- News of War: Civilian Poetry, 1936–1945 by Rachel Galvin
Why does the immediacy of a crisis prompt some to rhetorically distance themselves from the present moment, for example, through an appeal to a historical event? The global COVID-19 crisis has invited analogies not only with past pandemics but also with the experience of world war. Addressing the British people in April 2020, for instance, Queen Elizabeth II invoked her “very first broadcast . . . made in 1940.” However false the analogy, this is not the first twenty-first-century crisis in which comparisons to world war have been drawn. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated and cited online. The poem resonated with many at that moment of crisis not just because of the evocation of New York City and the September date but because 9/11, like Germany’s invasion of Poland, seemed to herald a new era of global conflict. So observes Rachel Galvin in her wide-ranging [End Page 867] epilogue to News of War: Civilian Poetry, 1936–1945. In the epilogue, Galvin shows how, after 9/11, a number of US poets turned to the example and poetic strategies of Auden and other noncombatant modernist writers. Twenty-first-century writers, Galvin argues, found in modernist civilian poetry a possible solution to a once again urgent problem: how to write about a conflict that one experiences only at a distance and largely through the mediation of the press?
In News of War, Galvin focuses on six poets: César Vallejo, Auden, Wallace Stevens, Raymond Queneau, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein. All six wrote about wars through which they lived but in which they did not fight: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Second World War. In the work of the six poets, Galvin pinpoints a shared “ethical” worry about their own lack of “legitimacy” in comparison with those who experienced the war firsthand. This worry “produces a traceable set of formal strategies” (10). The poets deploy strategies that draw into question language’s ability to represent the unrepresentable horror of war and that highlight their own distanced relation to the wars they describe. Their poetry thus functions as both antonym and analogy to the daily news of war.
Through this central insight and detailed and illuminating readings, Galvin recasts our understanding of the wartime writing of all six poets. On the one hand, Galvin shows how poetic modes that seem to eschew political engagement in favor of rhetorical play are often, in fact, far more complexly engaged with the politics of war and its representation than might first appear. This insight is particularly valuable in the case of Queneau, whose reputation for formal innovation has tended to overshadow his political engagements, and in the case of Stein, whose formal experimentation has been read as a refusal of political engagement or even as a sign of her support for the Vichy regime and fascism. Both poets lived through World War II in occupied France and produced wartime work that at first glance seems oddly disengaged from the enormity of the conflict. And yet, as Galvin argues, Stein’s repetitions of everydayness in Wars I Have Seen and Queneau’s repetitions of a banal story in Exercices de style (Exercises in Style) are part and parcel of the poets’ engagements with the ethical problem of writing about war. Exercises in Style originally included a parody of a French fascist. The parody’s exclusion from later editions only emphasizes Galvin’s argument: Queneau and other modernist civilian war poets used the distancing strategies of style and rhetoric to negotiate their own distance from the conflict and to address the mediating role of the news, to which Queneau alludes by partly modeling the Exercises on a popular newspaper form: the fait divers.
Stein’s work also alludes to and overturns conventional expectations of news and the eyewitness report. Wars I Have Seen contains a series of what Galvin terms “reverse epiphanies...