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Why War Poetry, John Bradley

John Bradley

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Why War Poetry

“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
—George Orwell

In his revealing essay “Why I Write,” Orwell lists the four main factors motivating writers: 1.) Vanity. He notes that professional writers are among the worse offenders of ego-burnishing. 2.) Love of language, or, as Orwell puts it, “esthetic enthusiasm.” He admits this is what initially drove him to write, and how he would have continued to produce lovely sounding words had it not been for Hitler and the Spanish Civil War. 3.) Truth telling, which Orwell describes as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out the true facts.” This urge drives Homage to Catalonia, his examination of the Spanish Civil War. And finally, 4.) Politics, by which Orwell means as writing sparked by an injustice. Since 1936, he notes, all of his writing was prompted this. But, he acknowledges, writing can’t be only political; it must also demonstrate “esthetic enthusiasm,” or craft of language. Otherwise the writer is a hack churning out propaganda. This combination of craft and a keen sense of justice, I believe, is why we still read Orwell today.


The terrain for any discussion of war poetry is studded with landmines, some decades old. To help wend my way through this mine field, I’d like to use Orwell’s four categories to address war poetry. But first, what’s meant by “war poetry”? According to Wikipedia, “war poetry” was first used during WWI and refers to poetry written by soldiers. This tradition of the soldier-poet has produced some of the best war poetry. I’m thinking of Wilfred Owen (WWI), Randall Jarrell (WWII), Yusef Komunyakaa (Vietnam war), Michael Casey (Vietnam war), and Brian Turner (Iraq war). But to limit the term to soldiers excludes too many voices, too many fine poems, too many other fronts of war. I’d like to expand the term “war poet” here to include anyone who writes poetry on issues of war and peace. It might be worth noting that two of the most important Vietnam war poetry anthologies, W.D. Ehrhart’s Carrying the Darkness and Dennis Mahony’s From Both Sides Now, take this same stance.


OK, we’ve all read it, cursed it, and perhaps even have written some of it. I’ve certainly written more than my share of bad war poetry. And no doubt much of the worst war poetry is mostly the ego talking: “This writer thinks war is bad. And peace, yes, peace is rather good.” There was an explosion of it during the Vietnam War, and it can still be found today, primarily on our war in Iraq. But let’s consider the root of the problem: ego.

Ego has little to tell us, whether it comments on war, love, the light on a pine bough, your lovely cat, language, or anything else, for that matter. The writer is really writing about what’s important to the writer, and it’s important to the writer because he or she, the writer, feels this way. But why do so many condemn all war poetry due to bad, ego-smelling verse? We won’t do that with, say, love poetry, no matter how many dreadful love poems we read. Yet political poetry can both engage and enrage.


W. B. Yeats’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem” perhaps best sums up the reaction of many American poets, editors, publishers, and readers of political poems, when Yeats says: “I think it better that in times like these/A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth/We have no gift to set a statesman right….” Many years later, Hayden Carruth echoed these sentiments in his poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam”: “not one/breath was restored/to one//shattered throat/man’s woman’s or child’s/not one not//one….” A poet, like any other citizen, possesses no great wisdom, and no poem, no matter how beautifully crafted, can convince death to bring back one life. And yet Carruth admits in this poem to having written “in fact/more than one” war poem. Why?

Perhaps because silence implies consent. During the Vietnam war, Nixon relied on his “silent majority” (not quite the same group as Homer’s silent majority, the countless dead, but nearly as quiet) for support, and this same sense carries today. If no one marches in the streets, some pundits argue, then Americans can’t really be troubled by the war in Iraq. To keep one’s mouth shut, as Orwell reminds us, is political. Thomas McGrath nicely counters Yeats with these words from his “Remembering That Island”: “. . . the rich oratory and the lying famous corrupt/Senators mine our lives for another war.” Rather than refrain from speaking to allow the statesmen to “set things right” on their own, if there ever was a time when this was possible, poets have a responsibility to challenge the rhetoric of our statesmen and women, as it can lead us down dangerous paths, such as denying “enemy combatants” and “detainees” the right to know the crime they are being held (and sometimes tortured) for.

