Poets Against War continues the tradition of socially engaged poetry by creating venues for poetry as a voice against war, tyranny and oppression.
An Open Letter from Sam Hamill
Call for an International Day of Poetry, September 11
We suffocate among people who think they are absolutely right, whether in their machines or their ideas. And for all those who can live only in an atmosphere of human dialogue, the silence is the end of the world. — Albert Camus
I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. —Walt Whitman, "Democratic Vistas"
I go in fear of those for whom belief is fervent, for whom belief is absolute. I have lived through generations of war, through the misery and slaughter of countless millions of innocent people. Almost invariably, this floodtide of bloodshed has been authored in the name of god and justice. The god of George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Ariel Sharon is the same god. And yet when I turn to the holy scriptures of their respective religions, I find the same prohibition against murder, the same call for genuine compassion, for lives of non-violence.
I admit that I am not a believer. Nevertheless, I have been deeply touched by the teachings of Jesus, of Muhammed, of the great rabbis and monks and followers of these traditions who have had the courage to take to heart the practice of compassion. When I founded Poets Against the War in January, 2003, much was made of my remark that I felt a wave of nausea upon reception of an invitation to the White House the morning after reading of Mr. Bush’s proposed plans for a "shock and awe" attack on Iraq. In my defense I can say only that I remain baffled by anyone who is not utterly repulsed by the idea of annihilating whole cities, by the suggestion that we may somehow regain our humanity or any sense of justice through the employment of cluster bombs and smart bombs followed by waves of infantry.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has bombed some forty-two countries, and with each devastating bomb, the American people have been told that our government has taken such action in the name of decency and democracy and justice. "God," we are told again and again, "is on our side." And yet the Pope beseeched this administration not to attack Iraq. Clergy from around the world begged for patience from this administration, begged for genuine dialogue with this administration, an administration that has publicly announced its religious convictions, its absolute fervor and absolute belief. Their pleas were met first with a resounding silence, and then with missiles and bombs and bloodshed that has now entered its second year with no end in sight.
Mr. Bush and his co-conspirators may call themselves Christians, but they violate almost every tenet of Christian conduct. They practice neither love nor compassion. They try to "justify" torture. That they murder and lie and are hypocrites is established fact. That they and their corporate co-conspirators profit on a grand scale (both politically and economically) from the gross human misery and bloodshed they author is also beyond question. Nor can we doubt for even a minute that their ultimate plan is to dominate and exploit the whole world under the blueprint of their Project for the New American Century. Among the worst of their co-conspirators we must include a thoroughly cowed and "embedded" body of American journalists for whom truth is a relative and sometime thing, for whom the merest veneer of patriotism is a greater force that healthy skepticism and devotion to truth and, ultimately, humanitas. The American media are owned and operated by corporations who profit from this and every war.
Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon, Mr. Arafat and Mr. bin Laden share a religious fervor and certitude that trivializes the innocent lives of those they annihilate in the name of justice. They are brothers in evil certainty that authors gross violence. Their only response to terror is to elevate levels of terror. Each has chosen vengeance and the horrors of human slaughter over the forces of decency and dialogue. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."
"Blesséd are the peacemakers." I was taught that in the original Hebrew, the commandment reads, "Thou shalt not murder." I’m told that the true Christian and Muslim and Jew alike are taught, "Love thy enemy as thyself." Or as a brother. If we murder every murderer, there will be no one left.
I believe there are vital lessons to be learned from poetry, indeed that poetry can be a path to enlightenment. I think often during these war-torn days of the great courage it took for poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and William Everson to reject the politics of annihilation during World War II (during which I was born), and to choose imprisonment or nonviolent service over obedience to the mere appearance of patriotism. The true American patriot is one who defends the Constitution against the likes of Mr. Bush, Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney and their ilk, one who understands exactly why the first of our guaranteed rights is the right to speak out. That right and all others come with responsibilities every poet should understand.
We all live our lives by those few well-chosen words we stand by. I draw inspiration from the courage of Albert Camus as he spoke against war in the very midst of World War II, as well as against capital punishment. I think of the courage of Gandhi, the courage of Martin Luther King. And when Mr. Bush decries leaked photographs of the flag-draped coffins of America’s young men and women being returned from the front, I draw inspiration from the heart-rending courage of the mother of Emmett Till, a young man savagely beaten to death by white racists long ago in Mississippi. She demanded that his coffin be left open at his funeral, his shattered, ravaged body on full display "because," she said, "I want people to understand exactly what transpired here."
We poets have been attacked for the stance we have taken. We have been attacked for speaking out. We have been accused of being unpatriotic because we do not believe that compounding murder is the best possible response to murder. It grieves us to see our nation’s (or any nation’s) children turned into killers before they have had the opportunity to study war and its vicious and inevitable consequences.
Every war produces a My Lai, an Abu Ghraib. And we are treated to speeches justifying torture. But it is not merely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war between Israelis and Palestinians that motivates me now. These, I believe, are only symptoms of the devastating disease, the malady that causes a nation’s government to treat the suffering and annihilation of human beings as a trifling on the road to power and profit. As long as we permit our government to be rented out to the highest bidders, democracy and peace will remain mere ideals. We make the world safe for global capitalism at the expense of our own well-being.
I believe we can do better. I believe Poets Against the War stands for a great deal more than just poets opposing another illegal and immoral war. I believe every poet’s struggle to come to a truth through a few fortunately chosen words is good medicine, and I believe that doubting and questioning are the very foundation of any patriotism that rises above mere nationalism.
The many faces and voices of poetry in the world connect us all to one great family. The uses of our art are countless, but the political remains one of our responsibilities. Poetry is one of a thousand paths to a more enlightened life. I want to know what poetry was in the lives of the prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, what poetry is in the lives of their torturers. What poetry is in the life of a man who slits the throat of another to make a political advertisement? Are there verses Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Ashcroft know by heart?
Yes, Mrs. Bush, and yes, Mr. Gioia, poetry is political. Being a citizen of the world is political. That’s one of several obvious reasons why we believe poetry really does matter.
We ask the poets of the world to join us in making an international day of poetry on September 11. We ask you to think not only of the innocent victims of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but also of the innocent victims in the U.S.-sponsored over-throwing of the Allende government in Chile and of the lives lost in the Attica prison riots, also events that happened on a September 11th in their respective years.
-- Sam Hamill