Sam Hamill was right. He had no business at “Laura Bush’s tea party” — not because of his fatuous politics, but because of his fatuous poetry.

State of the Union, 2003

I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.

Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.

I’m not sure how you repeat cheap tobacco, I’m quite sure I don’t want to investigate the question, and I’m 100% sure that’s not what Hamill’s repeating here. This is actually worse than Andrew Motion, worse even than Harold Pinter: those were still possible to parody. Give me the actors against the war. Some of them can actually act.

(Update: Emperor Misha and Cinderella comment. Frederick Glaysher protests to The New York Times, which predictably sided with the poets, and maintains a useful list of links on the whole sorry affair.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted February 8, 2003 @ 7:19 PM | Poetry,Politics

8 Responses to “Bad Poets Against the War”

  1. 1 1. C.Bloggerfeller

    Baraka, Paulin, Pinter, Hamill… I just hope there isn’t going to be an anthology.


  2. 2 2. Frederick Glaysher

    My response: http://www.fglaysher.com/NYTpr.htm

    In predictable fashion The New York Times Book Review and much
    of the media have chosen to support the more radical and supposedly
    "enlightened" viewpoint on the tiff with The White House and Laura Bush.

    A more misguided and wrong-headed response could
    not exist. It’s so fraught with cliches I hardly know where to start.
    In general, it’s a pity that Sam Hamill, and others who think like
    him, demonstrate once again that poetry, as defined by them
    at least, indeed doesn’t matter, so complete is their inability
    to think seriously about the threat represented by Saddam Hussein
    and his weapons of mass destruction. Their ridiculous pose of mounting
    the barricades is really quite contemptible. It is clear that the crowd
    alluded to by Mr. Hamill summons poetry to their own radical
    distortions and agendas, achieving only a further marginalization
    of an art that has all too often, among some, lost allegiance to
    the civilizing values of peace, which require defense never more so
    than now.

    Far from "the conscience of our culture," such poets have
    no sense of history and the deep obligations of our country, to
    ourselves and to the world, which the burden of power lays
    upon us at this juncture. President Bush is right to call the United
    Nations to live up to its founding Charter, to be a common refuge
    of defense, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,"
    not merely consultation, reduced to babel. At this time of national
    and international crisis, poets who betray their nation, art, and
    humanity merit no audience at The White House.

    For a different view of the issues involved, I invite your readers
    to consider my essay "The Victory of World Governance":
    http://www.fglaysher.com/WorldGov.htm

    Frederick Glaysher
    http://www.fglaysher.com
    Earthrise Press


  3. 3 3. Bad Poet

  4. 4 4. joel peckham

    It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likey includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

    As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has "a message," it is the kind that has none.

    Bad poetry happens when the artist does not use best words, best order to express emotional, psychological, and universal truth.

    Bad criticism occurs when the critic focuses not on the poems at hand but on whatever unnacceptable movement they belong to.

    This is a very poorly written argument and poorly thought out essay–bad writing actually.

    And much more dangerous than the anthology.


  5. 5 5. Aaron Haspel

    Stifle dissent? Be serious. My point was not that the poetry was anti-war, but that it was bad. You call my little squib "dangerous": your threshhold must be pretty low. If you care to differ on literary grounds, be my guest. If you want to defend the poem of Hamill that I quoted on such grounds then you’ve got a tough row to hoe.

    I’ve been through a lot of the stuff at Poets Against the War, and there is nothing any good. Nothing. (The same is true of Poets for the War, incidentally.) If you can unearth a gem from either site, I would be delighted to read it.


  6. 6 6. Kevin Andrew Murphy

    I say I have to agree with Joel. Bad criticism is that leveled at movements, rather than individual works. And paging through 13,000 poems to find a bad one to criticize is also rather suspect as a tactic.

    I found this site while trying to look for a review of the print edition of the anthology, which has been pared down to 150 poems or so (one of which is mine).

    FWIW, the Hamill poem you posted isn’t the one chosen for the print anthology.

    Though this isn’t a review, I’ll admit I’m rather fond of Julia Alvarez’s poem on page 17-18, "The White House Has Disinvited the Poets." I haven’t read the whole anthology yet, but the sampling I’ve made seems to have the usual mix: works I like, works I find indifferent, works that leave me thinking, "Well, evidently someone liked this."

    Be nice to read that sort of a review, rather than a political argument.


  7. 7 7. Aaron Haspel

    Kevin: I appreciate your pointing to an actual poem in the anthology that you think is good, although having read Alvarez’s poem I cannot agree with you. It is smug, self-satisfied, and facile, although she at least has a live ear. I note that, like Joel, you do not trouble to defend Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, because it is obviously very bad. I’m not surprised he picked a different one for the anthology.

    I chose Hamill’s poem because he is the voice of the movement and a relatively famous contributor; believe me, there were worse. And where, exactly, do you find a political argument in what I wrote?


  8. 8 8. Kevin Andrew Murphy

    Aaron,

    Actually I found more of a political argument in Glaysher’s comments, but there is a certain amount of political spin in singling out the editor’s work for critique since it’s usually the easiest mark. Editors do not generally self edit as well as they edit other people’s work, and this becomes even more the case when you’re dealing with a fast turn around. Nothing was edited on the website aside from making certain obscenities didn’t go up, and I suspect that Sally Anderson, the head co-editor, was given the task of telling Sam which of his poems would go in the volume (which wasn’t the one you criticized).

    The Hammill poem chosen for the print anthology is "Sheepherder Coffee." It’s one of the poems I’m indifferent to–pleasant enough to read, but not something I want to reread.

    On the reread end, there’s Nancy Willard’s "Victory Gardens," Ursula K. LeGuin’s "American Wars," and Michelle Noullet’s "The Grace of Angels." The last one I found particularly powerful.

    There’s also "BAD FAIRIES," but since I wrote that one, I’ll admit I’m partial and not really qualified to judge.

    Please, take a look at those poems and tell me what you think.


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