Friday, September 26, 2008

Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941, reviewed by Edward Brunner

Thanks to Edward Brunner, author of Cold War Poetry, for this incisive review...

Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 - by Philip Metres, reviewed by Edward Brunner 1
Copyright © 2008 Peace History Society and Peace and Justice Studies Association

Article Text
Philip Metres. Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941: University of Iowa Press, 2007 .

After a national catastrophe, Americans sometimes look to poetry for relief. Poetry is rediscovered and valued for the power of its rhetoric, as if the poet can function as a kind of speechwriter for the ages, lending an era the words it needs to understand itself. But in this view, the poem's value is not to instruct or guide but to comfort and assuage—to situate the present in all its disruption within a larger time frame, to make our current pain seem like a passing woe. Or as poet-critic Stephen Burt writes in a 2003 essay considering the post-9/11 popularity of W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939": "We turn to poems most urgently, perhaps, just when we feel that our choice among courses of action (in public matters or elsewhere) is no choice at all, and that nothing we do in a world wholly outside ourselves can resolve the genuine conflict we face." This well-entrenched opinion that, when it comes to public matters, poetry can best function as consolatory, gently reminding us of our inability to solve immense dilemmas, is what Philip Metres sets out to oppose in his tightly focused case studies.

To further such an oppositional project, Metres explains, poetry must be regarded "as both cultural product and cultural process," as he writes in a 2006 issue of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. But the innovative turn that powers his research is his readiness to examine not just antiwar poetry but antiwar poetry of resistance. This is a poetry that speaks "from within a cultural matrix, while articulating some differential stance to that culture." And if it is sharply delineated, it nevertheless asks a large question: "how does the poet who resists war address both the nation at large (of which she is a part) and the resistance movement in particular (of which she is a part)?"

Metres's book-length study brings depth to those questions. An effective poetry of war resistance should examine the nation's wars from within a framework of national interest. Resistance poetry is also marked by an exacting and critical intelligence that adapts to the changing face of warfare over the last half-century. The conscientious objection appropriate for a World War II is inappropriate for the mass protest of the Vietnam War, which is in turn inappropriate to the media-dominated postmodern Gulf War marketed as a World War II-like "good war" (with an "evildoer" as opponent) that serves to correct for the "failed" example of the Vietnam War (22). Generally speaking, Metres finds World War II to have been resisted through the content in its poetry, the Vietnam War by the activity of its poems, and the Persian Gulf War with the interpretation elicited by poems.

Metres selects examples wisely, choosing writings that open themselves to judgment on practical grounds. As a result, his analysis discloses traits in these works that might go unnoticed even by readers attentive to cultural traces in poetry. Robert Lowell's confessional verse of the 1950s recalling his incarceration as a pacifist during World War II takes on new associations when placed against the records left by deeply political conscientious objectors such as Lowell Naeve, even as it reveals how Lowell's tendency to overidentify with power "may actually produce a model for exposing power's illegitimacy" (40). The actual status of the World War II conscientious objector, a role legitimated by the state but wildly misunderstood by the public, is made evident in obscure work by William Stafford and William Everson that Metres retrieves to close gaps in the historical record.

If private acts by individual citizens constituted war resistance in the 1940s, the Vietnam War was marked by public acts and mass demonstrations. Metres's longest chapter surveys this poetry in its widely different venues, arguing that "multicultural work" best served to counter "the abstract and official language of official sources" by offering "counternarratives, images, and linguistic play that created afterimages as powerful as the photographs that would begin to alter public opinion about the justness of the war" (126). A snapshot effect characterizes the vernacular poetry that appeared on broadsides or was read aloud at public gatherings that also served as opportunities "to dissent publicly, to connect with local activists and connect them to national movements" (103). John Balaban's After the War (1994) successfully reflects his conscientious objector service in Vietnam, where he learned Vietnamese and worked to "repudiate an image of Vietnam as simplistic cipher of Communist savagery or American imperialism" (122). Balaban's success is contrasted with Denise Levertov's arduous personal struggle to resolve the ethics of writing as a witness.

Because the Persian Gulf War was so elaborately manipulated, with its battle plans virtually factored for convenient consumption over TV, it poses exceptional challenges for a poetics of war resistance. Metres praises African American poet June Jordan, whose identity can summon a "multicultural, multiracial audience" to undermine the Orientalist framework invoked by the war's handlers. She is in a solid position to expose the war's unreality and represent it as a "repetition compulsion of the clearing of the West and the genocide of Native Americans" (192). What Metres claims, perhaps excessively, for Jordan's brand of writing—that it "challenges the peace movement to abandon simplistic notions of peace" and replace these with a "keen vision of how structural and actual violence can permeate nearly all spaces of human life" (195)—is perhaps better realized in Barrett Watten's "counter-epic of the Gulf War,"Bad History, that "counters the televisual representation of the Gulf War as a heroic epic" by providing an "interfered image," dramatizing a "vexed compliant/resistant subjectivity," and deploying a mix of formal elements, from prose-poetry to footnote, to refuse to comply with the "formal and ideological limits of mainstream lyric poetry" (213, 198).

Metres's Coda looks into post-9/11 militancy and proposes that "poetry thrives most particularly in the local" (232). By defining "local" to include "the broadest possible range of voicings" (234), Metres glances toward a future when all approaches will need to be in play if an impossible-to-imagine next war (an Iran War driven by global multinational corporations?) needs to be opposed. Meanwhile, Metres's groundbreaking work, merging cultural criticism with historical research and practical action, powerfully reminds us that the violence that has surrounded us for the last 60 years has always summoned a counterresponse in which fine and sharp sensibilities have not only taken stands but devised precise ways of acting that provide hope and direction for the future.

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