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  • What's the Use?Writing Poetry in Wartime
  • Alice Templeton (bio)

In a "Statement of Conscience" in the anthology Poets Against the War, Morton Marcus, a Korean war veteran, offers this apology for the poem he submitted: "The pursuit of this war and our unilateral stance on a number of world issues have left me saddened and depressed. . . . This [submission] is not a poem. These events, especially the administration's war-mongering, have sucked the poetry out of me" (2003, 122). My own experience of dealing with poetry in the consciousness of the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also takes me to a similar brink of artistic depletion. Even as I welcome the general effort of resistance that Poets Against the War represents, as a reader, I feel exhausted by most (though certainly not all) of the poems in the volume. And as a poet, I, like Marcus, suffer a loss of voice, as if the very task of expressing war consciousness has "sucked" the poetry out of me. Like so many [End Page 43] poets before me, I wonder whether my aesthetic, or any lyric-based aesthetic, is at all adequate to the task.

I would like to examine this exhaustion and some energetic alternatives to it in order to understand the particular aesthetic problems that surround writing about war or, from a civilian's perspective, writing in response to wartime. To this end, I will discuss the following texts: Marcus own contribution to Poets Against the War, which makes plain the aesthetic challenges a poet faces in writing about war; Muriel Rukeyser's 1949 prose book The Life of Poetry, in which she explores the uses of poetry in a culture dominated by war; and a selection of poems about war and systematized aggression by several different poets—Forché, Blake, James Wright, Yeats, Levertov, and Celan—that illustrate various non-despairing approaches to writing about war as they reveal some of the aesthetic limits encountered in the task.

Intuitively, it seems that "a poetry of witness," deriving its authority from the poet's immediate involvement, should be truthful enough to vitalize the reader. But when I read Poets Against the War, it is not the poems of firsthand testimony that I find most engaging, but those with formal complexity and a dispassion that comes from personal disinterestedness. In fact, the poems of "authentic" witness, many of which are journalistic in tone and stylistically interchangeable, most often sustain the war-dominated imagination they claim to write against. My question is, then, what kind of lyric aesthetic—what kind of first-person authenticity—does writing in wartime require to be both authoritative and truthful? What is it about writing about war that, apparently, tends to reduce poetic singularity to a monotonous flatness, exhausting language itself? And, finally, if poetic language so seldom exceeds the us/them binaries and brutalities of uncritical rhetoric, then what is the use of writing poetry in the consciousness of wartime?

In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser helps us think about these questions by speaking very directly about poetry's role in a culture dominated by war and profit. Writing in the utilitarian language of the Progressive Era, in what she elsewhere calls "the first century of world wars" (1994, 211), Rukeyser discusses poetry as a vital national resource that is not only underused but actively resisted in America. Poetry invites a "total imaginative response" (1996, 56) reached through the emotions, yet it is constantly devalued as obscure, elitist, or irrelevant to the worldly business at hand. For Rukeyser, this hostility to poetry betrays a deep-seated fear of feeling, a "complicated and civilized repression of the need for images of the real" (26). The social cost of denying the responsiveness poetry asks of us is "the weakness that leads to mechanical aggression . . . turning us inward to devour our own humanity, and outward to sell and kill nature and each other" (41). [End Page 44]

When poetry is indeed put to use in the life of the individual and of the nation, the "totalitarian hardening of modern life as it expresses itself in the state" (1996, 26) becomes painfully evident and intolerable. For Rukeyser...


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