Sometime early in March, 2003 at the time our country invaded the sovereign country of Iraq with George Bush’s Shock and Awe campaign, Laura Bush invited Sam Hamill to a White House symposium on poetry. Hamill, author of thirteen volumes of poems, recipient of several awards, and editor of Copper Canyon Press, asked his poet-friends to send him poems that speak the conscience of the country. He received 11,000 poems.
Hamill learned, after sending off his request for poems, that Mrs. Bush had planned the symposium around the poetry of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson, according to Hamill, “three of the most original and anti-establishmentarian poets in our literature.” (Introduction to Poets Against the War, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003, p. xvii.) “Once the White House got wind of our plans, ‘the symposium,’ Hamill continues, “was promptly ‘postponed.’” Mrs. Bush’s spokesperson relayed this message: “While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.” Hamill retorts, “So much for “Poetry and the American Voice” at this White House. I hadn’t even had time to decline the invitation.” (ibid)
When I purchased Hamill’s anthology, Poets Against the War, and read the words above in the Introduction, I could only think yes and yes and this is great. Laura Bush just doesn’t get it that poems can be a powerful voice against war and suffering. And here was my license to write so-called political poems. I had been wondering how to do it. Just how does a poet write about a decision her elected officials made to deliberately attack another country in a sort of pre-emptive war? I didn’t get to vote on that. Everything about Shock and Awe went against my beliefs, most of my deepest held convictions, as a UU. I can’t blame Laura. What else could she do aware as she was of her husband’s policies as he was poised to invade a country? I was still disappointed. She was a librarian, a reader, and a woman who wanted to have a symposium on three American poets.
I discussed the issue with my mentor and professor at UMKC (University of Missouri at Kansas City). She did not believe there was a genre called ‘political poems.’ She had a definite idea about the difference between protest and Art with a capital “A.” She pointed me to another poem as I held the Poets Against the War book in my hot, trembling hands.
It was a poem about two women dressed in black walking quickly together, talking in brief words, looking to bury a body. The first thing that came to my mind was Antigone trying to bury the body of her slain brother, which was against Greek law. She would sneak out at night and throw dirt on the corpse. I understood that these two women in black could have been from anywhere trying to bury the dead. It was a poem that spoke about war, any war and the dead. Was this restraint enough? Was this enough to let out my anger for the wholesale bombing of innocent people, children, babies, families, whole towns and villages, and the destruction of museum art in the valley called the cradle of civilization? ‘So, a couple of vases got broken’ said William Rumsfield. No images of the dead coming back home allowed on tv. No images of thousands of civilians in hospitals, or body parts scattered in the market place. It was a sanitized war for American consumption. Was poetry a vehicle for my protest, the voice of conscience?
There were several big name poets in the book. Some of their poems seemed to hit the mark and some were almost too oblique. I had noticed, also, some rather bad poems, too. Michelle didn’t make speeches about art, but rather let me figure it out for myself. It’s taken a long time. Years. What I haven’t uncovered still nags at me. So I tried to write, and in the process I wrote some poems just after 911as an exercise with no intention of sending them out. Here’s one:
09 11 01
A few miles from Manhattan
a photographer watched,
said it looked like a huge
orange and black flower.
The genre action film, reality
now, repeated itself as children
watched tv and saw skyscrapers
in city after city explode again
and again as planes flew into them.
Now the wheels of justice
creak into place. Fields of poppies
bow in foothills, on the plains.
An abandoned truck sleeps in the sand.
In the dialogue after 911, parents said children saw the unending sight on television of planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the collapse of the buildings and thought all cities everywhere were destroyed. At the time, on the day itself, it was thought the pilots had come from Iran or Iraq, or Afghanistan where soldiers later hunted for Bin Laden, an Arab. Afghanistan would be our next war. This poem was written one month after September 11th.
10 11 01
begged on the streets of Kabul
before airstrikes began.
Food packets flutter to the ground
before missiles and bombs whistle.
Do you trust the food
from those who deliver death?
Can the packages become
the fishes and loaves?
If it's made in America,
(or Taiwan or China)
it must be so.
Widows and their children were starving, Widows had no way to get food. Yellow packets of food were dropped, a couple of days supplies. Sarcasm. Irony. Which is OK. Irony can be useful. But what did these poems mean? Was it art? Did they make a difference? Or was I merely recording history for myself? The real question emerging seemed to be, when is a poem a rant and when is it an effort aspiring to be art?
A newer poem came out of a promise made at a meeting I attended for people protesting the war in Iraq. The title is:
Eric M. Steffeney, Waterloo, Iowa, 02-23-05
I’ve lost you so many times,
the you I’ve tried to imagine
from the black badge, white words.
