Saturday, June 30, 2007

Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" Meets Moby/Another Len Sousa Mashup

Randall Jarrell's poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"--one of the canonical poems of the Second World War because of its unflinching witness of the technological horrors of that war--creates a surreal landscape that sutures the space between the mother's womb and the State.

One of the backstories of the poem is that Jarrell served as a desk jockey in the Air Force, and saw many young men fly off to their deaths. That guilt inheres in the poem, as it attempts to speak the voice of the dead.

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Nguyen Duy's "Oh Stone" and John Bradley's "Bosnian Love Poem"

Oh Stone

I stand in meditation before Ankor's ruins,
if stone can be so shattered, what of human life?

Oh stone,
let me inscribe a plea for peace.

In the end, in every war,
whoever wins, the people always lost.

--Nguyen Duy
from Distant Road: Selected Poems, translated by Kevin Bowen & Nguyen Ba Chung

Thanks to John Bradley for sending me this poem. I'm finding that one of the gifts to blogging is that I'm the one who's receiving slivers of light. Here's one by John himself, from his book Terrestrial Music:

"Bosnian Love Poem" by John Bradley
--In Memory of Bosko Brckic and Admira Ismic

He was a Serb, she a Muslim.
A Muslim and Serb in love

in the city of Sarajevo.
That's all we need to know.

The Serbs say the Muslims killed them.
The Muslims say the Serbs killed them.

Both sides had agreed to let Bosko and Admira
pass on Wednesday, at 4 pm. On Wednesday, at 4 pm.,

They died, on the Vrbana Bridge.
In the zone not Muslim nor Serb.

Shot at the same time, Bosko
died first, then Admira, holding him.

For six days, no one came near.
For six days, everyone watched.

Bosko, face down. Admira, left
arm across Bosko's back.

He, a Serb, she, a Muslim, embracing.
Everything we need to know.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Len Sousa's Poetry/Music Mashups: Lowell's "For the Union Dead" Meets Philip Glass

One of the great political poems of the 20th century, Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (1964) is an archeological dig through the multiple pasts of personal and American history, a re-dedication of the famous St. Gauden's Memorial in Boston to Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black regiment (the Massachusetts 54th) who fought in the Civil War. What attracted me to Lowell's poem was--in addition to its kaleidoscopic allusiveness--its seething anger, just below the surface of its erudition. The poem comes to its anger slowly, but it's just as I felt before and during the Gulf War of 1991, when I was first encountered this poem. The poem ends with an image of the countless cars choking the roads: "a savage servility/slides by on grease." To echo Walter Benjamin: every artefact of civilization is also an artefact of barbarism.
  • Len Sousa has smartly mashed "For the Union Dead" with Philip Glass. Thanks to Chris Kempf for pointing this site out to me. (My little girls danced to Frank O'Hara Meets the Beatles the whole time that I posted this note.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Baring Witness: Donna Sheehan and "For the Fifty"

On "The Genesis of Our Peace Action" by Donna Oehm Sheehan, founder of Baring Witness, a group demonstrating against the (then-impending) Iraq War:

"It was a Sunday morning when I recalled the dream upon waking. I dreamt of people creating artistic shapes with their bodies. My thoughts went to Helen Odeworitse and 600 Nigerian women, who used the threat of their nakedness (a shaming gesture for men in Nigeria and perhaps elsewhere?) to force ChevronTexaco to listen to their families’ needs. The women’s action of occupying the oil terminal and threatening to shame the male employees made Chevron concede to their demands to share a little of the wealth by providing basic services to the local people.

That was such a powerful image for me at the time that it became a natural extension of my thoughts about my dream. Now I saw women’s bodies forming letters - and the word they formed had to be PEACE.

From that inspired moment, I turned to the resource that all organizers need - their like-minded friends. "Do you think we could do it?" Yes, yes, and yes! We came up with the perfect photographer who decided the perfect, accessible location with grass, a horizon and parking, We called the owners for permission to use the field on Tuesday afternoon. Now we had a deadline!

The excitement and nervousness grew as the vision became a possibility. The huge question was whether women would be able to withstand the vulnerability of exposing themselves nude. Each of us called five women and told them to call five more apiece. Many women responded with the same excitement and willingness, some could not attend. The few who could make it and were excited by the idea but were unwilling to disrobe were invited to help with the clothes. By Tuesday, over 50 women turned up at the field. "

Here's my poem, "For the Fifty, Who Formed PEACE With Their Bodies", hosted on the Fishouse poetry site. Thanks to River Styx for publishing the poem in their most recent journal; shout-outs to Matt O'Donnell and Richard Newman.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Penny Allen and the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund

I have recently begun making some small steps to participate in the Cleveland-area peace movement, after being in writerly and family hibernation for a few years; I am on the planning committee for the Peace Show, an annual event that acts as a celebration of the peace movement and an implicit demonstration against the Cleveland Air Show, with its bevy of ear-splitting military jets.

One of the immediate gifts of my small involvement is meeting people like Penny Allen, the Congressional District Organizer for the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund ( People like Penny, it seems to me, are the kind of citizens who deserve a peace medal of honor.

At the bottom of her emails reads the following quote from President Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned about the dangers of the growing military-industrial complex:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."--Dwight D. Eisenhower

Monday, June 25, 2007

Rebecca Solnit and Reasons for Hope

This essay by Rebecca Solnit that made me feel as if I were not alone.

"...Writers understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might just rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Faith, recounts how she put together a book of teachings by the Buddhist monk U Pandita and consigned the project to the "minor-good-deed category." Long afterward, she found out that when Burmese democracy movement's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was kept isolated under house arrest by that country's dictators, the book and its instructions in meditation "became her main source of spiritual support during those intensely difficult years." Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin and Arthur Rimbaud, like Henry David Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of the bestsellers of their times. Gandhi's Thoreau-influenced nonviolence was as important in the American South as it was in India, and what transpired with Martin Luther King's sophisticated version of it has influenced civil disobedience movements around the world. Decades after their assassinations they are still with us."

Rebecca Solnit, "Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gambling on Non-Violence: An Interview with Ralph DiGia

In 1999, I interviewed Ralph DiGia, a lifelong pacifist and war resister, who has been working with the War Resisters League for decades. Ralph was humble and down-to-earth, but steely in his commitment to nonviolent social change. He was among the group of radical pacifists and conscientious objectors who struck at Danbury Prison during the Second World War to end racial segregation at the prison. Here he is pictured, far left, at a picket of the Pentagon in 1946, along with Jim Peck and Albon Man, to protest nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Read the interview here:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

From Vietnam to September 11th: An Interview with Robert Bly

This is an interview of Robert Bly, the well-known poet and peace activist, that I never got around to publishing. I found him absolutely engaging, provocative, and magnanimous.

From Vietnam to September 11th: An Interview with Robert Bly by Philip Metres 

One of the things that struck me in the Paris Review interview was your recollection that your first poem called Tojo a bad man. That seemed like an illuminating anecdote about your poetry—that you felt like poetry should be active in the world, that it should protest against abuse of power. And it was this interesting link between your work with the antiwar movement and the men’s movement; that he was a “bad man” was the language that you used. What is your sense of the connections between artistic vision and the political vision that seems to be underlying it? 

