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Behind the Lines

War Resistance Poetry on the American Home Front since 1941

Philip Metres

Publication Year: 2007

Whether Thersites in Homer’s Iliad, Wilfred Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” or Allen Ginsberg in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” poets have long given solitary voice against the brutality of war. The hasty cancellation of the 2003 White House symposium “Poetry and the American Voice” in the face of protests by Sam Hamill and other invited guests against the coming “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq reminded us that poetry and poets still have the power to challenge the powerful.
    Behind the Lines investigates American war resistance poetry from the Second World War through the Iraq wars. Rather than simply chronicling the genre, Philip Metres argues that this poetry gets to the heart of who is authorized to speak about war and how it can be represented. As such, he explores a largely neglected area of scholarship: the poet’s relationship to dissenting political movements and the nation.
    In his elegant study, Metres examines the ways in which war resistance is registered not only in terms of its content but also at the level of the lyric. He proposes that protest poetry constitutes a subgenre that—by virtue of its preoccupation with politics, history, and trauma—probes the limits of American lyric poetry. Thus, war resistance poetry—and the role of what Shelley calls unacknowledged legislators—is a crucial, though largely unexamined, body of writing that stands at the center of dissident political movements.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-x

"Where is their home?" This was my question as a four-year-old,when my mother and father explained that we were sponsoring a Vietnamese family, refugees from the war, and bringing them home. My father, who served in Vietnam as a U.S. naval advisor on a South Vietnamese patrol gun-boat, and my mother, a lifelong pacifist, navigated the maze of tents stretch-...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-24

Is it time to bring the troops home? The first war protestor in literature, Thersites, proposes precisely this solution to the king's abuse of power in the The Iliad, that classic of war literature and cornerstone of Great Books curricula. The singularly exceptional Thersites, who pokes his shaggy head into the epic poem to become its only voice of dissent, is ...

PART 1: World War II: The Poetics of Conscientious Objection

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1. Robert Lowell’s Refusals: Memories of War Resistance in Prison

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pp. 27-49

In his biography of Robert Lowell, Ian Hamilton tells an anecdote that still adorns discussions of Lowell’s poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke.” During his arraignment on the charge of refusing to register for the draft, Lowell spent a few days in West Street Jail, where the infamous Louis “Czar Lepke” Buchalter awaited execution on death row. Lepke, a notorious mafia gangster who led a gang of professional killers known as “Murder Incorporated,” had...

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2. William Stafford’s Lost Landmarks: The Poetics of Pacifism and the Limits of Lyric

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pp. 51-71

Though William Stafford is best known for his poetry, his largely forgotten memoir of his years as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, Down in My Heart (1947), anticipates the central questions of his pacifist and utopian poetry. How to resist war in one's writing and yet avoid the Manichean us/them discourse that perpetuates war? How to pledge alle-...

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3. William Everson and the Fine Arts Camp: From Utopian Hopes to a Chronicle of Division

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pp. 73-92

In its February 1940 issue, Poetry magazine published “The Sign,” with a note from the author, a migrant worker named William Herber: “I am writing from a camp fire near a small town between Bakersfield and Tulare, Calif. I have had no address in three years . . . have just finished working the fruit in Imperial...

PART 2 : Vietnam: The War on the Homefront

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4. Bringing It All Back Home: From Anthology to Action

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pp. 95-126

In a 2003 TV advertisement for Tommy Hilfiger, the rousing opening line of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”—“Some folks are born to raise the flag / Ooo they’re red white and blue . . .”—is sliced away from its subsequent irony: “And when the band plays Hail to the Chief / Oh they’ll point the cannon at you.” With that revision, the advertisement reduces the blistering...

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5. Denise Levertov’s Distant Witness: The Politics of Identification

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pp. 127-151

Perhaps no poet during the Vietnam War era experienced as steep a rise to notoriety, and then such a precipitous fall from critical grace, as Denise Levertov. Levertov, the most persistent and voluminous poetic documenter of war resistance during the Vietnam era, may owe this turn of fortunes to the way in which her poetry relied so heavily on the specularity of postromantic lyric, and...

PART 3: The Persian Gulf War: Protest and the Postmodern

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6. The Gump War: Lyric Resistance Poetry in Crisis

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pp. 155-177

In Forrest Gump, the Oscar-winning Hollywood film of 1994, the cognitively disabled but magical protagonist is invited to Washington DC after having saved a handful of his platoon during a surprise attack in Vietnam. Some antiwar protestors, in full countercultural regalia, assume that the bystander Gump...

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7. June Jordan’s Righteous Certainty: Poetic Address in Resistance Poetry

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pp. 179-195

Despite the fact that racial minorities, immigrants, and working people bear a disproportionate burden in times of war, with higher degrees of participation and casualties than their white counterparts, and despite the fact that the trajectory of war resistance has moved parallel to, and often in symbiosis with, the Civil Rights struggle, many accounts of war resistance suffer...

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8. Barrett Watten’s Bad History: A Counter-Epic of the Gulf War

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pp. 197-216

The debate between Baudrillard and Norris (and Chomsky) outlined in chapter 6 renders all too clearly that the Gulf War caused a crisis for intellectuals and artists alike, struggling in the shifting sands of the new warfare to find their ground; the war’s televisual representation—i.e., missile-eye camera perspectives, obfuscatory debriefing sessions, the blitzkrieg speed, and the general absence of physical evidence of conflict (the dead themselves)— nullified”...


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Proliferations: Sites of Resistance since September 11, 2001

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pp. 219-236

Though there have been single acts far more devastating than what happened on September 11th—the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind—the September 11 terror acts were different, even unique. These attacks were the first domestic scenes of warfare that the United States...


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pp. 237-253


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pp. 255-272


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pp. 273-282

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297380
E-ISBN-10: 1587297388
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459989
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459983

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 607669182
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Behind the Lines

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Subject Headings

  • Protest poetry, American -- History and criticism.
  • Anti-war poetry, American -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- 21st century -- History and criticism.
  • War in literature.
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