No poem or poems can change a nation’s politics, of course, but must writers remain silent in the face of lies? How not reply when a cocky pilot refers to killing the enemy, as an American pilot did in the Gulf War, as exterminating “cockroaches”? Denise Levertov, who consistently produced some of our finest war poetry, has a poem addressing a “pogrom” in Lebanon with a title that sums up the risk of creating a poem on war: “Perhaps No Poem But All I Can Say And I Cannot Be Silent.” She acknowledges that due to her emotions and the immediacy of the topic she addresses she might not be able to create a great literary artifact. No doubt Levertov was well aware of the ego making the poet feel she had something important to say. Yet despite these perils, she’s also aware of a much greater risk—keeping silent.


What about the other side of the coin? If ego is woven into the words of anti-war poetry, what about the ego of the poet who turns away from war, so it won’t sully his or her words? I’ve heard discussions in poetry workshops where some poets urged that poetry must be apolitical in order that it can remain “timeless,” undated and unsullied by contemporary events. This act of egotism smells much worse than any poet bravely, and/or naively, casting words against war.


There must be craft, “an artistry of dissent” the poet Martin Espada insists in his essay “Poetry Like Bread.” Anyone who has tried to articulate moral outrage quickly discovers how difficult it is to do this well in a poem. There must not only be the passion of moral outrage, but also technique, despite the oddness of saying that a poem addressing, say, the killing of a civilian in war must “have that swing.” But it’s true. In Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard,” the poem’s sarcastic tone and unusual point of view, not just the passion, grabs the reader:

It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
. . .
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

The poem builds over two pages to those last three lines, and though we can sense where the poem is driving, the sting of the closing still gives us pause, the irony dreadfully driving its point home. If only peace could work this hard; if only we could work this hard for peace.


The passion of moral outrage in a war poem, at least for this reader, works best when it sneaks up on me. Shouting drives me away, but intimacy pulls me in, snares me in the poem’s web, and makes me complicit with the poem, sometimes even against my will. In Carolyn Forche’s prose poem “The Colonel,” for instance, I’m pulled in from the first line: “What you have heard is true.” The direct address, the calm and knowing tone, the assumption of my awareness, the promise of revelation. All these draw me into a situation I would rather not be in, just as the speaker has been drawn in against her will as a guest of the Colonel’s. Not just the subject matter, but the technique makes this a much-anthologized poem.


Yusef Komunyakaa ‘s quiet and chilling “Starlight Scope Myopia” takes us into the mind of a soldier using his starlight scope to observe the enemy: “One of them is laughing./ You want to place a finger//to his lips & say “shhhh.” If the much-feared Viet Cong can be an old, bow-legged man, how can the soldier pull the trigger with his humanity intact? The soldier’s “myopia” is that he sees a shared humanity, not The Big Picture of war, of pulling the trigger to destroy the enemy. The poem does just implicate the soldier, though. The poem also asks: Aren’t you, dear reader, also caught in the sniper’s dilemma? Will you condemn people as the other, and quickly justify their deaths, or will you see their common humanity. It’s the intimacy of the poem, the seemingly effortless craft that allows it to ensnare the reader. The poems in Dien Cai Dau, his Vietnam war poetry, are among the best poetry of that war, as they exhibit this “craftiness.”


Orwell has little to say about his third category, the urge to find out the truth, in “Why I Write,” and yet this is what drove him to see Spanish Civil War firsthand. He arrived in Spain as a journalist intending to sort out the conflicting stories about the war, yet he soon found himself volunteering to fight Franco and the fascists. Unafraid to choose sides, Orwell forthrightly spells out his politics in Homage to Catalonia: he sides with the Spanish workers. At the same time, his book is more about his search for the truth in Spain than it is about his war experience. When he tells us, for example, the smell of war is the smell of human excrement, left by the soldiers near their trenches, he’s not interested in a vivid memoir. He’s after the truth of the experience of war, as he knew it.

Near the end of the book there’s another moment that is quintessential Orwell: “In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.” How often have you come across a similar warning in a book on war or politics? This encapsulates why Orwell is so remarkable.


“You don’t know what you don’t know,” John Negroponte recently divulged in an NPR interview. He was trying to scare his audience into supporting action against Iran, knowing that fear can trump reason. If we don’t know what Iran is doing, shouldn’t we assume the worst and attack them? Addressing our fears prompts some of the best war poems.

