WARS PRINCIPIUM EST - THE POETRY VERSION
Here are two or so takes on an issue. First is from Robert Mezey, in the current issue of War, Literature & the Arts Vol 21. The second is from Ron Silliman’s blog post this morning.
It’s true, as you say, that many nowadays, especially in academia, disparage war poetry and dismiss it, but I think that’s largely the inevitable offshoot of some of their utopian left-wing notions, especially the conviction that war is an archaic and uncivilized solution to “problems” and can be prevented by debate, diplomacy etc., instead of what it is, alas, part of our very nature, however mad, however nightmarish, and something that has never been absent wherever there have been human beings, in fact wherever there have been primates.
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I was going to let this pass, but I can’t. It’s so completely off the mark. Mezey tosses in some convenient political bombs (“left-wing notions” “academia”!) to straw man himself out of a corner. And the corner is this: I’ve never met a single person who, in the abstract, disparages war poetry. What people disparage is just the sort of reductive, either-or thinking that’s going on here. The problem that war poetry has to deal with is the problem any political poetry, or any poetry that takes its subject or focus as a topic to be addressed and upon which to make some comment that might have a direct social purpose has to deal with, and that is that poetry contains the social, but it does not enter the direct social sphere without moving from the genre of poetry and into the genre of political speech. It’s a category error. Different genres demand different things of writers. The great poems on war remain those that are general in their direct, narrow, purpose, and large in their scope.
Anyway, that’s what I was writing this morning when I came upon the following on Silliman’s blog.
[T]here are no great poems about anything. If there is any lesson we have learned about poetry in the last century, that is it. Great poems about AIDS and war (plenty of those to choose from) are just like great poems about Cocker Spaniels, birding or breaking up with your lover, poems about, works that ultimately put themselves into an instrumental position that ensures their dissolution the instant they come into contact with time. A poem is no more about AIDS than Central Park is, or the Grand Canyon. The real political critique of the School of Quietude would be an anthology of nothing but Poems About. You could even let Ted Kooser or Billy Collins – or Alastair Johnston – edit it. But it would be devastating.
There are great poems that do engage topics or themes – Michael Gottlieb & Fanny Howe have written profoundly on the experience of 9/11 & James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage remains the best book on the subject I know of, tho it was written & published many years before 2001. But to call these works “about” the assault on Manhattan is to fundamentally misread each of them. That’s like reading Pound to study economics: good luck with that.
Once in a great while, I accost someone on whose car I’ve just seen the idiotic bumper-sticker WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER and ask if he hasn’t ever thought that the ANSWER might depend on the QUESTION, and if he shows the slightest interest, I describe a possible situation—the bombing of Pearl Harbor, say—to which war could be the only answer, or a horror to which the answer of war should at least be considered, like the genocide in Rwanda or Darfur—which usually ends the conversation.
OK, so I don’t have one of those bumper stickers, but the above is making me want one. I would love to have this conversation regarding the definition of “answer.” A proper response to a provocation (answer) is different than a reply to a question (answer). War can both be a proper response to a provocation and NOT THE ANSWER. It’s the difference between politics and philosophy (in which I include art).