Pens Not Swords


Writers Becky Thompson and E. Ethelbert Miller bring poetry to the streets. Photo by Mike Maggio.

In the winter of 2003, as the West Wing of the White House was announcing plans for a preemptive “Shock and Awe” campaign against Iraq, the East Wing was preparing an altogether different event. First Lady Laura Bush was putting the final touches on a symposium on “poetry and the American voice,” designed to celebrate the poetry of three of the country’s most important poets: Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

Among the contemporary poets who received an invitation to come to the White House on February 12, 2003 was Sam Hamill, founder and editor of Copper Canyon Press, one of the country’s most influential poetry presses. Hamill, a former Marine, a Buddhist, and a pacifist, felt in his gut that he couldn’t go to the White House as a guest of the First Lady, not at that time. Instead, he wrote an email to about 50 poets, inviting them to “speak up for the conscience of our country” by sending him poems for peace, which he would arrange to have delivered to Laura Bush at the symposium. And he called for February 12 to be a day of poetry against the threatened war.

Within days, thanks to the power of the Internet, Hamill received thousands of poems from all over the world. Hundreds of poets and activists set about organizing readings for the 12th. When Laura Bush’s office caught wind of the poets’ uprising, it cancelled the event. An official statement lamented that some invited guests were threatening to “turn a literary event into a political one.”

An international movement, Poets Against War, was born. In a newspaper ad that winter, Hamill called on “the Bush administration to halt its headlong rush toward war, to heed the voices of the people of the world, and to seek peaceful means of resolving conflicts in company with the world community.”

“At no time in history,” the ad read, “have so many poets spoken in such a large chorus.”

Three years later, Poets Against War continues to speak out forcefully against the targeting of civilians in the conflict in Lebanon this summer and urging members to work and vote for candidates committed to ending the war in Iraq. Sister organizations are emerging in India and Colombia and Argentina. Other poets are active as well: Editor Sankar Roy is compiling an anthology of poems in response to the crisis in Darfur, and Mizna, a journal of Arab American letters, is soliciting poems about Lebanon.

The movement has successfully brought poetic voices into the foreign policy realm and injected geopolitics into the world of poetry. In connecting to a vibrant tradition of anti-war verse, Poets Against War has amplified the power of the word against the limited might of the sword.

The Canon Against the Cannon

Poets and writers have a long history of opposing war with vivid storytelling and rich imagery. In Aristophanes’ comedy from the ancient Greek, The Lysistrata, the women of Athens withhold sex to force men to end a long-standing war with Sparta. (Needless to say, the women win.) Walt Whitman worked as an informal nurse in Washington’s many hospitals during the Civil War. This experience—of the “refuse pail,/ Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again”—forever marked his poetry. To read his Drum Taps straight through is to witness Whitman’s metamorphosis from cheerleader of the Northern troops to appalled chronicler of the devastating effect of the war upon those young men, his “poor boys.”

During World War I, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon took the extraordinary step of writing A Soldier’s Declaration, an open letter to the Army, refusing to return to the Front to fight what he perceived to be an unjust war. The Army responded by committing Sassoon to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, where he met and mentored the younger poet Wilfred Owen. Owen went on to write the best-known and most devastating poems of that war in the English language, including “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which finishes with these lines:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Sassoon decided that the moral choice was to return and fight alongside the troops under his command. He survived the war. His pupil Owen fell in combat, leaving the last line of his poem—“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country”—to resonate through the years with terrifying irony.

It was the Vietnam War, though, that provided a recent model for the current poet-activists. Poets Muriel Rukeyser, Hayden Carruth, Sonia Sanchez, Hamill himself, and many others relentlessly protested the war in their poetry, in the streets, and in the jail cells. The poet-veterans of that war—Leroy Quintana, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Kevin Bowen, among others—continue to write some of the most vivid, most striking and intense poetry today, as if living through that nightmare sharpened their senses, focused their poetic lens.

The Political is Personal

As millions marched in the streets all over the world in mid-February 2003, seeking peaceful means of resolving this conflict, anti-war poets were voicing these hopes for peace “in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses,” to quote the poet Martín Espada. Second Wave feminists gave us the useful phrase, “The personal is political.” Poems written at times such as these remind us of the obverse: that the political is always intensely personal. Every political decision—to begin bombing Baghdad, to round up Muslim men in the wake of the September 11 attacks, to eliminate food stamps for legal immigrants—has a profound and irrevocable personal impact. Poems can give politics a human face; if for no other reason than that, policymakers should read poetry every day.

