Can a Poem Stop a War?Geoffrey Gardner
The other day a painter friend of mine said, “A painting can stop a war.” Aside from her less frequent paintings and drawings of trees and mountainscapes, my friend is primarily a non-objective painter, so she didn’t have anything like agitprop art in mind. She really meant paintings generally and more specifically her own paintings, and she’s anything but grandiose or an egomaniac.
The two other artists present —interestingly both are figurative painters— denied and scoffed, voicing all the obvious objections emblematic of the cynicism and powerlessness we all sometimes fall into when we confront the possibilities of what we might do, separately and collectively, to bring injustice and war —most especially the present American war in Iraq— to an end. When I’d heard quite enough of their denials, I found myself saying, “I think it’s true that a painting can stop a war in very much the same sense it’s true that the prayers of the contemplatives in all the monasteries everywhere preserve the world from being an even more violent and unjust place than it is.” I hardly need to mention that this provoked our two friends to vehemence about the dangers of all dogma and the part played in the violence of the world by institutional religions and fanatical religious groups. Everything they said was true, but none of it had anything to do with what I’d said and what I meant.
But what did I mean? Was I just talking through my high-minded hat, mouthing an empty sentimentality or some kind of foolish, spiritualistic airy-faery? I don’t think so.
Contemplation is no more than a particular range of awareness just about everybody enters, however briefly and ineffectively, at least some of the time and that the trained monk actively seeks to enter as often and for as long and as effectively as possible. Contemplation can be, then, both quite ordinary and highly specialized. It is the purposeful withdrawal inward from active engagement with the world to discover order among the multifarious, often confusing and chaotic data of experience. Insofar as it has one, the goal of contemplation is to arrive at an inward point of calm from which a total vision of the world’s complexities can be apprehended and then lived by “right relationship” when active contact with the world is renewed.
“Right relationship” suggests that contemplation is ethical at its core. This is not a matter of rules imposed on the person from without or willfully imposed by persons as if against themselves. For the contemplative, ethics are a lived relationship to the world and to others, a matter of practice and habitual performance, making real the principles we find wherever there is a contemplative tradition, for example, the five yamas of yoga, the five precepts of Buddhism, even the Ten Commandments of the Bible. The contents are invariable and universal: non-violence, non-stealing, non-covetousness, truth telling and the avoidance of physical vice. All are principles routinely and collectively violated by nations and, often as not, individually breached by the power-wielding leaders and officials of nations and other collective organizations
Followed communally, the contemplative life rests on the shared labor and economy, the shared meals, shared prayer and the shared world view of its community. At best, the consequences of its habits and good works radiate out beyond the contemplative community into the wider world. Historically it has been one exemplar of all communal life at optimum, and it provides one of our major metaphors for the life of a peaceable human kingdom.
Precious few monks, I’m sure, will read what I’ve just written. And if they do, I’m equally sure they would know ways to say all of it much more clearly and sharply to the point. Instead, I’m writing for poets and serious readers of poetry seeking ways to oppose war and injustice. What does all this have to do with us?
All art working emerges from a state similar in some respects to contemplation, and the products of that work attempt to lead their audiences back to a similar state, its calm poise and potential for “right relationship” and renewed contact with the world. Addressing an audience, artists are always actively engaged with the world both in what their work is about and in their handling of the materials of their various media: words, concepts and images; canvas and color; wood, stone and steel; the movement of bodies in space; the tones and pitches of sound and the instruments that produce them; and so forth
The task of art is to show us the artist’s vision of what happens in life, how it happens and what it means. It is not —at least not primarily— to convince us of anything. All art —poetry no more nor less than any other art— is focused on revealing how things come to be and pass away and what remains, so that we can glimpse meaning and value within the welter of facts we live with every day. It is one of the most important means by which we learn what the world is and how we can guide our lives within it and among others.
By these lights, I think all poetry, however limping or limpid, small or great, challenges us, either explicitly or by implication, to make sense of and respond to the broadest and most disastrous public events of our fleeting historical moment. This is obviously true of outraged protest poems or of complex works that attempt to untangle political meanings directly, for example, poems like Pound’s Cantos, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Richard III or the hundreds of others we all can name and are familiar with. But I think the same is true, though in slighter ways and at greater removes, for all poems, no matter how pedestrian, frail or narrowly apolitical they may seem. They all present for us the poet’s vision of what matters most, what is of value and must be preserved and what “right relationship” means for how we are to act in the world. A society can survive only so long as the light of contemplation and its products continue to live within it, radiating out to touch everybody.
