Comment by Sam Hamill
In what country am I living? Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Our guy's lighting matches. Does anyone give a damn about gulags or torture or massive eavesdropping on such "threats" as the Quakers or students for nonviolence? Does anyone object to the shredding of our Constitution? Does anyone find "the war on terror" to be a declaration of perpetual war and a march into fascism, and does anyone find that idea appalling? Does anyone object to energy policies written by energy companies that turn record-breaking profits while the citizenry shells out hundreds of billions of dollars for an immoral war and billions more in the wake of Katrina? War profiteers make war. But the blood stains each of us on every side.
Our Constitution was not written to provide comfort in times of relative peace, only to be chucked any time the commander-in-chief wants to wage a war or eavesdrop on opposing opinion. That's why so many previous presidents have gone to so much trouble to lie and manipulate information—to get us into war.
In the wake of September 11, our government failed us. In fear and rage, Congress turned over power to an utterly incompetent, arrogant, reactionary administration that lies and threatens other nations and undermines our rights and our Constitution. It defends torture and secret prisons and "disappearing" people. It spreads a campaign of fear in order to advance a fascist agenda: consolidation of power in the White House and an imperial agenda abroad. More than a few Iraqis have compared Bush's tactics with Saddam's.
Congress failed to uphold its Constitutional obligation to check this power-grabbing and to defend said Constitution in the wake of September 11. Congress fiddled and squirmed while Bush burned.
If any good can come of this terrible war, it will come on the shoulders of the Iraqi people. A civil war could create chaos that could last for decades. Even under the best of circumstances, the Iraqi people will remember Abu Ghraib for a thousand years. "Guantánamo" will ring like an odious bell. That's simply the nature of a deep cultural memory, something our shallow government too frequently fails to comprehend.
Bush is not our Nero, but our born-again Caligula—if not quite a godlet, certainly a dimestore messiah. Expect a national medal for his horse.
In South America, September 11 is remembered as the date in 1973 when Kissinger and crew overthrew the duly elected government of Chile . Is that how Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize?
One thing we as poets can do is build stronger intercultural bridges. The better we know and talk with one another, locally and internationally, the more difficult misunderstanding becomes. Poetry is an important bridge. Our poetry absolutely blossomed in the last century, in a very large part thanks to the influence of poetry from all over the world. That cross-pollination is essential to us and to our allied poets abroad. We need to know what every "they" have to say. We need to reaffirm ancient values and the practice of compassion. We need to remind people lost in materialist culture that, yes, poetry matters—just as it always has. Maybe even more, because it crosses boundaries more efficiently than ever before. And the real subject of poetry is character.
Now is the time for us to insist that U.S. troops be brought home and put to work on the crumbling infrastructure of our own country, time for us to insist that our elected representatives defend our rights against the constant encroachment of the White House.
In February, I will visit our colleague Esteban Moore in Buenas Aires, where he is founding a Poets Against War group and hopes to be on-line with their web site soon. We expect other South and Central American countries will join us this year.
(These travels, like my recent visit to New Zealand and others, are not paid from Poets Against War contributions, but from speaking fees and/or my own pocket or other assistance. Contributions go to web site expenses and a very few other operating costs. That's why we don't often send requests. We do, however, need donations, of course. And there are other considerations such as, "Do members want t-shirts or lapel pins," and etc. Feedback is welcome. )
The Bengali poet Prabal Kumar Basu, whom I met in New Zealand, is organizing Poets Against War in India and will provide us with some background in a coming issue.
We can be part of the solution or we can be part of the problem. The best thing we can do today is to encourage poets in every country to join with us. All it takes for a new country to join is a web site, a loose cooperative group and a few volunteers, all opposing war. We'd like each member organization to provide us with a small sample of their poems (including English translation with original), and an essay for background—cultural, literary, political, poetical. When we want to know what's up with poets in Argentina, our Poets Against War site will provide an introduction and a link.