Do you have a copy of The Light Around the Body? Some of it was written after the Vietnam War began, but it was begun several years before that. For example, the epigraphs from Jacob Boehme in “The Various Arts of Poverty and Cruelty”: “What a distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of the child, and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” What I’m trying to say is that the background of my writing depended less on so-and-so being a bad man as the reading of Jacob Boehme: “When we think of it with this knowledge, we see that we have been locked up, and led blindfold, and it is the wise of this world who have shut and locked us up in their art and their rationality, so that we have had to see with their eyes.” In other words, I was looking at the contemporary American world to see if it fitted with the Jacob Boehme idea, which is that there is a part of this world that is caught always in darkness and evil. It is not unlike the Gnostic view, which I mention more and more; they believed that there are two gods, including a demiurge (a god of this world who is evil). I put it recently in a poem: “what are we going to do with the stories the old men tell…that this world is actually a prison.” Therefore, when I was doing this book, I was looking at capitalism and its relationship to that. [Reads the first poem]: “Merchants have multiplied more than starry heavens….” That’s actually a line from the Old Testament. So I was trying to write those, and then I was amazed how we went straight into the Vietnam War. 

So, in a way, through another angle, you were seeing the Marxist critique of the war, that there were interests in copper and tin, etc. 

I was trying to take the criticism of capitalism seriously, as a truth, and everybody obeyed their parts in the play. So that’s how I entered it. I mean, I didn’t enter into it because I got excited about protesting. I was already there trying to describe it, when I watched it happen. 

One of the most fascinating elements in the Vietnam-era poems, in The Light Around the Body and particularly in The Teeth Mother Naked at Last, is the way in which you were juxtaposing images between the domestic American scene and what was happening in Vietnam: “it is because we have new packaging for smoked oysters that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies.” That method suggests the radical sameness of humanity in a mystical vision. That the ways in which we conduct our lives—that the oyster cans themselves—are connected to the bombs falling in the rice paddies. 

That’s exactly right. And that gave me a huge chasm to leap over again and again. Which made it a lot of fun. And I think I made many of those chasms which didn’t work and I had to take them out. But the ones that did work, they’re kind of convincing. 

It works both in an anti-logical way, and in a supremely logical way. And in some ways, that seems to replicate the problem of the war, which was that people were so rationalist about it and yet there were all these ways in which the war was being conducted in all of these unconscious ways. 

Robert MacNamara is a classic example of that, just a nice rationalist boy. He did well for General Motors, and then the next thing?! Oh, Jesus. If they’d have hired insane people to do it, those lines wouldn’t have been as effective. 

So in some ways you’re using logic to deconstruct it. 

That’s right. 

I’d like to ask you more about the American Writers Against the Vietnam War, about its founding, its principles, etc. 

Well, I think I went down to Luther College to give a reading, and that was the first time that I’d said anything about the war. This was 1966. And then I went on to Reed College, where the students were much more alert. I organized the first one, and invited Ferlinghetti to come, and maybe Robert Lowell. That was the first time we actually did anything as a group of poets from different schools. It was March 5th. The New York Times and all kinds of people were there. I was amazed myself, by how little visibility there was of protest. As soon as that was over, I said, let’s do it. Let’s have an American Poets Against the Vietnam War. 

Did you have to do any of the publicity for these events? 

No, we didn’t do anything like that. But a lot of them I knew by this time. And I’d call them up and say that we’re going to do a reading at such and such a place, and they would come. It was all done completely on the wing. Have you seen the collection we did? The main problem was that people wanted to give readings like this, but didn’t have the material. So I gathered up some of the things that seemed to be most effective in our given readings, and I got a guy in New York who would help find cheap printers. And I gave it to him. Do you know the story behind this [blacked-out] page? I used to go and see e.e. cummings, who was there in the Village. Cummings was always glad to see me…but then he died. And I’d always thought of him as anti-war. So then I went to New York and brought a copy of the book, which contained his poem “I sing of olaf” to his widow. I said I’m really sorry that I didn’t ask your permission, but would it be alright to put cummings’ poem in the anthology and she said, “NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! Cummings knew the communists would never stop.” And so I showed her the book, and she said, “you must destroy every one of those, otherwise I’ll sue you.” So then I went to the same man, and I said what can we do? And he said, they can’t do anything as long as those things are out. He hired a bunch of Puerto Rican women who stayed up all night cutting out and blacking out all the offending material. And we had to block out cummings’ name here. That only made it more interesting in a way. So that’s the way that went. 

So this book itself was created to do other readings. 

They would call me, and I’d try to copy these damn poems and I thought that doing the book would be cheaper. 

I like the fact that in the book you have poems, historical quotes, contemporary political quotes—something from Hitler in there… 

And Hermann Goering. Well, it’s not unlike the situation now, you know. Only Bush is saying totally insane things, if you put them in a book like this, you’d say, wow, find an asylum for this guy. Goering: “well, of course people don’t want a war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to waste his life…. All you have to do is to tell him they’re being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exploiting the country in danger. It works the same in any country.” 

It’s stunning how contemporary those lines are. 

We printed a couple other versions later, without the cummings quote—I think they were gray instead of blue. 

So once you saw that this initial event was, and how subsequent events were, was it formalized or was it always ad hoc? It was always ad hoc. You mentioned the fact that there were poets from all sorts of schools at these readings. One of the interesting things that came out of the readings was that poets who might not even read each other’s work were standing side-to-side. 

It was a wonderful first step, because the academic poets were in there along with the leftist poets. Of course, I remember we were going to do a reading in Minneapolis. I wanted Lowell to be there, then I called Berryman and said, “we’re going to do something here tonight, would you like…” and he said, “NO! Absolutely not. You are a criminal. It’s because of people like you that everyone is going to die.” I was shocked. It turned out that he had spent all morning arguing with his students about how bad I was, and how bad the anti-Vietnam War protests were. They were stunned. I guess they all sort of stood up and staggered out of there. So not everyone was with us. 

Something that David Ray is still mad about is William Meredith’s critique that anti-war poets had torn the country apart. How did you negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of dissent and national loyalty? Did you feel that you had to accommodate to a certain view, or appeal to certain American ideals. 

We didn’t. And I remember we were doing a reading somewhere, and a bunch of doctors up in the balcony halfway through, they shouted out, “you guys are just cowards, that’s all. You’re just afraid to go and fight.” And I said, “this man next to me, his name is Louis Simpson and he was in the Second World War, in the Battle of the Bulge, I think there were 98 people of a hundred that were lost. Do you want to talk to him?” So we paid no attention to those people. Well, yes, I think…my own father wondered if I was a traitor or something. And, you know, all my aunts and everything were asking if I was a communist. We knew we were doing something that was just. 

You didn’t identify with the Communist Party? 