Levertov’s “What Were They Like?” comes out of a context of fear and lack of knowledge. With its question and answer format, six questions and six answers, the poem could almost be a transcript of an interview. Some of the questions, such as “Had they an epic poem?,” appear both innocent and xenophobic, filled with cultural assumptions. If they have no epic poem, no literary tradition that we can recognize, then they are not “civilized” people. Levertov’s poem subtly points out the dangers of faulty assumptions and cultural hubris. The poem also does what we expect a war poem to do—to take a moral stance: “Sire, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.” But this reference to napalm is as close as the poem comes to direct condemnation. That’s not the aim here. Instead, the poem implies, insinuates, intimates. It urges us to find out more about this mysterious culture that we think we know with our easy labels. It can be seen in hindsight as an explanation as to one of the main reasons we lost this war—we never knew the enemy. Levertov’s quiet insistence on searching out the truth makes this one of the most memorable poems of the Vietnam war.


Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq war, continues this tradition of using poetry to inform and educate. Almost every poem in his book Here, Bullet, offers to the reader the sights, smells, and sounds of events in Iraq as they cannot be found in newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, or online. His poem “In the Leupold Scope,” reminiscent of Komunyakaa’s “Starlight Scope Myopia,” lets the reader see what the soldier on a rooftop in Iraq sees: “a woman in sparkling green, standing/among antennas and satellite dishes,/hanging laundry on an invisible line.” His poems inform, though, as only poems can by letting us see through the imagination as well as the “40x60mm spotting scope.” The poem ends by telling us of what the laundry evokes for a soldier who carries his own ghosts:

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind’s breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon’s curving lens.

Turner’s poem, as quiet as Levertov’s, takes on the role of telling us who lives here, who we are at war with, the power in the finger of a soldier, and what a solider will have to live with for decades. By the last line, it’s not clear who’s a ghost and who the living, as revealed in the “curved lens” of the poem.


Some years ago Carolyn Forche edited a poetry anthology entitled Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poets of Witness. In her introduction, Forche explains her use of the term “witness”: “poets must have personally endured such conditions.” Her use of the word “witness” excludes those who were not present at the event being written about. While this sounds logical, we’re back to the narrow concept of “war poet” as related in Wikipedia—only those who were literally there have the authority, the credibility to speak. While I value Forche’s anthology, and I tend to grant a high level of credibility to those who were witnesses to any event, I’m uncomfortable excluding the words of those who endure the consequences of historical events at a remove, who find a pathway to truth through an ingredient present even in the finest work of those who were literal witnesses—that’s suspect element is the imagination.


The poems in Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada created quite a stir when an editor of the American Poetry Review denounced the work as a “hoax.” Believing them to be written by a witness, in Forche’s sense of the word, Arthur Vogelsang was outraged to discover he and his staff had published work of another kind of witness—one who writes an imaginative truth. Tim O’Brien, in his much praised The Things They Carried, skillfully explores this concept in prose. He continually gives us a “true” story, or truths in a war story, but yanks the rug out from under his and tells us that’s not how it really was. How it really was, however, would not create the emotional resonance of the truth, so O’Brien lives with a paradox—only fiction can give us “the truth.” His book should be required reading for the literalist.


The debate over Yasusada continues to this day, though some of it surely is titillation over a literary “scandal.” Here we are nearly a decade after publication of Doubled Flowering, and I don’t feel we’re any closer to appreciating the Yasusada poetry on its own merits, as another Hiroshima witness. We can’t seem to get past literary expectations and conventions. We still don’t feel comfortable with the role of the imagination in truth-telling, though this surly is one of the greatest asset of the arts. And yet the imagination is there, when Forche, in “The Colonel,” compares some of the ears to “dried peach halves,” and in Yasusada’s vision of his daughter’s head in the vegetable garden. She was one of the victims of the atomic bombing:

Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like . . .

(From a distance it had appeared
to be a stone, haloed with light,
as if cast there by the Big-Bang.)

It’s our loss that the poetry of Doubled Flowering has gotten lost in the controversy over authorship.


Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, the brainchild of Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, was recently published. I’m curious as to how this anthology—poetry, fiction, letters, and email—will be received. Will the truth-telling urge of the writers be able to transcend the politics of its sponsorship by the NEA, the Pentagon, and Boeing, a defense contractor? There has never been a literary war anthology quite like this one to my knowledge. I must confess I will be bringing skepticism to the book, which may not be fair to those who have work in this anthology. At the same time, how is it possible to ignore the conceptual framework behind the book, even if the authors question war and these particular wars? As we can see in the case of Yasusada, fairly or unfairly, the credibility of the war witness is a delicate thing.