I wore the badge of your death
on my green raincoat for years.
No one ever asked about it.
The promise I made, to wear it
until the war, an undeclared
war ended, faded in détritus
of desk drawers, and many ends
to the Iraq war, each new promise
obscure as a lost badge,
prolonged like endless winter
with no spring to believe in.
Today I found the badge again,
the promise alive, the haunt
of your death, the fact of your life.
The war is not really over, Eric.
There’s always another one, fanned,
ready. Again the promise is honored.
This poem’s for you, small act in the face
of constant war played above an altar
of badges. Yet they stand for something,
these black buttons: a prayer, a blessing,
your voice in Iowa trees, your boyhood
under the sun, your memory in my pen,
your name on my breast again.
Was I was getting close to what war meant to those who fought, and their families? Instead of concentrating on sheer protest against government powers and their inane pronouncements and the corporate media, I was focusing on metaphor, real lives, on people affected by this war, or now in my mind, any war. The big picture, the Long Now, humanity: how do we behave, live, mean? War is nothing new. Suffering is nothing new. How does one make art out of all this? Here’s a brief excerpt from a poem in Poets Against the War, by Katha Pollitt from her poem, “Trying to Write a Poem Against the War,” (p. 183).
what good are poems against the war
the real subject of which
so often seems to be the poet’s superior
moral sensitivities? I could
be mailing myself to the moon
or marrying a palm tree,
and yet what can we do
but offer what we have?
Yes. There is that pesky ego I live with. “If you write a poem, put it in a jar. Then go outside to see if the trees are still standing.” I can’t remember who said that but I revisit it from time to time. And Michelle, my mentor would say that every time you write a poem, you go up against the greatest poets who ever lived. Harold Bloom wrote a book on that subject called The Anxiety of Influence. That’s enough to make you want to lay down that pen forever. And it is that way some times. But I have to write. It is a haven, my meditation, my prayer, my path.
Whole books have been written on the definition of art, but my favorite is one from Thomas Merton: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” So that might be one of my yardsticks.
Many poets and artists have been activists. Their work reflects their deepest feelings that match the essence of the seven principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity, compassion in human relations, acceptance of others, the right of conscience, the use of the democratic process, and respect for the web of life we share. Is that political or ethical, philosophical, spiritual? Maybe it’s all of that. I find it hard sometimes to draw the line, but those are some core values I trust. I don’t always live up to them, but in my deepest heart, I know they guide me.
A brilliant artist, Diego Revera, was commissioned by the Rockefeller family to do a mural for the RCA building in New York in the 1930s. There was a portrait of Lenin in the unfinished mural and he was asked to take it out of the painting. He refused and it was covered for everyone to see in that busy place. In the end, Revera destroyed it, which sent the press and critics into an uproar at his protest. (Wikipedia)
The play, The Cradle Will Rock, was sponsored by the Federal Theater Project, an arm of WPA, which provided work for actors during The Great Depression. Orson Welles directed the play, and in 1999 Tim Robbins brought it to the movie screen. Stories of the times of the Great Depression were interwoven in the film “which commented on the role of art and power, and the corresponding appeal of socialism and communism among many intellectuals and working-class people of that time.”
Well known poet Archibald McLeish’s long poem, “ActFive” brought silence. There were no reviews. One critic said it was too close to poetry propaganda and radio drama. McLeish replied: “Take away a poet’s public life by critical edict in a time like ours and what do you leave him? Not, certainly, himself.” (“Archibald McLeish in an Interview,” Benjamin DeMott, in The Paris Review) I listen to both critics and poets and I read poems to learn.
Other activist poets include Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Alicia Ostriker, Mamoud Darwish, and Adrienne Rich to name only a few. The latter, famously declined the National Medal of Arts in protest for then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who voted to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Rich has been called one of the most influential voices in the 20th century for human rights. She makes no apologies for her poems. In an oft quoted essay, Rich mentions Shelly and a phrase from “Queen Mab,” “Man’s evil nature’” that puts the reason for evil and cruelty on humans. She makes of this: “Shelly, in fact, saw powerful institutions, not original sin or ‘human nature’ as the source of human misery.” (Poetry and Commitment, Adrienne Rich, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007) But powerful institutions are run by people.
Robert Bly won the 1967 National Book Award for his book, The Light Around the Body. In his acceptance speech he encouraged people and organizations to protest the Vietnam War, and he explained that he would give his thousand dollar check to the peace movement, and specifically those organizations that worked on draft resistance. His poem “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” in Sleepers Holding Hands, (1973) “was a scathing invective against the War.” Bly had found a way to write through the eyes of mythology, through the lens of the psyche to the dark side of human beings. He conjures up the Great Mother in the middle of the book in prose.