No. That’s why I put in Jacob Boehme in the book, we were just old American protestors. There’s a long history there. 

One of the really clear things that emerges in The Light Around the Body, you seem to be setting in juxtaposition two elements of American consciousness—the Puritan and the transcendental viewpoint. It seems like you have a longstanding argument against the Puritan spirit, that you saw the Puritan spirit continuing. 

Yeah, I tried to drag in the Puritans once in awhile. I know it came in explicitly in “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched by Ants.” So it puts it into a Hawthorne “Young Goodman Brown” scenario. [Reads the poem]. 

Tell me about the ants and the toads at the end of that poem. 

Someone asked me about it just two days ago. One of the things that you are going to do when you’re writing a poem is that you have to keep the language from going into the excessively rational. All political arguments are rational. There isn’t enough flavor in the language if you do that. So one way to do that is what the Chinese do: to try to make sure that the universe itself is. “Ants are gathered down the old creek….” You almost believe that the ants may be able to sing! There’s a little bit of wit here. Other people would simply bring in the toads trembling, but since I like a little bit of opera, I have ants singing. But basically it’s the same idea, that we’re not alone in this universe, and you’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening to the animal world. 

So you really meant to open the poem out beyond a discourse about humanity. Students of mine wanted to read the animals symbolically; like, the ants stand for regular people, and the toads stand for wisdom figures. 

There they are trying to take that physical world of the ants and toads, and bring it into the symbolic world of human beings. That’s no crime, but it is undoing what I was trying to do in the poem. 

Another question about your activism. Obviously, your readings were quite successful in getting the message out and creating an experience where people would begin to see this other tradition. 

I remember going down to southern Minnesota, maybe Mankato, and they had a number of events about the war, which would have been run by political science professors. They were talking about the Geneva Accords, which was worth talking about. The problem was that students were feeling a tremendous emotional upset. And so when we came in doing poetry, it was like hearing someone scream onstage. Which was important for them to hear. And that’s one reason that the reading became so powerful, because it isn’t quite proper to talk in a calm rationalistic way. So in the poetry there was much more yelling and feeling and screaming. Emotions came in, and a little bit of insanity. 

Which was a measure of reality. 

Yes. Something that came up in my interview with Ray Gonzalez regarding those readings. [Reads from The Bloomsbury Review interview the following: Gonzalez: You are one of the few writers who have spoken harshly against the Bush administration and its response to September 11, calling the New York attack “the first sacking of Rome.” This has brought silence from some of your recent audiences, but it reminds me of your long poem, ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last.’ I have found four versions of the poem: in the original City Lights edition, in Sleepers Joining Hands, in your first Selected Poems, and recently in Eating the Honey of Words. Though it might fit the times, you rarely read it in public anymore, but you keep tinkering with it on the page. It’s like you can’t leave it alone. What does this poem mean to you more than three decades after it publication? 

RB: I still like the poem, and I read it once in a while. If there are a lot of young people in the audience, most of them will not understand what was going on at the time of the Vietnam War. Despite September 11, they do not know the tremendous amount of grief we were suffering. Sometimes I will speak at a university and a faculty member, trying to shame me, may ask how I feel now about my Vietnam poems. I answer: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t write more of them.’ With shocked expression, he may ask, ‘Why didn’t you?’ Well, we didn’t believe it would go on for so long. We never planned for more poems because we couldn’t accept that something so vile would go on for years, but it did. A great deal of ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’ was written spontaneously on stage during those times. I would take newspaper articles and read a bit on stage, composing lines to fit the horrible news. I would check the tape of the reading and in that way find out what I had said. Sharing it with an audience, the give and take between poet and the audience would bring things that would never arrive if you were just sitting down composing alone. ‘The Teeth Mother Naked at Last’ is the only poem I have created with that ancient relationship between poet and audience. The dark times of the Vietnam War gave us that bond, the union only poetry could give us. The poet and the people were feeling the same thing at once, at that moment, and the long poem came to us. Maybe that is why I keep working on it. There is something not quite settled in it, and it may never get settled! Toward the end of the poem there are the lines, 

Now the whole nation starts to whirl, 
The end of the Republic breaks off, 
Europe comes to take revenge, 
The mad beast covered with European hair rushes through the mesa bushes in Mendocino County. 
Pigs rush toward the cliff. 
The waters underneath part: in one ocean luminous globes float up (in them hairy and ecstatic men); 
In the other ocean—the Teeth Mother, naked at last! 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I were riding in a car, and I recited those lines and Ferlinghetti said: ‘you know you really are insane.’”] 

 That’s what that quality—what did we say a moment ago—that insanity is a mode of reality? 

You’ve answered my next question, which regards what things people read during these anti-war readings—if they were just poems, if they were poems directly about the war, or poems that were not directly about the war, like Anne Sexton’s reading “My Little Girl, My String Bean,” that took on a new context in light of the event… 

It was more like that. Some of them didn’t write anti-Vietnam war poems. But they would take poems, even by Hardy or someone like that, and people would just say, whoah. 

So these readings differed from the institutional readings in their greater give and take with the audience— 

The headlines were ahead of us, so to speak. Things we could hardly believe we’d find in the paper. And the audience had already read that paper. So they didn’t want us to do Samuel Johnson. That’s the way it is in the old epic poetry, you know. They still do some of it in Yugoslavia. They’ll say, we’re going to have a county fair, will you come down and do some stuff. Maybe, how long? Well, maybe twenty minutes, we could give you $200. But the thing is that we want you to do the Eliot or whatever it is that you do, but one of our young men got in a bar fight and was killed last month, and we were wondering if you could put that in the poem. So you put the guy in the bar, you can even put his name in it if you want to. Because that ties the audience into a group. That’s what this was like. Things that happened that very day, if there was enough landscape in the poem, you could do it. 

So there was a productive feedback loop between you and the audience. How did the audience participate in the construction of that experience? 

Well, you know, they would sometimes interrupt the poem by clapping or shouting, and other times someone would shout out something. Like: “How about when they did that?” Poetry audiences have become polite; they think they are there to listen. 

It certainly was a different time. I can’t imagine a more different moment, when many students seem to feel very cowed by September 11th. 

This is an important question; why is there this silence? This is a ghazal I’ve been reading at poetry readings. [Reads “Call and Answer”]. And I probably wouldn’t have said that ten years ago. I would have said, “we allow others to rob the house,” but now today I am sad to say we are ourselves robbing the house. That’s a little bit of feeling of the Vietnam poems. And so I read it out in Houston the other night, the audience was so nostalgic. I just said, the president is not only pitiful, he’s stupid. And the whole audience clapped. 

The dangerous part is that he’s so certain about everything. 

That’s that American idiocy, that the Europeans notice. The world is very unsteady, uneven, everyone in France walking down the street so depressed, and then some American comes by with an idiotic smile. [Laughs] 

What sorts of things came out of the Vietnam War readings for you? What heartened or disheartened you? 