Orwell’s last category, writing inspired by injustice, explains the dynamics of much war poetry—poetry inspired by news stories, photographs, political speeches, press conferences, collateral damage, atrocities, aerial bombings, suicide bombings, or by the simple words of a survivor. We have anthologies of Vietnam war poetry, such as Carrying the Darkness and From Both Sides Now, that provide ample examples of this poetry, which at its best draws on two previous categories of Orwell’s—esthetic pleasure and truth-telling. Orwell points to his own Animal Farm as an example of his first attempt to combine political consciousness and artistic craft. I’d like to look at a recent book of poetry that often succeeds in this difficult balancing act.


A friend of mine recently sent me some poems by the Israeli poet Aharom Shabtai. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I was reading poetry by a citizen of Israel who was fearless in his castigation of the policies of his own nation. He not only condemns Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians , but he includes them in his vision of the true promised land. I quickly ordered a copy to J’Accuse, Shabtai’s most recent book of poetry, to learn more about this man and his unorthodox vision. Here’s an example of one of his poems, “Peace,” in its entirety.

What nerve
These empty people have!
They’ve taken the word
“peace” by the hair
dragged it out
of its humble bed,
and turned it into their whore
beside the Central Bus Station.
After they had their way,
they turned the State
into a couch
upon which she screws around the clock.
In the morning she sucks off a sniper in uniform,
and at evening he returns
and proudly displays
the X he etched
into the butt of his rifle,
after he’d shot dead
a young woman, age 19,
who was hanging laundry
on her roof in Hebron.

The closing lines remind me of the Vietnam soldier in Komunyakaa’s “Starlight Scope Myopia” and of the soldier in Brian Turner’s “In the Leupold Scope,” but Shabtai sees no such struggle of conscience in the sniper he describes. There’s only the blind assurance of power, the psychosis of a presumed racial superiority. The psychology of the sniper, though, isn’t the focus of this poem. Rather, the writer, enflamed by the misuse of the word “peace,” of immoral acts done in the name of “peace,” uses an extended metaphor to express his outrage. The final image, of “peace” performing oral sex on a sniper, does more than just express moral outrage, though. It confronts all those who clothe violence in the garb of peace, who justify shooting a woman hanging her laundry as an act necessary to maintain peace, and their illusions. Shabtai’s anger threatens to overwhelm the poem, and for many I suspect it will, yet he must risk this in order to expose an injustice. This poem, as well as most of those in J’Accuse, earns the term “disturbing.”


Can there be war poems that deal with injustice written in support of war? This disturbing question lurked in the background as I read The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War, edited by Cary Nelson. Are the poems written during this war simply opposing the Fascists led by Franco? Or urging on the Loyalists to defeat the Fascists? Could you have one and not the other? Or are these poems simply calling for peace, the way we want to think of war poetry? There’s an ambiguity in this anthology that I was forced to confront.

This ambiguity can be found in many of the poems. Take Langston Hughes’s “Song of Spain.” Speaking to an audience of American workers, he urges them not to build bombs that will fall on Spain, for “. . . bombs’ll fall not only on Spain—/But on me and you!” The workers here will find the same fate as the Spanish workers. The only bombs they should build are those that will be used against fascists: “Lest some Franco steal into our backyard / Under the guise of a patriot / Waving a flag and mouthing rot / And dropping bombs from a Christian steeple /On the people.” Still, the poem seems more a call of solidarity with the Spanish people than a call to arms. And yet the end of the poem takes on a call to action: “I must drive the bombers out of Spain!/ I must drive the bombers out of the world! / I must take the world for my own again— // A workers world/Is the song of Spain.” How else can the bombers be driven from the skies over Spain than through war? Perhaps Hughes intends this as a metaphor and believes the workers’ revolution will peacefully take place, yet those exclamation marks seem too emphatic for just union organizing and picketing and strikes.


