Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.
Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.
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 likely 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.
Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.
Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.
We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.
Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.