It’s in this sense that a poem —or a painting— can stop a war. This is all the more true because no poem exists by itself in isolation. Poems spring into the world by resonance with it and out of the web of all the poems their authors know. And much of the horizon of the world where each poem lands is composed of all the poems its hearers and readers already know. Call and response, acceptance and rejection, genesis and influence, tradition and counter-tradition, stasis and revolution —ultimately words become deeds before subsiding back into words and then silence again. Every poem and all poems radiate out into the world beyond poetry, striving to ground and build a more articulate community by encouraging all of us to respond —according to our own best vision of “right relationship” and “right action”— to the challenges of violence and injustice the world confronts us with continually.
The relationship of poetry to the wider world, though never simple or easy, often is surprisingly mundane, quite down to earth. Consider the troubling but inspiriting case of Maxwell Corydon Wheat. Wheat is an eighty-year-old poet, naturalist and teacher, a former Marine and first the rejected and now the popularly selected poet laureate of Nassau, Long Island, the wealthiest county in New York State and the sixth richest county in the country. A year ago, the Nassau Legislature was pressed to name the county’s first poet laureate within a year. The local poets chose Wheat, called Max by everyone, to read his poetry to the legislature at the time of the vote. Back then Max wasn’t interested in applying to wear the laurels himself. “This isn’t what I’m into or about.”
By some alchemy I don’t know —though I suspect it had something to do with the encouragement and urging of his many friends and admirers— Max finally did apply for the honors and the non-paying job along with thirteen others. Basing their decision on Max’s poetry, his mentoring of young poets, his work over many years to expand the audience for poetry in Nassau County and on his love for Nassau’s flora and fauna, the expert selection committee unanimously chose to recommend Max to the legislature as the county’s first poet laureate.
But before the recommendation came to the legislature’s Government Services Committee for approval on June 4 of this year, a Republican appointee to the selection committee apparently slid a few of Max’s poems under the noses of some Republican big wigs in the legislature. Most at issue was Max’s 2004 book, Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace. The book includes a poem called “Torture” with subsections titled “Saddam Hussein Regime” and “George W. Bush Administration.” This and other poems in the book shocked Republican committee members into high political mode, and the vote to appoint Max as poet laureate was removed from the calendar.
When twenty of Max’s angry supporters showed up at the meeting anyway, the committee agreed to put the matter back on its calendar. The Republicans went on the attack at once, predictably and sententiously attempting to embarrass Democrats by blustering about how Max’s poems sapped support for U.S. troops and were disrespectful to them. Committee Democrats parried the Republican thrust by sagging into muteness. Later they said Max had become too controversial to vote for. The final vote against Max was 6-1. Only Democrat Wayne Wink of Roslyn voted to support the selection panel’s expert judgment. All this was the troubling part of the affair.
The inspiriting part is that the debacle sparked stories and editorials in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsday, The Progressive and elsewhere. The journalism also quoted a lot from Max’s poetry. One poem is a praise song for the birds and animals of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under threat from “Oilman George W. Bush’s Hollow Eye Sockets” which “vent black liquid.” The poem shows Max to be a poet of fact who often likes to let the actual speak for itself. Two other poems, “Iraq” and “Brute Force is Going to Prevail Today,” show the same. Both of these are collage of quotations with commentary. The first is about “Less-than-Elected Vice-President Cheney” and “Less-than-Elected President Bush” and their minions, plotting out the Iraq war. The second concentrates on Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy a kind of “Hannibal with General George Patton appreciation of words,” who philosophizes, “The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over . . . /It’s over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam/has flies crawling across his eyeballs.”
But there’s more to Max’s poetry than this. His best poem is “Coming Home” which sets in opposition to Little George’s bellicose war propaganda a long recitation of facts about the American war dead returning home “In catacombs of military transports . . . “
30-year-old Army Private First Class
24-year old Coast Guard Petty Officer
A father, a mother grieve for their only son, an Army Specialist.
The poem is a long, solemn prayer of mourning for the shattered lives of the dead and for their families and communities smashed and fragmented by this mindless, exploitative war. But Max’s compassion is not stirred only by home truths like these. It extends to the suffering of non-Americans too. At the end of “Iraq” he writes:
Think of the Oklahoma bombing.
It seems it was Peter Schmitt, the leader of the Nassau legislature’s Republican minority, who engineered the parliamentary gambit in the Government Services Committee. He told Newsday he thought the whole affair was a diversion by Democrats. “I wish they’d spend as much time worrying about the deficit as they spend on things like birds and poet laureates.” All that Schmitt cared to say of Max was that his poems “condemn the troops fighting for America in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s absolutely tragic.” The contrast of this with what Max’s poems really are like was stark and obvious to everybody who wasn’t trying to work the issue for narrow political advantage. On-the-street interviews showed many people in Nassau to be surprisingly eloquent and thoughtful about poetry, the war and the relationship between the two. Everybody interviewed found no problem at all in distinguishing between support for the war and support for the troops. No one thought politics should interfere with selection of a poet laureate. Many with friends or family members in Afghanistan and Iraq said they thought the most efficient way to support the troops was to bring them home.