Hughes most likely wrote this poem during the Spanish Civil War when passions were inflamed. What about a poem written much later? Say an elegy for the famous and beloved Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca? In fact, there are many elegies for Lorca in The Wound and the Dream, and the book closes with the most recent one, Philip Levine’s “The Search for Lorca’s Shadow.” Lorca’s remains still have not been found, and the speaker of Levine’s poem speaks about the hillside where Spanish Fascists shot Lorca to death, where his body must have been buried in a mass grave.

This is an elegiac poem, in tone and in emotion: “Forgive the ants, they are merely ants, / though they are alive and he is not. . . .” These lines could imply a forgiveness for those who shot Lorca, just as Bob Dylan suggests the killers of Medgar Evers were simply pawns, in his song “Pawns in Their Game.” And yet there is anger in this poem too, anger in 1999 over a murder that took place in August 1936. Levine finds forgiveness difficult as he knows that “this merciless landscape / . . . watched with its thousand eyes hidden . . . ” the crime. Once again, there are wide implications. The world watched Lorca’s death and most did nothing. America chose to stay out of this war and not come to the aid of the Spanish Republic, though Hitler and Mussolini sent their troops to aid Franco. Lorca’s murderers have never come to justice. His bones have never been found and buried. There is no justice here.

Does Levine call for violence? Certainly not. The Spanish Civil War is long over, death called for Franco, and as I’ve noted, this is an elegiac poem. Yet even elegy can contain political implications. Levine’s poem functions more as a memorial, a reminder, partly due to the time that has passed since Lorca’s death. An elegy for Lorca written during the war in Spain does more, however, than merely remembering and mourning. When Sol Funaroff’s “To Federico Garcia Lorca,” published in 1938, writes “the song is on the lips of the people!” Lorca’s death itself becomes a rallying cry, a call to the people to avenge a great wrong.


Reading Cary Nelson’s anthology, I’m forced to reconsider my narrow definition of war poetry—it can be written for as well as against war. Why is this so difficult to admit? For me, it seems contrary to the very purpose of the war poetry. I think of Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry, exposing the savagery of war, of his famous poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” when Owen writes: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted tongues . . . .” I think of Denise Levertov, in “News Report, September 1991,” relating an event no one in our nation cares to face, when we buried Iraqi soldiers in their trenches with sand: “‘What you/saw was a bunch of/buried trenches/with people’s/arms and things/sticking out.’” How would I feel if Owen had of ended his poem with a rallying cry to defeat the enemy? If Levertov, in her poem witnessing the burial of living Iraqi soldiers, called for Iraqis to seek vengeance for their dead? If Owen and Levertov had done this, I don’t think many of us would be reading these poems. The Spanish Civil War, I realize, was a very different situation, where citizens in a democracy were attacked not only by their own military, but by the military from the Fascist Germany and Italy. I’m comparing situations that can’t be compared. And yet, if I come across poetry in support of our wars in Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, will I be able to justify it? Will I be able to say, this too is writing inspired by injustice, just as Orwell’s, when he wrote Homage to Catalonia?


When writing war poetry, or writing about it, it’s easy to take a wrong turn, to fall in love with your own good intentions, to fall victim to someone who finds “war poetry” an oxymoron. Given this, I once again find myself admiring George Orwell, who closes his essay “Why I Write” with this disclaimer: “I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. . . All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy . . . .” He includes himself in this last group. I must do the same. I would rather err, however, with those who struggle with their consciences, who attempt in some way to respond to injustice, no matter how flawed, how imperfect the product of that struggle.


Works referred to in this essay:

Hayden Carruth, Collected Shorter Poems 1946-1991, Copper Canyon, 1992.
W. D. Ehrhart, ed., Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War, Texas Tech University, 1989.
Carolyn Forche, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Norton, 1993.
Carolyn Forche, The Country Between Us, Harper & Row, 1981.
Yusef Komunyakaa, Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Denise Levertov, Making Peace, New Directions, 2006.
Dennis Mahony, ed., From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, Scribner, 1998.
Dunya Mikhail, tr. Elizabeth Winslow, The War Works Hard, New Directions, 2005.
Cary Nelson, ed., The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War, University of Illinois Press, 2002.
George Orwell, A Collection of Essays, Harbrace, 1954.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Beacon, 1952.
Wilfred Owen, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, New Directions, 1965.
Brian Turner, Here, Bullet, Alice James Books, 2005.
Araki Yasusada, Doubled Flowering, Roof Books, 1997.


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