Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Poems of Peace, Poems of War/Chicago Humanities Festival 2006

In November, 2006, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, we put together a panel of poets to discuss and read poems of peace and war. The Poetry Foundation was a principal sponsor, and secured a review of the event, as well as posting the audio. I am a real fan of Emily Warn's work with the Poetry Foundation online, her work with Voices in Wartime, and her partisanship for a poetry beyond quietude and insularity. Yet I disliked the reviewer's framing of the event, so I wrote a rebuttal which I will include here.

Regarding the particular likes and dislikes of Mr. Doerksen’s so bitingly expressed here, I’ll resort to the Latin: “de gustibus non est disputandum.” However, I do wish to point out that the review, in its neglect of the title, format, and background of the event, courts the kind of reflexive dismissal and belittlement that so characterizes dominant discourse about war, war resistance and what I’ll call “the beyond of war”—peace.

First, this event was called “Poems of Peace and War,” not “War Poetry.” The review seems to suggest that this event was about war poetry alone. Most of the panelists worked to complicate that notion, telling stories, made statements and read works that navigated from war to peace; Dunya Mikhail, for instance, read not only “The War Works Hard,” a blisteringly ironic poem that personifies war, but also a love poem that cleverly marries the language of geometry with the tropes of love.

Second, the introduction also worked to widen the field. I’ll spare you a full version, but some of it bears repeating, since I set up why we need to have a discussion about war and peace that does not accept the boundaries regarding who has the right to speak about what.

Having recently completed *Behind the Lines*, a study of war resistance poetry, I proposed an event where both “war” poems and “peace” poems would be represented, poems written by both veterans and civilians. This desire comes out of my argument against the critical doxa that war poetry by soldiers is the only successful poetry about war, and that antiwar poetry almost always fails. There is may be some general truth to such a statement, since the autobiographical lyric mode of poetry has favored attempts to represent war from immediate experience.

Vietnam-veteran Yusef Komunyakaa and Iraq War-veteran Brian Turner, have stunning examples of such poetry—though their poetry is not limited to the eyewitness mode, nor to poetry about war, for that matter.

Yet in poems such as “You and I Are Disappearing,” or “2000 lbs.,” Komunyakaa and Turner reach beyond immediate experience, and become along with us witnesses to the almost-unspeakable encounter with the violence of war.

At the same time, in an age in which we live at the center of empire, and in which, to paraphrase William James, "the real war is the endless preparation for war," both veterans and civilians have a part to play in representing war and its iterations.

In a sense, the distinction between soldier and civilian experiences is blurred by such figures as Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, who lived through wars in the 1980s and 1990s, and whose poems such as “The War Works Hard” give voice to civilian experiences of the depradations of war.

Jorie Graham, the daughter of a war correspondent, whose recent book dramatizes Operation Overlord during the Second World, collaging the voices of troops from both sides of the conflict, as she attempts to grapple with the massiveness of mass violence.

Finally, poet Gary Snyder has confronted the ways in which war permeates our physical, psychic, and creative existences—for war is not just man against man, but man against the planet.

Finally, each of these poets in their own way has also worked to imagine peace. Thus, the entire framing of the event was an attempt to problematize our way of thinking about peace and war—not just representing war, dramatizing war, writing war (hard enough to chew over in the short time allowed).

My fear is that Mr. Doerksen leaves the impression (intentional or not) that: 1) American civilians have nothing to say about war, since they have no first hand experience of it; 2) military veterans have the only important things to say about war, and 3) there is no point in thinking about what is the beyond of war, the relationship between peace and war. By beginning with his excoriation of Graham’s reading, and ending with his belittling of Snyder’s comments, it frames the event as incoherent and probably not meaning much, despite its being “generally interesting and often deeply affecting.” For this admittedly partisan and interested listener, I found Snyder’s talk to be enormously tonic, as he reframed and braided earlier ideas and words into a longer view; as the event continued, it (and we with it) moved both temporally and geographically, almost archeologically—from the Iraq War (Turner and Mikhail), to the Vietnam War (Komunyakaa), to the Second World War (Graham), and finally, to the sedimentary layers where war and peace, violence and non-violence, are all in play (Snyder).

In the end, maybe Mr. Doerksen is correct; it’s difficult to see what is gained by another poetry reading, in the grand scheme of clashing states. Certainly, if it were just about selling books, poets should simply pull the plug. Yet I hold out for the notion that this writing is not meant as an end in itself. It is, or can be, part of a process of unwriting what’s already been decided, already been written (the war), as well as a process of making something else come into being (the peace). It requires not only of the poets, but of us, some attempt to go beyond the page, to enter into the possibilities articulated as language, but made real by embodied selves, citizens who witness, speak out, and refuse.

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