Not so much the effect it had on others, but as on ourselves. Number One was the realization that we had that old function and relation to the audience that we heard about poets having in the past. That’s one reason why poets of my generation are still working so hard—Galway, Denise, Adrienne. It’s like a car going into gear. A lot of young poets who have not had that experience feel like they’re spinning their wheels, or they’re writing only for a few people, or they’re self-obsessed. They just have not had that connection with the audience, that old one in which the poet and the audience invigorate each other. That was one crucial thing. And secondly, it made us proud because we did better than the fiction writers. I remember one time we were giving a reading in Chicago, and by that time they wanted fifteen people to read. So they wanted this fiction writer, and people started to leave. He was doing the best he could, but the prose wasn’t up to that. 

So it was about the intensity of the language. 

And the ability of poetry to adjust itself. To say something in one line and very different in the next. Fiction is a kind of a trance. It’s a nice trance, when you get into it, but you have to get to the other side. And the third thing was exactly what Ferlinghetti said to me, that “you know you really are insane.” That insanity was all right. And that’s a very old tradition. That all made us much bolder. 

Did you participate in any of the marches, like the March on the Pentagon in 1967 with Lowell and Mailer? 

Yeah, yeah, I was there too. We did all that. Going back to that situation in New York—how surprised people are when you lift your voice in public. And I said, yeah, that’s fine. I said I got arrested a number of times, and one time I was thrown in a wagon with Dr. Spock and I got in some good questions about my kids free on the way to jail. Ginsberg and I were arrested a number of times, and one time we were arrested sitting-down at an induction center in New York. Ginsberg was in one cell with about twenty others, and I was in another with about twenty others, and we had a great time, singing all night and doing poetry and stuff. Allen was very good with that. 

That’s a good segue into my next question—I’d like to hear some of your memories of other war resister poets, and how you see them participating in the tradition of war resistance. 

Just because you’re a pacifist doesn’t mean you can’t lift your voice, don’t you think? 

How about William Stafford, who did very different things in poetry than you? 

Well, Bill was way ahead of me with that stuff. You know in the Second World War he was a conscientious objector. To him, we were sort of, like…well, he’d been walking in this march a long time. We were sort of like people who, when the gorillas and the ice cream arrived, we’d joined. He was sort of glad to see us but wondering where we’d been all this time. But this was a whole route of his life, not to participate in war at all. We all admired that in him tremendously. You could say that this war wasn’t a shock to him, but it was a shock to us. Have you read Down in My Heart, his memoir? Bill had thought this all through, and we waited until the pie hit our faces. And then he always distrusted certain forms of loud talk. He’d forgive me for mine. I was writing a poem the other day for Bill, asking him what it’s like in heaven, and he says, you know, many times, Robert, I had to defend you. I’m a coward, but I remember several times when they were getting on your case and I said something. 

I can imagine him saying that, in his very polite way— 

but with a lot of power underneath. In other words, he would feel it. He would warn me, so to speak: don’t make so many generalizations, Robert. But there was always a tremendous affection with it. I remember one time driving up to Fargo to see Tom McGrath. He was one of those who went through the really tough times during the Red Scare. So, now he was back near where he was born, and they wanted him to give a talk at his high school, but then people wrote on the board “McGrath is a Communist,” so he never got invited back to his high school. We asked him to give a reading, and he said, certainly, but we could tell from the sound of his voice that he thought we were kind of retarded. That experience put us in touch with the older generation, who had really fought for justice. 

What about George Oppen during that time? Obviously he was one of the poets involved with the Communist Party, who had stopped writing for so many years. 

No, I don’t remember him well. I think that some people had been scared so much they didn’t want to put their head out there anymore. 

Perhaps that’s why people like Stafford were so judicious about their words. Can I ask you about Robert Lowell? Unless you have more to say about Stafford. Lowell seems like such a different route, even though he also was an objector. 

I’m still thinking about Stafford. Well, Stafford was sane and Lowell was insane. That’s a big difference. Stafford thinks about the implications in everything he does. In his poem “Ask Me,” for example, you see it. He says, the river doesn’t come from just here, it comes from way back up there. 

That sense of needing a language at one point in the river, but knowing that there is the previous energy behind it. 

That’s right, and the previous energy in his life is what led to that place right here. That shows no hysteria, a recognition that people really do want him to confess more, but he’s not going to do it. He’s very sound. A great poet. So, anyway, you ask about Lowell. Lowell tried to enlist and then when they started bombing Germany, he decided to refuse. That was brave. In his own poetry, he didn’t do much there. But he was so willing to go to Washington and participate in marches and walks, and that meant a lot to us who were a little younger, the way he put himself out in that way. 

He got some heat for his outspokenness. One of the critiques of poets who got involved in war resistance is that it was stylish to do so, but it seems to be a misunderstanding of the situation. 

I never heard anything like that in terms of Lowell. He had something that Bill didn’t have, and that was that he was fanatical about his position. At parties, he would go around, saying who was one, who was two, who was three, and so on. 

He was very interested in power. 

One time I drove to Iowa City and hung around with Lowell. We were both fans of William Carlos Williams. He and Tate were Lowell’s literary fathers. I went to see William Carlos Williams one day. He said, come on in, kid. Just sit down. And he was walking around, saying God damned son of a bitch. God damned stupid son of a bitch. God damned stupid fucking son of a bitch. So I said, what’s the matter. Cal Lowell called me, he said could I come over this weekend. Why didn’t I hear that in his voice, God damn it? I said, Cal, I have three babies to deliver this weekend. Could you come next weekend? He said sure. I just got a call from Chicago, that they picked him on the street and he’s showing people the stigmata in his palm. Why the fuck could I not have heard that in his voice? I’m a God damned stupid son of a bitch. 

So I visited with Lowell in Iowa City, and he was there with a bunch of poets, and they were sitting there making fun of William Carlos Williams. I couldn’t believe it. And I said, wait a minute. And they turned and looked at me as if I were a cockroach. That was that kind of literary life, in which if Williams is down right now, and someone else is up, then you betray him. So I had to do, I had to say something. Then I showed Lowell a poem from my first book, in which I mention a county in Maryland. And Lowell said, what county was that in Maryland? I said, I don’t know. Well, you need to find out what county that was, and then go there and look it up and find out who was murdered there. Put that in the poem. 

That’s Lowell’s method, isn’t it? 

Yes. The poem is okay as it is. So, anyway, we met each other a couple of times. And then he published Near the Ocean and I wrote a review called “Very Far from the Ocean.” He was doing a lot of bad shit then. Then I went to an antiwar thing, and met up with him, and introduced myself, and he said, WHAT? I never expected to see you here. After the terrible things you said about me. Just like a little boy. So I just turned away. So he acted out of a sense of justice from his Catholic conscientious objection, but also out of the feeling that he was a New England cultural hero above trash like Lyndon Johnson. There is a class system there. Compared to Stafford’s strong roots. I don’t remember anything else. We always invited him, but I never felt close to him. 

How about Denise Levertov? 

