Feb 162003

Why is nearly all war poetry anti-war, and not just now, but always? Stanley Kunitz thinks it’s because “[war] is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.” Poets oppose war because they care more deeply about humanity than the rest of us. If this satisfies you then stop reading now, by all means.

A poem motivates, through technical means like rhythm, meter and rhyme, the emotion proper to its rational statement. Emotion derives from personal experience. Thus the statement of poetry tends to be personal. This is not to say that poems cannot make complex logical arguments. But these arguments will relate, in the end, to a personal experience.

War is, at the level of the statesmen (and the pundits), where one decides whether to wage it, or even at the level of the generals, where one decides how, as impersonal a subject as one could wish for. To decide rationally to wage war one must put one’s emotions aside, which is the opposite of what poetry asks you to do.

Therefore most poetry about war is written at the level of the soldier, the best of it often by the soldier, and it’s understandably not very favorable to the enterprise. For the soldier war is a bloody, muddy, destructive, terrifying, chaotic smash — hell, as Sherman said. At this disastrously personal level it is impossible to be pro-war: no one enjoys war, for itself, except the morally deranged. This poem by Yvor Winters limns the difficulty:

Night of Battle
Europe: 1944
as regarded from a great distance

Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.

In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.

Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.

Winters fiercely supported the Second World War, but this poem is neither pro nor anti. To support a war one must regard it “from a great distance,” while poetry tends, on the contrary, to regard matters up close. As much room as there is for the individual, there is that much room for poetry; when one disappears the other must as well.

This is why pro-war poetry like Kipling’s sounds like tub-thumping. Kipling had little poetic talent: his poetry resembles great poetry as Sousa marches resemble great music. But mostly he chose a medium that does not suit the subject.

The problem of war resembles the problem of “what is seen and what is not seen,” as Bastiat put it, in economics. Unsound economic policies like tariffs win support because the benefits are seen, while the costs are invisible, being good things that never happen. (Not coincidentally, very little poetry has been written on economics.) War is the opposite. The costs are seen, while the benefits are invisible, being bad things that never happen. All art, and poetry especially, deals best with what is seen. So poems about war will tend to be against, or ambivalent, but always myopic. Anyone looking for geopolitical wisdom from poetry should look elsewhere. And when faced with a subject that’s out of their ken, poets, like actors, should just shut up.

(Update: Jim Ryan comments.)

Another: Andrea Harris notes this pro-war poetry site. The poems are not very good, but they’re better than the anti-war stuff.)

  15 Responses to “War Poetry”

  1. Interesting points. War does make an unlikely subject for approving poetry, if it is seen as pointless and terrible in its details and justified only by larger purposes.

    But doesn’t this view of war dates from the wreckage of WWI? Before then people were still inclined to romanticize even the battlefield itself ("the field of honor") as a test of courage. Rupert Brooke was famous for such poetry at the time.

    And there’s the Iliad, of course, Although maybe it’s not exactly pro war, it’s not anti-war either. I’d guess there’s lots of pro-war poetry from any era with a martial ruling class.

  2. The power of what you appreciate in poetry comes from personal experience. This power is lost when the poem does not turn on such personal experience, no doubt. But there is another kind of power at a higher level of abstraction. As art, it does not attempt the intimate power of a Winters or Dickinson poem. Its rhetorical power, like that of a great political speech, can still be tremendous. Henry V’s "We Happy Few," even taken out of its dramatic context, is still powerful and stirring, even if it is not very good "poetry" from your perspective. The mere fact that it is in verse does not change the fact that it is still great literature.

  3. Alexis: I am sometimes guilty, as here, of writing "poetry" instead of "poetry in English since 1400." My inability to read Greek severely limits my appreciation of the Iliad, but you are right that there is a long poetic tradition of romanticizing the battlefield. What I’m arguing is that this sort of poetry isn’t very good, and really can’t be very good. Poetry from the soldier’s perspective is at least three centuries old, but World War I was the first war in which large numbers of educated people fought, and it produced a number of fine soldier-poets, like Owen, Rosenberg, and Sassoon, so we tend to date that sort of poetry from then.

    Jim puts the "We Happy Few" speech from Henry V into evidence, and it is a stirring appeal to fellowship and everlasting glory. But there is something musty about it. To begin with, the speech could as easily be given by the opposing commander to the opposing soldiers: it elides the nature of the conflict. (The World War I poetry does the same thing, and fails the test of greatness for the same reason.) In Shakespeare’s day a glorious death seemed a lot more attractive than it does in ours. The martial virtues have waned as the shopkeeper’s have waxed, and Jim, I’m sure, would be the first to cheer this development.

  4. Those levels of abstraction which seem inaccessible to what you regard as good poetry hold the key to this major lacuna in your thinking about poetry. A comic book is to be preferred to finely crafted novel spewing rot. The style and technique make something art. They are not the point of art. "We Happy Few" need not say or do everything well in order to be great literature, in need only do one thing well. It says what it says clearly and powerfully and beautifully and memorably. Just as a great page of prose can be great literature without reference to poetic technique, so can a page of great verse. I don’t need to know Greek to know that "Homer" was a great storyteller AND that certain passages of "his" work are great literature. Certain translations of Homer are terrific verse, even "poetic," but Homer’s achievement remains–whatever we learn about him as a Greek poet when we learn Greek. People can and do operate at higher levels of abstraction. That, too, is part of human experience. Poetry would be very confined if it could not reach that high.

