now lie scattered, men annihilatedby the double-bladed axe. Heavy, beyond
help, they lie still as a gazelle
exhausted in a trap,
muzzle in the dust. In home
after home, empty doorways frame the absenceof mothers and fathers who vanished
in the flames remorselessly
spreading claiming even
frightened children who lay quiet
in their mothers’ arms, now borne intooblivion, like swimmers swept out to sea
by the surging current.
May the great barred gate
of blackest night again swing shut
on silent hinges. Destroyed in its turn,may this disaster too be torn out of mind


This poem’s last line, like Winters’ closing line “We must live or die by steel,” perhaps represents a fatalistic element in works of art—with a force counter to their effectiveness as propaganda or exhortation.


I will close on a different note with some lines that are relatively explicit, even editorial, about American power and our role in the world. Though written decades ago, these lines take up the current issue of American “policing” around the world. When poets declined Mrs. Bush’s invitation last month, many observers referred back to Robert Lowell’s refusal to attend a reception at Lyndon Johnson’s White House, in protest of America’s role in the war in Vietnam. Robert Lowell remains, many years after his death, one of those figures who attracts public attention, who seems to focus energy partly through some mysterious personal quality or fate. But Lowell was also an extraordinary poet, and, beyond personality, he commands attention because he was able to write about public matters with moral vision, though never moralistically. He could write clearly about uncertainty and grandly about anxiety. He could even write definitively about political ambiguity.


Here are some lines from Lowell’s poem “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” which was written around the time of the Johnson invitation. The poem opens with a passage later quoted by Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night, a wistful vision of freedom and of the struggle for enduring accomplishment before life ends:


O to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall—
raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.

Lowell’s final stanza weighs the idea of prolonged uncertainty—the “monotonous sublime” that is the opposite of the salmon’s conclusive breaking loose. As an account of a bad dream, or a despairing vision, the lines retain their force:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.