Poetry is part of the solution only inasmuch as we can make it part of the solution, and that begins by working together (as well as alone) to embody peace and understanding through the practice of our avocation. Working together we can help find justice for the tortured and murdered young poet of Peru, James Oscco Annamaría, and for the young mother in Afghanistan, Nadia Anjuman, who was beaten to death. Our brother poet, our sister poet. We share something elemental in our system of values: we are poets together in a brutal world and we are struggling alone to make peace together, despite —and in celebration of— our linguistic and cultural differences.
For whom do we speak if not for the poet scratching a few lines with a ragged finger nail on a prison wall, for the poet secreting away the poem that could mean a death penalty, for the young poet just discovering the breathtaking power and music of a word?
Speaking of responsibilities: one of our greatest allies in Congress, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Seattle, finds himself in the midst of an enormous legal struggle centered on the First Amendment and our right to know. It's a convoluted story best read in full at < mcdermottforcongress.com>
Rep. McDermott was among those who welcomed and listened to us when W. S. Merwin, Terry Tempest Williams and I presented 13,000 poems against the war to Congress in March, 2003. He, like others of our supporters, has entered some of our poems in the Congressional Record. He listened to us and he joined with us. I've always admired him as one of only a handful of truly bright lights in Congress. Getting to know him personally has been an honor. He has true integrity and genuine humility—two of the rarest qualities in any government. His legal battle over this Republican vendetta (he helped bring down Newt Gingrich) will run into the millions. Please visit his web page: http://www.mcdermottforcongress.com/
A donation to his defense is a donation to the defense of our Constitution and our right to know and to speak. And it's good to stand beside an ally.
In an eloquent and insightful ZNet commentary <http://www.zmag.org/reactionscalam.htm>, "After the War," Howard Zinn writes, "I would argue that the end of the Vietnam war enabled the people of the United States to shake the ‘war syndrome,' a disease not natural to the human body. They could be infected once again, and September 11 gave the government that opportunity. Terrorism became the justification for war. Terrorism remains a frightening phenomenon all over the world. But war cannot stop terrorism, because war is itself terrorism, breeding rage and hate, as we are seeing now. War is a substitute for getting at the roots of terrorism, and the United States has turned to it, because to deal with fundamentals rather than symptoms would require radical changes in policy. The war in Iraq has exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘war on terrorism.' I don't believe that our government will be able to do once more what it did, after Vietnam —prepare the population for still another plunge into violence and dishonor." Zinn's commentary should be read in full. And Znet is a wonderful resource.
It is right for Poets Against War to address those fundamentals, those policies that endanger other nations and our civil liberties, those policies that exploit poverty and poison the planet while enriching the arms manufacturers and energy corporations. If there must be war in our future, we should address the moral ramifications of those who profit from its instigation and prolong its conduct. Poetry can and should address the "disease" that makes war possible, as it has attempted to do since Homer and the Poetry Classic of ancient China and before.
Success? Success is one man laying down the gun. Success is one human being finding one breath of insight or solace or compassion through a poem. Success is a way of life, not a product.
Tides begin to change one drop of water at a time.
In a wonderful book, Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes: "What certain poets of trauma intuit is that their old self cannot survive the suffering it has experienced without succumbing. Thus necessity permits and compels imagination to create a new self, a self strong enough or different enough to move through and beyond the trauma and its aftermath."
Poets do speak for the conscience of their countries in various ways, and our country is bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, our country is inflicting terrible wounds on the world. Following the way of poetry, introspective meditation meets social conscience and engagement, and we grope in the dark for a light. We place a great trust in words. We stand beside our words. And yet none of us can know from where the next poem flows, nor where it will lead. Nevertheless, through long practice, we learn to listen to an inner voice as each poem begins to invent its author.
Inasmuch as our work demands the reinvention of ourselves, we must also thereby reinvent our country. And the world. Imagine a world without war.
Sam Hamill's selected poems, Almost Paradise, was recently published by Shambhala Publications.