The Swiss scholar Bachofen suggested for the first time
in his book, Mother Right, published in 1861, the idea,
embarrassing to the Swiss, that in every past society known
a matriarchy has preceded the present patriarchy. His evidence
drawn from Mediterranean sources, was massive. (Sleepers)
Bly isn’t saying anything about the committed poet, but in other poems, he certainly touches on “powerful institutions” and how they carry blame for Viet Nam. The difference between Rich’s approach and Bly’s rests not in Shelley’s: “Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower,” for rulers, the clergy and politicians are human, too. Bly does not put blame on human nature. (What does that mean? It sounds like a vague excuse for human beings when they make mistakes we can all accept, like ‘boys will be boys.’) Bly makes the point about our complex humanness, how we are wired, and the choices we make. And he does it with the teeth mother, a figure derived from the human unconscious, a figure, said by Carl Jung, to be within us all in some form or other.
Someone once said we are all capable of murder. Capable. Psychologist/philosopher Carl Jung explains that idea with the Shadow, belonging to each of us. He says we must come to know our darker selves. “ The problem of evil is the problem of the human ego … says James Hollis. And he calls the lowest common denominator, “ institutional Shadows.” (Why Good People Do Bad Things, James Hollis, Gotham Books, New York: 2007.) There is a personal Shadow and a collective Shadow. We often become our own worst enemy, whether through acting on raw emotions or compromising our convictions through quiet complicity. We might recall Robert McNamera, Nixon’s Secretary of State, who made a documentary a few years ago, recanting his aggressive stance in the cold, calculated deaths of so many in the Viet Nam War. Another example: the SS Guards who went out each morning to supervise the starvation, torture, and murder of Jews, and went home each evening to dinner with family, classical music, and play with children. Perhaps a result of the schizophrenic nature the Shadow can produce. Some human beings know of the teeth mother and other archetypes and reject them, rationalize their behavior, or do not recognize it.
W.H. Auden had his troubles, too. He did reach a conclusion about activism and art. He famously said this: “ Poetry makes nothing happen.” He’s right. A poem never stopped a war, nor changed legislation. Yet where do we turn when we share unimaginable grief or joy? To poems, poetry, art. Who can ever forget Teddy Kennedy reading from Romeo and Juliet as he eulogized his assassinated brother? “And when he shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun.” (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, gen. ed., Sylvan Barnet, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972)
Poetry may not make anything happen, but it can be transformative. In her essay, Rich quotes a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 17, 2005): “Writing Poetry Was the Balm That Kept Guantanamo Prisoners from Going Mad.” Rich tells of a commander in the Israeli Defense Force who came upon lines from poet, Yitzhak Laor. The commander’s words:
Reading these lines a moment after a violent month
of reserve duty, which was full of a sense of righteousness
…….was no easy thing. I remember that for one alarming
moment I felt that I was looking at something that I was
forbidden to see. What this thing was, I did not know …
……….Laor’s strong words return to echo in my ears:
‘With such obedience? With such obedience? With
He was looking at something he was ‘forbidden’ to see. Forbidden. Ever since that experience with a poet’s words, the commander refused to serve in the territories and “Ometz Lesarev (Courage to Refuse) was born.” (Rich) The Commander turned pacifist. Prisoners kept their sanity. Poetry can be transformative.
Are activist poets like Don Quixote, battling windmills? Maybe, sometimes. But they follow their convictions and go to jail if need be. Their work is another issue. I’ve read much work by activist poets. I think, rather, they reach for the unreachable star, as, I think all poets do.
I conclude that it’s a matter of balance. UUs welcome uncertainty and doubt, I think because we know, in the end, those two states of mind will lead us to transformation.
I’ll close with one short poem from my latest book, Transplant, titled, “Evening News.” There are no divisions in my book, but there is a small section of war related poems that I hope meet a standard that at least strives to be what we call art. This poem came about after watching evening after evening and Sundays were the worst, of pictures and names of dead soldiers, sailors, marines, which were long lists in the years of the Iraq War.
At the end of the news
come the pictures
and bios too short
to mention a life
or even to say
he was here, she was here.
Proud or funny faces,
often a uniform,
when grieving hands
can’t find that photo.
If you squint
you might see them
playing with a dog,
holding a baby,
perhaps at a graduation
a camera in hand,
or at a reunion
the glass of wine
a few inches from the lips.