"Poetry and the Peace Movement: Useable Pasts, Multiple Futures"
excerpted from Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941:
Forthcoming from University of Iowa Press, 2007
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.
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.
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.
Sources and Resources
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Baraka, Amiri. "Somebody Blew Up America."
Bly, Robert, and David Ray, eds. A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War. Madison, MN: American Writers Against the Vietnam War; distributed by the Sixties Press, 1966.
"Circulars: Poets, Artists, and Critics Respond to U.S. Global Policy." Brian Kim Stefans.
Ehrhart, W.D. Interview with author. July 10, 2005.
Everson, William. The Residual Years: Poems 1934-1948. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1997.
Everts, Philip P. "Where the Peace Movement Goes When it Disappears." The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. November 1989. 26-30.
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I Heart Huckabees. Dir. David O. Russell. 2004.
Investigation of a Flame. Dir. Lynne Sachs. 2001.
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