Quotation fun – Do American poems lack substance?

In The Hudson Review, Volume LVI, Number 4 (Winter 2004), Bruce Bawer reviews the book Poets Against the War. This book is edited by Sam Hamill and features poems that speak out against the Iraqi war by poets both known and unknown.

The review in pdf form: A Plague of Poets

Bawer wrote:
Throughout these poems,the implicit argument is: Why can’t the whole world be as peaceable as my little corner of it is? The poets appear to believe that their serene lifestyles are somehow a reflection of their own wisdom and virtue; they seem to think they are in possession of some great yet elementary cosmic knowledge from which the rest of us can profit. What they evidently do not realize is that what they are celebrating in these poems is a security for which they have to thank (horrors) the U.S. military and a prosperity that they owe to (horrors again) American capitalism. Entirely absent from their facile scribblings, indeed, is any sign of awareness that this “blue planet” is a terribly dangerous place and that the affluence, safety, and liberty they enjoy, and that they write about with such vacuous selfcongratulation, are not the natural, default state of humankind but are, rather, hard-won and terribly vulnerable achievements of civilization.

Does living in a country where a lack of open warfare is the norm create a poetry of ignorance?

Is it wrong for poets who live in a peaceable nation to write about or against violence elsewhere in the world?

I don’t think so. However, I believe that such topics as war and violence in a poem must always be approached with caution and a sort of enlightened respect. If we begin limiting the content of poems to those things that one has experienced directly, it would restrict the freedom of speech for which this country’s people have fought, the “hard-won and terribly vulnerable achievements of civilization.”

Your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Quotation fun – Do American poems lack substance?

  1. The problem isn’t just that these poets have no direct experience of war. It is rather that, when it comes to geopolitics, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You are right, Christine, that one should not be confined to writing only about what one has directly experienced. But one does have an obligation, if one lacks such experience, to learn as much as one can about the subject. A little time spent looking at the testimony gathered at Indict, an Iraqi human rights group, time spent reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, some books by Robert Conquest – a poet who does know what he’s taling about when it comes to geopolitics. These poets should have thought long and hard about what it must have been like to live under Saddam. They could have seen this harvest from the mass graves. This is what poetry should address. What Bruce Bawer has reviewed is moral posturing, something on the order of those Feiffer cartoons where someone proposes to dance about world hunger. Of course war is evil, but sometimes it is a necessary one. I am glad we fought – and especially glad we won – WWII. I am glad the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and put a stop to the killing fields there. I don’t need poets to serve as partisan shills. And neither does anyone else.

  2. Frank,Thanks for stopping by and your considered and interesting response. I agree with you as well; I think one has an obligation to learn from as many sources as possible. Even what appears to be the most unbiased report usually isn’t, once you read another article on the same topic, and so on. Unfortunately, I think many people have a knee-jerk reaction to world politics: all war is wrong. Then they write according to that formula. I wrote a poem like that a few years ago that I can’t bear to look at now that I’ve learned so much more about life in general. Humanity is a messy and complicated species. Poetry and other writing that is one-dimensional doesn’t even begin to describe the human condition with all its necessary sacrifices. Yes, war is often evil but sometimes it must be borne, as history shows: WWII, etc. Heck, what about the American Revolution? I like to think that war was also necessary.

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