I used to visit her in New York. I’d bring people over to see her. I brought Don Hall over to see her, back when [the poetry world] was all split up. She said, I can’t believe it, I met Don Hall, I can’t believe it. 

Why was this so surprising? 

Well, because she and Creeley, etc., were this rebellious group, and… 

that whole split, the New American Poetry group and the academic poets? 

Yeah, it was really deep. I’d bring people over to meet her, and she trusted me. That was good, because we decreased some of that animosity. I admired her a lot. But then I put out an essay, which is in The Wrong Turning, in which I showed how all of them had something in common, as opposed to the inward material of Lorca, and she was just furious with me for putting Williams in there with Eliot and Pound. And she never really forgave me for that. 

It’s stunning how deep that schism was. Today, it seems like young writers now, in a way, have greater access to all those opportunities. You can look at the lyric tradition, you can poach from the experimentalists. I don’t sense the same bitterness of the divides. 

You could say that. You could also say that the older poets felt deprived because of the domination of Eliot and Pound. I was one of those. And Creeley and others felt deprived, and found their niche, as it were, on the mountain of Olson, in order to climb up. That’s also called passion and survival and love of literature. Robert Creeley said something interesting. He said, you know, what you need to be a writer: you need friends that you can stay up with until four in the morning talking. Then you need an older man who is your hero whom you would never meet. Charles Olson was that for them—of course they met him, but it applies. And that older man would determine your group, so to speak. What happened with the poetry workshops in the colleges is that has been destroyed. And your teacher was only a few years older than you, whom you’d meet in the bar. This is very weird psychology, but that’s the story. Then it brings in this sort of idea that we can bring in this or that but we’re not defending any of it. Creeley was doing the classic young man warrior thing of defending Charles Olson. I used to make fun of them in one of my magazines: “Be sure to be the first on your block to get the Charles Olson ring, in which you can measure your breath.” Creeley thought it was funny, but one day, I was at the Y in New York, and they told me Olson was there, saying “I’m gonna cold-cock that sonuvabitch,” speaking of me. But that’s part of the sort of French joy in these conflicts. It’s the absence of that that’s missing now. Things are homogenized, and teachers are younger. I thought that was good: you need someone who is older than you whom wouldn’t dare go and knock on their door. 

Who was that person for you? 

There were all those Spanish poets. Lorca, Vallejo, Ortega y Gasset, and Charles Olson [laughs]. I think that literary life grows by these fights, and it isn’t good that we don’t have them out. It doesn’t mean that we are more advanced today. I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine how deprived people felt at that time. You go to college, no one would teach poets that you like. All you’d learn is Eliot. Everyone was suffocatingly convinced in their own viewpoints. “So I said to my friend John (which was not his name). John, I said, the darkness surrounds us. What shall we do against it? Shall we and why not buy a goddamn big car. Drive, he said, for Chrissake look out where you’re going.” That’s the mood of the early antiwar poetry. You leave aside the Richard Wilbur line, the Robert Lowell line, and you do what you have to. There’s that feeling—the darkness surrounds us. When the Vietnam War came, it was more like a different kind of darkness, but we’re still in battle and we’re not going to just stand back. 

I just met Jerome Rothenberg in St. Petersburg, who seems to be a parallel figure to you on the other side of that divide, doing translations of European poets, etc. 

Oh yeah, we were good friends. Then he went over with these bad writers, and I stayed with the good writers! But he is a wonderful man and I love everything he does, in general. Just because he went out to California, otherwise we would have been doing more stuff together. 

And both of you use various instrumental accompaniment to your reading. I don’t do that anymore; I used to play the dulcimer and the bouzouki. You can do it in a Vietnam reading with your intense voice. So I played some instruments, but never took the time to learn them. A friend wrote to me and said, I used to think you were God. But then I realized that God would not play the bouzouki as bad as you. I thought that was wonderful. But I still do a great bit of it. Now I have good musicians play with me. I recently was at the Dodge Poetry Festival. 20,000 people come to this event. It’s tremendous. If you tried that in France, you’d get 42 people. So there is something good about the United States in the way that we’ve been opening up poetry. There were twenty of us there, and the oldest was Stanley Kunitz, who was magnificent. All he is now is nothing but a nose, an old hawk. He got up and he read very slowly. And he talked about walking around the Harvard Library and found a book on the floor. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he read “Pied Beauty” and was amazed. That festival was an astounding testimony to what a great love affair Americans have with great poetry. And there were a lot of others there, including Amiri Baraka, who made an ass of himself, as you probably have read. 

What did you make of his 9/11 poem? 

 Whitey did everything, the face of pyramids fell off because of white people. It’s just endless. And those stupid lines about the 4,000 Israelis who didn’t go to the World Trade Center that day. But that proves he took it off the Arabic internet, because he would have said Jews if he had. I already had enough with him already that day by that time. We had a roundtable with Coleman Barks, Ed Hirsch, and Amiri. Amiri used to be LeRoi Jones, and we had our tiffs back then as well. But we liked each other basically. Anyway, we all had to discuss whether we liked to read poetry in private or hear it. We each had five minutes. Then Amiri decided to take it over. The model of it was Coleman Barks’ translation: “out beyond the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field.” Amiri said “there is no field out there.” And that was the end of the imagination. He said, “all there is is wrongdoing, that’s what you guys are doing.” Then Coleman said something, and Amiri put him down, then Ed Hirsch said something. But it wasn’t right to not say anything. My antiwar experience helped out here. So I waited until he insulted Eliot as a reciter of poems. I said, no you’re wrong about Eliot, and I imitated Eliot. And he insulted someone else, and I said you’re wrong about that too. You can’t criticize the man, but you can criticize the opinion. And then I said, you know I’m really sick of this big wind blowing through this tent, and piling up the leaves in the corner. You can’t answer a metaphor. 

My friend has this theory that Baraka loves to play the antagonist, and that’s his way of engaging with people. 

My daughter was out there, who said he was going to get into trouble and my son said, no that’s perfect for him. That’s exactly what he wants. He’ll have a great time! Anyway, that whole split. I’m just trying to give you a feeling about how much energy it brought in—as long as we didn’t hate each other. 

I just worry that the split between language poetry and everybody else creates a kind of solipsism of two groups. That we only talk with our group, uninformed by dissent. That’s my worry. It seems like in your generation there was conversation. 

Yes, we respected each other. The language poets are classic capitalists, trying to sneak in on the edge of something radical. But they can’t make a single statement that’s political. To me they are pretty worthless. They have ruined the Boston Review. I have noticed that the people who are making a group are really academic language poets. There’s a psychologist Robert Moore, who’s a psychologist out in Chicago. I asked him why no one lifts their voices these days. He said, well, I’ve been reading Kierkegaard. And Kierkegaard talks about five different kinds of despair. And one of them is the despair of not even knowing you’re in despair. And then the despair of believing that you can never be anything but ordinary. And I think there’s a lot of that in the failures of speaking out. Michael Ventura, who was brought up in an orphan asylum in upstate New York. He says, you know, we used to drive forty miles to see a French movie. And we used to talk about it the whole way back. Now, the French movies are unrented on the video store shelves. I think there is something about the effort it takes to get there. The second thing is that the fact the French movies are no longer something extraordinary. We felt extraordinary going to those movies. There is nothing you can go to where you feel extraordinary. The despair that takes over the language poets is related to the despair that has taken over everyone—so they don’t object to Bush. They feel small, they feel ordinary. In the Sixties and Seventies, when we had these fights, everyone felt extraordinary. Now, people feel little. There is more despair than you would believe. 