  5. Jim appears to be too interested in what the arts have in common, which is not a great deal, to consider very seriously what differentiates them. Different arts adapt themselves to different topics; how could it be otherwise? This is a "limitation" only in the sense that everything is limited by virtue of not being something else. It’s no knock on the novel that painting usually serves better for contemplation of landscape, and no knock on lyric poetry that the novel, or the cinema, does better with war.

  6. Good post. Think I’ll link to it.

  7. Very persuasive and fascinating. Does it follow that poets should be so strongly in the "peace" movement? Do you know of any poets supportive of our Iraq policies? My hunch is that as the readership of poets and poetry declines, their compensatory assertion of their own importance impels them to oppose our govt.

  8. Let me put it this way, Aaron. There is some great literature in verse about war. People love it for good reason. It may not be distinguished for its use of poetic technique, but often it’s got more value than well-crafted poetry. This does have to do with the function and purpose of poetry–indeed, all art.

  9. Stephen: Thanks. The fact that most poets are "for peace" has more to do with the radical disconnect between the less popular arts and reality than it does with the nature of poetry. Most of the sewage at Poets Against the War hardly merits the term "poetry" in any case. As for pro-war poets, I recommend Seablogger, in my links list. Alan Sullivan and Tim Murphy are both fine poets, and they both support war with Iraq, although they don’t write war poetry to my knowledge. I’m sure they can advise you where else to go, being more familiar with contemporary poetry than I am.

    Jim: Many people are deeply moved by bad writing and bad art of all kinds. This fact does not turn it into good art. Poems that do not exemplify the virtues that I have described at length here fail as poems, and as art, no matter how many people tack them on the wall. (The one caveat is that I am discussing lyric poetry, so I grant an exemption for Homer, whom I can’t evaluate as a poet anyway, but not for Henley, Whitman, or Kipling.)

  10. "We Happy Few" is neither bad writing nor bad art. It may be a bad "lyric poem," but it is a bit of verse that is also truly great literature. That’s why people keep comin’ back to it. I never claimed that popularity proved value. I was just saying that there’s some great verse literature out there that may also be lousy "lyric poetry." I know why I respond to it. (I suspect that this is also part of why so many others do, too.)

  11. "We Happy Few" is a speech in a verse drama. As such it’s very good. Lifted out of its context it’s not great poetry or anything like it.

  12. I notice that no recognised poets or Poet Laureates have posted at the pro-war poetry website. Gee I wonder why.

  13. Jennifer, I don’t like the pro-war site either. Is there anything at the anti-war site that you think is good? And if we judge by prizes, why bother to read at all?

  14. Twas the night before Baghdad

    Twas the night before Baghdad
    And all through the base
    Not a heartbeat was silent
    Not a smile on one face

    The soldiers at attention
    Fists raised in the air
    Saddam is a monster!
    We must all go there!

    So we loaded our planes
    With our guns and our tanks
    And we sent all the soldiers
    To Kuwaits outer banks

    From Kuwait, from Turkey
    From Saudi and more
    With battering rams
    We knocked on his door

    The Fedayin heard
    All the military clatter
    And ran to Saddam
    To ask what was the matter

    Don’t worry he said
    With a heartening ring
    They financed my reign
    They won’t do this thing

    We bombed all the buildings
    Til the fires were glowing
    While Baby Bush yelled
    Keep the oil pipes flowing!

    He should be a magician
    Our Baby Bush, cuz you see
    He created the biggest illusion
    The WMD’s

    He lied to us all
    About terror and pain
    When all that he’s after
    Is monetary gain

    For Daddy, and Barbara
    And Baby Bush too
    There is no such thing
    As too much oil revenue

    Some people believe
    That it’s for our own good
    To bomb and to kill
    To shed innocent blood

    They sleep in their beds
    Oblivious to lies
    While we who have wakened
    Hear bloodcurdling cries

    Cries of our fathers,
    Our brothers and sons
    Sent to fight in a war
    That cannot be won

    We liberated them!
    Our Baby Bush chimes
    That is why they attack us
    Time after time

    With Christmas upon us
    He steps up his work
    Of campaigning again
    The self serving jerk!

    Hell don his flight suit
    Hell have all his fun
    Wishing Merry Christmas! Keep fighting!
    And to all….Duck and Run!

    written by mother of a soldier

  15. In regards to "twas the night before Baghdad" I think the poetic flow is about the only credible aspect.

    Contrary to what some people might think, human will contrasts from one man to the next. As long as this is true war will be present. After all war is what gave birth to the greatest nation in the world…the United States of America.

    The poems author as a soldier’s mother is expected to place her sympathies with her son or daughter. However there was no draft for this war, our soldiers in place joined the army on their own free will. I think it is more than disrespectful to discredit what our soldiers are willingly risking their lives for in Iraq.

    By the way I have yet to hear about any oil taken from Iraq by "baby Bush". Bush our president however has been using the oil for Iraqs reconstruction.

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