“It’s called attention to the fact that poets are against the war in a big way,” says Jay Parini, an antiwar poet himself, referring to the First Lady’s cancellation of a White House-sponsored poetry event scheduled for this week. There seems a general sense in which antiwar poets seem to assume their right to speak for all poets. After all, they don’t know of any other poets who aren’t against the war — or the projected war, we ought to say, since so far this is history’s most advertised and most opposed war that has yet to take place. But this is just one measure of the insular quality of American poetry today. Our poets have grown so accustomed to doing without any audience to speak of, apart from each other, that they can scarcely conceive of anything called “poetry” of which they are not the virtual proprietors.
Of course that doesn’t stop them from trying to find a loftier explanation for the opposition of “poetry” to Bush’s war. Parini told Martin Arnold of the New York Times that poets knew better about such things “because our language is pure, and politicians abuse language.” This seems a popular view. David Budbill, another of the poetic dissidents told Arnold that “Telling the truth in vivid language committed to humanity is important for people to hear, because politicians don’t.” Someone uncharitably disposed to Mr. Budbill might point out that there is a certain abuse of language in that statement. “Politicians don’t — ” what? The negative of the auxiliary requires a preceding verb that doesn’t exist. I guess he means that they don’t tell the truth in vivid language committed to humanity. If so, in this opinion he agrees with Stanley Kunitz, a former poet laureate, who claimed that war against Iraq “is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.”
What makes “the poetic impulse” any more humanitarian than any other impulse, Kunitz is unprepared to say. He seems to take it for granted that he and his fellow wordsmiths operate on a higher plane of morality than other people. So Martin Arnold remarks that “The common theme among poets seems to be their belief that the beauty and precision of their use of language can make a difference.” Regrettably, he doesn’t quote any examples of this “beauty and precision” of language, so I went to the website of poetsagainstthewar.org to see if I could find a few examples. Most of what there is to be found there is just a new iteration of the by-now familiar “antiwar” tropes involving shattered bodies or dying children. Sam Hamill, for instance, the poet who led the would-be protest of the White House poets writes:
The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.
What children would those be, Sam? He mentions Jerusalem and “the bombs” and that the children are also “praying for it to stop” but the hollow-eyed victims of hunger and thirst do not seem to describe either Israeli or Palestinian children. The point, I think, is that they are generic children and generic war victims. Sam hasn’t really got a single thing to tell us about Iraq except that, in a general sort of way, he deplores the suffering of children. It must be all that poetic humanitarianism in him.
His children are of course imported from past wars, especially Vietnam, or simply imagined, since no actual scenes of atrocities or “collateral damage,” the title of another poem on the site by John Balaban, can be taken from a war that has yet to be fought. But any old war will do. As Adrienne Rich puts it in another contribution “Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.” Yet is it true that the moral issue of war or no-war has nothing to do with the specific circumstances in which war is being proposed? You might think, for example, that there would be at least a nod to the fact that the advent of precision guided munitions since Vietnam has made collateral damage less likely than in any war in history, or to the dead Kurdish children murdered by Saddam Hussein — if only for the sake of telling the truth in vivid language.
But precision seems to be in even shorter supply than beauty. “Let us speak plainly,” writes Hayden Carruth, apostrophizing George W. Bush: “You wish to/murder millions, as you yourself have said,/ to appease your fury.” Huh? When did he say that? Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes that
. . . a vast paranoia sweeps across the land
And America turns the attack on its Twin Towers
Into the beginning of the Third World War
The war with the Third World
And the terrorists in Washington
Are drafting all the young men
And no one speaks
Talk about paranoia! W. S. Merwin cannot even be bothered to break his protest up into lines of verse but writes in prose that “To arrange a war in order to be re-elected outdoes even the means employed in the last presidential election. Mr. Bush and his plans are a greater danger to the United States than Saddam Hussein.”
What planet are these people living on? So far from exhibiting any precision of language, America’s antiwar poets appear not to have the slightest interest in precise characterizations of the political and military alternatives actually under discussion in Washington, New York, and Baghdad. They have simply inherited the rhetoric of protest from the Vietnam era — many of them were engaged in protesting then too — and trotted it out again for application to a situation very nearly as different from the Vietnam War as it could be. The result is rhetorical overkill and considerable collateral damage to the language of political debate, which is in the process of being degraded to the point where it will eventually be useless for anything but the expression of outrage. Such nincompoopery as the equation of Bush with Saddam will simply mean that reasonable and moderate people capable of seeing more than one side to a question simply won’t bother to read poetry at all — any more than they do now. Maybe that’s what the poets really want. It means that “poetry” remains their private domain.
— James Bowman is, among other things, movie critic of The American Spectator and American editor of London’s Times Literary Supplement.