What would you advise young poets how to go about making poetry part of the conversation for peace and justice? 

What sort of blockages do you feel? 

The one challenge that I feel as a writer is if I feel like I have too much certainty about something, that I might violate the possibility of openness in a poem. How can I speak out with conviction, without killing the experience of the art? 

I think that one of the things that shows our despair is the loss of interest in mythology and Joe Campbell. The fact that you can tie into Beowulf and the Jewish prophets somehow. The reckless use of language in which you can bring in the unconscious—it’s such a ludicrous term, really—but all of that was an incitement to find that language. That’s what the capitalists hate the most. You won’t find a metaphor anywhere on television. So that’s what my answer to you would be: to rediscover your reckless metaphor. The dumbing down of language, by the poets themselves. Too much about your own family. What’s happened is that you get immediately exciting poems about mining your own disasters, but you’ve cut some link in the process. In my book, The Sibling Society, I talk about how no one becomes an adult anymore. One idea I develop is that there is a vertical line and horizontal line. The vertical line is the one from God that cuts down to the very heart of being. The horizontal line is the one that poets like Anne Sexton, where you go to the Laundromat, and then you see something, and something happens, and tell the whole damn thing, and that’s it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Poetry and the Peace Movement: Useable Pasts, Multiple Futures"

The following article, "Poetry and the Peace Movement: Useable Pasts, Multiple Futures," is excerpted from Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 and appears at Big Bridge #12

In the wake of the Vietnam War, citizens and poets alike tend to look with a jaundiced eye at those wild-eyed poets who descend from Parnassus to declaim about the politics of the day, to shout down the latest war, or to address the President—as if he had a Minister of Poetry. Who among us can't mobilize the troop of quotes regarding the dangers of mixing poetry and politics?: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry" (Yeats); "poetry makes nothing happen" (Auden); "no lyric has ever stopped a tank" (Heaney), etc. Vietnam War-era poetry, in particular, has been dismissed by critics as too easily categorized (Robert B. Shaw's "The Poetry of Protest"), ahistorical (Cary Nelson's Our Last First Poets), politically unviable (Paul Breslin's The Psycho-Political Muse), or not self-critical enough (Robert von Hallberg's American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980). Undoubtedly, some Vietnam-era anti-war poetry was self-righteous, rhetorically clumsy, and tonally arrogant.

But these critiques miss the intricate dance that American war resistance poets have executed in the 20th century, negotiating between the claims of their art and the claims of their conscience, and between the two communities they court—the nation and the peace movement. (Further, these critiques—combined with the politics of mainstream poetry today—invite poets to a kind of post-avant, post-politics quietism that allows them to feel as if everything they write is political—thus evacuating any meaning to the term "politics.") Combined with the testimony and vision of soldier and veteran poets, the civilian war resister poets offer a critical and vital resource—both for the peace movement and for the nation.

Though the role of soldier poetry occupies a critical place in the war resistance literary tradition, in Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (University of Iowa Press, 2007), I am particularly interested in retreating from the scene of battle, "behind the lines," back to what has been termed the homefront. Civilian poets have played a unique role in shaping and representing war resistance and the contemporary American peace movement during a period of American imperial power. No other literary genre has been as conducive to the performative, immediate, and often homespun symbolic actions of the peace movement. War resistance activists have long relied on poetry, and its popular counterpart, song, to build a shared culture—relaying the narratives that name the movement and its longings.

Useable Pasts

The tradition of American war resistance poetry, with its beginnings in the Great War, crystallized in the mid-20th century, with the rise of conscientious objector poets during the Second World War (Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and William Everson, in particular); the proliferation of resistance poetry of the Vietnam War (Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Daniel Berrigan, John Balaban, among others); the postmodern fragmentation of the Persian Gulf War (William Heyen, June Jordan, and Barrett Watten); and a rebirth during the Iraq War, with the Poets Against the War phenomenon and other mass poetry movements against war.

Since World War I, the American peace movement has been an important, even essential aspect of a healthy democratic society. The peace movement acts as a necessary brake to the enthusiastic acceleration toward the next "necessary war," though it seems destined for permanent oppositional status. Gwyn Prins has likened the peace movement to "a leaping, diving whale.… When the ‘whale' disappears in a dive, those on the right believe the movement no longer exists. Supporters of the movement, on the other hand, see the leaping whale and claim it can fly" (qtd. in Everts 27). Whether critics might wish that it were dead or supporters might wish that it could fly, the success of the peace movement ought not be measured by whether or not it stopped a war; rather, its impact, however decentralized or marginal, must be registered in the constancy of its witness to the evils of warfare, and its resistance to the smooth functioning of an imperial, militaristic culture of war. That constancy requires not only institutional support (both academic and activist), but also the existence of what Evert calls "prophetic minorities" (27-28)—those who are totally committed to bringing about peace and nonviolent social change.

Peace movement actions have ranged from 1) counternarration (educating, lectures, readings, flyering, petitions, letters, protests, etc.), to 2) physical and financial support for resisting war, boycotts, strikes, claiming C.O. status or supporting C.O.s, etc.; and even to 3) extreme or illegal acts of resistance, from sit-ins to tax resistance to other more violent acts of resistance. Gene Sharp's crucial Politics of Nonviolent Action lists 198 nonviolent tactics that resisters have employed to resist illegitimate power and effect social change, many of which have been used by war resister poets in the 20th century.

American war resister poets have become, by virtue of their struggle to represent and enact war resistance, models for resistance—both to war and to the heady fantasies of revolutionary resistance. In their Yeatsian self-questioning, in their urge to synchronize the beats of their language with the rhythms of peace movements, in their attempts to image and imagine the distant imperial wars, in their struggle for information and for understanding the syntax of war, in their worried or outraged utterances, in their desire to address their fellow citizens, these poets embody through words and deeds—through words as deeds, and deeds as words—a moral witness against the depredations of war.

Even if the lyric poem may render visible the political unconscious of imperial privilege, the best lyric war resistance poems (Robert Lowell's "Memories of West Street and Lepke," William Everson's Chronicle of Division, Adrienne Rich's "At Atlas of the Difficult World," etc.) have always been maps that render empire visible and consciously draw tight the strands that connect American subjectivities to the rest of the world. Even if the audience-based rhetorical poetries of social movements such as the 1930s radical proletarian poetries or the Black Arts poetries of the 1960s may occasionally disappoint in their binaristic and propaganda-laden invectives, the best performance poems actively hail, respond to and co-create a community of resisters (June Jordan's "The Bombing of Baghdad," Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America," etc.). Even if experimental poetries can alienate in their disjunctive style, the best experimental poems court their reader in ways that can help create critical distance from the rhetoric tactics that bully citizens into distrusting their own deeply-held knowledge about the ugliness of war (Barrett Watten's Bad History, Bob Perelman's "Against Shock and Awe," etc.).