Best of all was the response of Max’s friends and admirers. As soon as the legislative farce was over, they took the matter into their own hands and set about planning to crown Max themselves with the laurels they believe he’s earned. On June 24, more than one hundred bird watchers, poets and readers of poetry gathered in Roslyn Harbor at Cedarmere, the homestead of William Cullen Bryant, where Max often leads poetry and nature walks. The crowd included members of the expert selection committee and Representative Wink, the only county legislator who’d voted for Max. A simple ceremony was performed with speeches honoring the poet and naming him laureate. Max intends to serve by doing just exactly what he would have done if he’d been officially appointed by the legislature, namely, making “Nassau County an open classroom for poetry.” This is no different from what Max has always done. Government had vanished from the scene, and the right of decision and action had returned to where it belongs, right back into the hands of everybody most interested and most concerned.
Reading about l’affaire Max has reminded me of something Adrienne Rich said in these columns back last winter. She wrote, “I’m both a poet and one of the ‘everybodies’ of my country.” This is true of all of us, poets and readers of poetry alike. As “everybodies” of our country we suffer from its ills and from the wrongs it does to others —the others among us and the others who live their lives elsewhere. We also benefit enormously from the historically unusual privileges of wealth, time and social ease so many of us enjoy. Like everybody else we are responsible for the damage our country does. This has nothing to do with blame. Feelings of guilt are a mighty —perhaps the mightiest—bar to valor and “right action.” Rather, just like everybody else, we are responsible for doing the most we can to stop the damage our country does according to what we do best.
Because we are poets, what we do best follows from the natural power of our gifts of language. This has nothing to do with word spinning, winning debates or making pretty talk. As poets we are hungry for truth, truth finding and truth telling. We sometimes stumble into rare insight, seeing what others haven’t yet seen. We have gifts of rhetoric, metaphor and wit, the passion for detail and the ability to construct an argument, which after all is more like than unlike constructing a poem. We may love our times of solitude, but we also thrive on contact with the materials of the world and on contact with other people. We are practical: we have good noses for what works and like it when we find it. And we all, at least in some ways, are fearless. Because of all this we also have lots of energy. In addition to the poems we invent, how can we use these gifts to allow what we have learned from poetry to ripple out into the world against injustice and war?
Let me make one very mundane suggestion. The powers I’ve just named suit poets perfectly to become writers of letters to the editor of their local newspapers and the other journals they read. Writing a letter to the editor on a subject important to us and important to everybody else, forces us to the kind of cogency we all too often reserve for poetry alone. The results can be startling with respect to the freshness of language and the new insight of understanding we discover. Writing of this kind also forces the poet to address and make contact with a far more general audience than he or she usually writes for: the audience of everybody else. The consequences of this can only be good for everyone. Things not said enough or never articulated before get said and spark new voices and new insights. Others respond, sharpening and deepening the public discourse. Sometimes the papers themselves improve as we know they must. Sometimes public officials are forced to respond. In my experience, this is always salutary because the engagement often —as in the case of Representative Schmitt during l’affaire Max— serves to unmask the official to others as the fool or knave he or she is or at least to reveal the hollowness of what he or she has to say. Minds change, not because we have won debaters points, but because we have increased understanding, our own and everybody else’s.
There are many inspiring historical examples of this kind of practice. I’ll mention only one. The poet, Paul Goodman was a tireless letter writer with a very wide scope over very many years. In the early sixties, he filled a book with his letters and called it “The Society I Live In Is Mine.” Forty years later, the book is still full of wit, insight, passion and strong argument, all as pertinent and fresh now as when the letters were written. The book is out of print but not all that very difficult to find. In the introduction, Goodman wrote:
In Occasional letters, an author’s style and thought are likely to be his
When Goodman uses the word “citizens” here, I think he means exactly what Adrienne Rich meant when she wrote “everybodies.” A letter to the editor, say one letter a year, might seem like a very small drop falling into a huge, roiling ocean. But think: some fifteen thousand or more poets have contributed poems to the Poets Against War website. What if each of us wrote at least one fearless, trenchant letter to the editor each year?
The thought of what America —the thought of what our country— would be like if our newspapers printed more than fifteen thousand freshly insightful, passionate, witty, and powerfully argued letters each year troubles —and delights!— my sleep.
In this way too a poem can stop a war.