Poetry has never been simply a handmaiden to the peace movement, nor is war resistance simply an occasion for poetry; but poetry offers to the peace movement a relationship to language that questions its own assumptions and extends its own possibilities, imagining alternate futures and new narratives beyond the religious, political and philosophical foundations that undergird it. Take, if you will, Michael Magee's "Political Song, Confused Voicing," written in the wake of September 11th, 2001, and a vital counterpoint to Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America." Threading the traditions of political lyric, African-American performance poetry, and experimental language play into a meditation on the politics of grievance, the poem opens with a blisteringly absurdist diatribe:

you tongued my battleship!
you bonged my tattle-tale!
you maimed my mamby-pamby
Wagnered my Nietzsche
and gotcha'd my sweatshop

there ain't room in heaven for us (51)

If the language is oddball, the overall structure is quite simple: you [blanked] me! This structure suggests a feeling of grievance or woundedness, but the poet machineguns so many allusions at us—from commercials to board games to political acronyms to philosophy—that we are suspended in its comic-furious catalogue. The first line, "you tongued my battleship" references both the commercial for the game "Battleship"—in which a boy exclaims, "you sunk my battleship!"—and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2001, summoning the strangeness of American subjectivity, where history is crosscut with advertising, and war itself is a commodity to be sold.

But the poem gains gravitas with its blues refrain, and confuses any simplistic reading of who is the "us" and who is the "them." Is the "us" of the refrain, who have no room in heaven, the terrorists, or the Americans who appear to be speaking the main stanzas? The poem ends:

you prayed on my carpet
you bombed my parade
and there ain't room in heaven
no there ain't room in heaven
no there ain't room in heaven for us (52)

The voices get confused in ways that suggest that the "us" is the wider human race, since "you prayed on my carpet" could be the typical complaint of bin Laden about American military presence in Saudi Arabia, and "you bombed my parade" could refer either to the U.S. economic parade ending or the U.S. bombings of wedding parties in Afghanistan or Iraq. The grievances get melded together in ways that suggest that competing grievances become a vicious circle, a self-perpetuating psychology which collapses the distance between us and the terrorists. Magee thus uses and feels the strength of grievance even as it shows a deep distrust of that energy, and an awareness of the violence of acting out of grievance. Though the peace movement recognizes the fatality of a politics based principally on grievance, it has occasionally succumbed to its own rhetorics of blame—blaming the government system or blaming the peace movement. And poets have, at times, contributed to both polarities of blame. Magee's poem dramatizes—and thus inoculates us from—demonization itself, which can only end with everyone sharing hell together.

Multiple Futures

The debate between a poetry that favors the aesthetic, the formal, the individual, and a poetry that favors the political, the rhetorical, and the cultural-political movement suggests the ongoing and necessarily provisional rapprochement between artistic production and the peace movement. This debate manifests itself differently at different moments. During the Second World War, William Everson and the Fine Arts community advocated for a pacifist art that would not succumb to propaganda, and opposed the War Resisters League call for an issue-oriented anthology of protest poetry. During the Vietnam War, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov engaged in a parallel negotiation between poetry and its relation to war resistance (also visible in the dichotomies between electric Dylan and acoustic Dylan, between New Left and Old Left, etc.). During the Persian Gulf War, Jean Baudrillard and Christopher Norris, Barrett Watten and Amiri Baraka articulated different, even opposing critical and poetic strategies to resist war. During our ongoing Iraq War, Kent Johnson upbraided Charles Bernstein and his avant-garde privileging of the radicalism of form, thus demonstrating the persistence of these debates.

These disagreements represent not an unbridgeable impasse between politics and poetry, but an ongoing negotiation over how poetry's particular power might best bear witness to and serve a culture of war resistance. The latest flap about Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz—which some poets and critics saw as self-promoting, capitalizing on Iraqi suffering, etc.—suggests that the questions about resistance poetry will not be resolved, but rather lived through by poetic and activist means. The ongoing work of national organizations like Poets Against the War and localized nodes in networks of publication (O Books, Curbstone, Interlink, Dischord, etc.) suggests that resistance work does not require unanimity. Certainly, poetry thrives most particularly in the local. As W.D. Ehrhart mused:

What was the point of my reading antiwar poetry to the members of the Brandywine Peace Community? These are folks who chain themselves to fences and hammer on missile warheads. But what they hear in my poems confirms them in their beliefs (which are not easy to hold and maintain in this culture…and renews their spirit and commitment; it gives them a sense of connectedness, of not being entirely along. That's worth doing, even if it is on such a small scale (there were maybe 25 people there that night). (Interview with W.D. Ehrhart)

War resistance poems ask for our redeployment in multiple sites, returning poetry to where it thrives—"behind the lines," i.e. beyond the page and into the public square—as graffiti, in pamphlets, on demonstration placards, as performances, in political meetings and poetry readings, as songs, and in the classroom. In the hands of war resistance poets, language is a symbolic action, and symbolic action becomes a language with poetic implications. In recovering these poems, we can pose further questions not only about the limits of the individualized poem, but also about the individualized poet, and propose ways that poets and activists might work to find ways of making poetry "active" again, and making activism a labor of making as much as a labor of protest and unmasking. Thus, the survival of war resistance poetry depends not just on the aesthetic value of the poems, but also on what these poems offer as cultural productions. War resistance poets attempt to address both the converted and unconverted, to praise the committed and also to hail the unconverted, inviting them to partake in this collective subjectivity of resistance.

To those of us who consider poetry a medium and a tradition of the imagination of conscience, who see in it a useable past and a vital resource for social change, our work might begin with liberating what has already been confined to the library and recirculate it in the social networks where poetry can both inspire and interrogate war resistance and peace activism. Such a call requires us to articulate our own history, and our own tradition, to recover that which we did not know was part of us—and, finding it lacking, to create our own; in some sense, that may require rejecting the tradition of poems and poetry that I have laid forth in this book—since I recall, as a college student demonstrating against what would become the Persian Gulf War, the desire to reject the hippie "kumbaya" culture of Vietnam-era peace activism in favor of Fugazi's punk anthem "KYEO" (Keep Your Eyes Open). It also asks of us to enter into already-existing local nodes and social networks of war resistance and to participate as citizen-poets in the mundane acts of community-building such as weekly potlucks, flyering, signmaking, and petitioning. Poets have a unique role to play in the peace movement because we can bring our obsessive and nuanced attention to language, its rhetorical possibilities and its formal limits.

As we extend our poetics into the peace movement, we will be writing the potential archive, writing the future—not just of war resistance poetry, but also of our collective histories. In the tradition of the visionary anthologies of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, where poetry is not gathered and contained, but rather set loose in a larger structure toward symbolic action, our poems and acts will have the occasion to articulate themselves into possible futures. In Rothenberg's words:

the anthology as a kind of long poem….In working as a poet, finding a space for different voices is probably at the center of what I think I'm doing in poetry. So translations are an arena of voicings, anthologies are an arena of voicings, found poetry and collage are an arena of voicings (Rothenberg "Chanting" 53).

Every demonstration—in the broadest sense of the term—is in some sense also an arena of voicings, and the work of war resistance poets is to allow that arena to reverberate beyond the space/time event, to echo in the eyes and ears of participants and passersby alike.
Poets can extend mimeograph revolution of the 20th century (and the ongoing independence of small literary presses, who have the ability to control the means of producing language-events) to electronic and other new media—including college radio, Internet sites, weblogs, downloadable podcasts, You Tube, etc.—thus reframing Billy Bragg's ironic "Revolution is just a tee shirt away!" into a potentially empowering act of self-commodification. Whole websites devoted to linking poetry and political action, such as Brian Kim Stefans' 2003 project, "Circulars: Poets, Artists, and Critics Respond to U.S. Global Policy," suggest the ways in which this work is already engaged, if not always sustained. Other activists have taken to "highway blogging"—writing messages on bedsheets and posting them over highway overpasses where thousands of commuters pass them. Further, poets and poetry can play a role in the use of digital filmography to document acts of repression and resistance. The recent Investigation of a Flame (2001) and its attendant website which revisits the Catonsville Nine action (in which 9 members of the Catholic Left, including poet Daniel Berrigan, raided a draft office and burned draft files with homemade napalm in 1968) includes original footage and other documentary materials for access to the public, thus enabling a new generation insight into the radical nonviolent resistance during the Vietnam War.

As we articulate poetry to the poetics of war resistance, we will keep it vital by finding and writing the broadest possible range of voicings: not only lyric poems, not only language-based poems, but poems as scripts for symbolic actions; poems that can be marched to, poems that are parodies of well-known songs or poems that others could easily perform, poems that enable something beyond comprehension, but collective and bodily participation; not just solemn or angry poems, but poems that are funny; not just Apollonian poems of reason, but Dionysian poems that offend public morals and political correctness; in short, poems that use every means necessary—the lyric tradition's self-dialectic, the African-American performance tradition's use of chant and audience dialectic, the experimental tradition's explosive play with language.
In light of the Iraq War, such a range of voicings could include American war resistance poems such as the meditative and rationalist "Against Shock and Awe" by Bob Perelman, next to the stately jeremiad "Dithyramb and Lamentation" by David Wojahn, next to the Flarf-constructed "Chicks Dig War" by Drew Gardner, next to a fragment of the visionary multivocal This Connection of Everyone with Lungs by Juliana Spahr, next to the diatribe "Somebody Blew Up America" by Amiri Baraka, next to fractured collage of "I Note in a Notebook" by Lawrence Joseph, next to first-person witness "Here, Bullet" by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner.

Following Mark LeVine's notion of culture-jamming and Edward Said's notion of contrapuntal reading, such U.S. war resistance poems could be read alongside the poetry of "enemy" nations; from the classic to the folk to the contemporary traditions, the enemy's poetic culture becomes a possible site of resistance, insofar as it demonstrates the humanity of the other. John Balaban's translations of Vietnamese folk poetry during the Vietnam War, Robert Auletta's retranslation of The Persians during the Persian Gulf War; during the Iraq War, Stephen Mitchell's version of Gilagamesh, the anthology Iraqi Poetry Today, and Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard—all create other ways for Americans to listen to and imagine the other. Nor ought the arena of global voicings be limited to poetry, since now we have voices audible from the sites of conflict, such as Salaam Pax's revolutionary day-by-day representation of a civilian voice on the Iraqi "front," or Riverbend's subsequent notes under occupation.

Poets bringing their keen attention to language ought to try not only poems—and thus repeat the embarrassment of the poet-activist in the film I Heart Huckabees (2004), who dragged his poems to every demonstration—but also placard-writing, media press-releases, writing government officials, and songwriting. In terms of songwriting, perhaps only Neil Young—who penned the famous post-Kent State-shooting dirge "Ohio"—could so effectively suture the distance between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War with his recent Living With War (2006). Yet on almost every song this album—gesturing toward the collectivity for whom he wishes to speak—Young's voice is accompanied by a chorus of 100 singers. And now there are dozens of singer-songwriters like protest singer David Rovics, who offers all his music for download free; nearly 500,000 downloadings of his songs had occurred as of this writing. Songs can be the glue of movements, insofar as they crystallize in a pithy phrase and tune some undeniably shared utterance.

As we contribute to the poetics of the peace movement, we must actively become archivists of the movement itself. We need to save everything we write and make, documenting how the texts came into being, when and how they were employed, and how they might be used in the future. Since many books have almost no information about the ephemeral conditions of a poem's making, they create the impression that war resistance poetry comes out of an ahistorical pacifism that lacks pragmatism and melts at the first sign of manufactured imminent threats. If possible, we need to create website archives so that others may benefit from and use our work, bequeath our archive to libraries like the Swarthmore College Peace Collection to allow future scholars access into the dynamic poetics of resistance.

In this making, in this composing, in this movement-building, we know that our actions will not necessarily lead to immediate change, and may never end war; yet, we ought to remember that when we resist war, we are participating in something that many people throughout history have struggled for, even given their lives for. Since war will not soon be sloughed off as a vestigial organ or an archaism, war resistance will survive and persist—even thrive—because poets continue to articulate, question, motivate and sustain it—in the symbolic action of their utterances and in the prose of their daily involvement making resistance. A visionary aspect of the peace movement, war resistance poems valorize the struggle inherent in resistance and argue against the mythologies of pro-war discourse so that, when the next wars come, people will resist the manufacture of public consent. As Denise Levertov writes, "if we restructured the sentence our lives are making," we might find "an energy field more intense than war" where "each act of living [is]/one of its words, each word/a vibration of light...." (MP 58). This is a fight worth writing for, and the lines made and broken are part of "millions of intricate moves," whose sentence might end with the word peace.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Opening Salvo

If every blog has a reason-for-being, Behind the Lines is born out of this book, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941. Like most books, Behind the Lines is meant as a foray into a conversation already underway, between poets and the peace movement--and more broadly, between artists and those involved in social movements.

But why begin a blog when you've already written the book?

Because the conversation continues; unlike a scholarly tome about an author long dead, this book draws back into the past (beginning with The Iliad and then the Second World War), but ends very much in the middle of the Iraq War. The work of poetry and peacemaking does change, as our world changes. I find myself constantly wanting to update the book, as each day goes by (and not because I've spotted a typo here and there).

Yes, the questions may remain strikingly similar, and perhaps they are irresolveable. But perhaps the point is not to resolve the questions, but to write and work through those questions--to live our way, perhaps, into an answer.