Take, for example, the title poem of Adrienne Rich’s latest collection, “The School Among the Ruins,” which tells of children in a war zone, holed up for safety with teachers in their school. Separated from their families, the children and teachers eke out an existence, with the help of a stray cat. Here, in the poem’s final two sections, is the voice of the teacher:

6.

I’ve told you, let’s try to sleep in this funny camp
All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking
above us to somewhere

Don’t let your faces turn to stone
Don’t stop asking me why
Let’s pay attention to our cat she needs us

Maybe tomorrow the bakers can fix their ovens

7.

“We sang them to naps told stories made
shadow-animals with our hands

washed human debris off boots and coats
sat learning by heart the names
some were too young to write
some had forgotten how.”

While the language of propaganda demonizes whole peoples and deadens us to the effects of policy decisions, poetry wakes us up. “Axis of evil” sounds like a disembodied bombing target. A child trying to remember how to write her name as fighter planes screech overhead is the necessary obverse, the human detail so often effaced by abstract policy decisions.

“Dictionary in the Dark,” by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, addresses the distortion of language by the politicians directly:

A retired general said
“the beautiful thing about it”
discussing war.
We were making “progress”
in our war effort.
“The appropriate time to launch the bombers”
pierced the A section with artillery and arrows as
“awe” huddled in a corner
clutching its small chest.
Someone else repeated, “in harm’s way,”
strangely popular lately,
and “weapons of mass destruction”
felt gravely confused about their identity.
“Friendly” gasped. Fierce and terminal.
It had never agreed to sit beside fire, never.

Muriel Rukeyser’s “St. Roach” describes a related use of language at a time of war, that of turning people into the “other.” Just as Americans knew almost nothing about Vietnam or its culture before the war, the speaker confesses absolute ignorance of the world of the cockroach, its history, its language. The food of the cockroach remains untasted, its songs unsung. But then the speaker in the poem tries the unthinkable: she touches the cockroach. The poem ends with this tentative beginning, a first act of peace:

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange, and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

Poet Ambassadors

In other countries, poets are often public figures, even representatives of their governments. Most famously, Pablo Neruda was Chile’s ambassador to France during the Allende years from 1970 to 1973. Absent a formal role, poets in the United States have always done ambassadorial work, speaking across the borders that divide peoples. Since the Iraq War began, for example, Sam Hamill has been interviewed by 100 Italian newspapers. The leading paper in Tehran featured a long interview with him alongside several of his poems, as did the weekend supplement of the major news outlet in Amman, Jordan. In Italy, citizens and city councilors and mayors turned out in droves to hear him speak, audiences that might not have been moved to attend a speech by a member of congress or a secretary of state.

Poets Against War, and Sam Hamill’s subsequent ambassadorial work, offered the world an alternative U.S. foreign policy, crafted by the American people rather than its government. When the policymakers were busy trying to silence the opposition here and abroad, the poems on www.poetsagainstwar.net demonstrated to anyone with an Internet connection that many Americans opposed their government’s policies. The poems humanized Americans in Baghdad and Paris and Pisa, Italy, just as they humanized the Iraqis for Americans.

Similarly, at a time in this country when it was easy to feel that you were unpatriotic or crazy to oppose the war—especially if you lived outside the major cities—the poems humanized the anti-war activists. The verses exposed the very real struggles Americans were having with their own consciences as they questioned or openly opposed the president’s rush to war. Naomi Ayala’s poem, “Within Me,” anthologized in D.C. Poets Against the War, owns up to the impulse to war and violence in all of us:

War begins right here on my street.
It begins with me.
I see her weapons in the eyes of a child
her face on windowpanes.
There are times I want war.
I lie down with her.
I stroke her back.
There are times she enters my house
and I enter into battle with her.
War slips in, into my name.
I have her in my blood.

The Bush administration has emphasized the power of military force, as have so many presidents throughout American history. Poets and antiwar activists offer instead the power of the word: on the printed page and across the negotiating table. Rukeyser, in her prose meditation The Life of Poetry, wrote, “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories … But around and under and above it is another reality … This history is the history of possibility.”

Poetry excavates that history of possibility and offers its rich imagination to the nation, pointing to previously unseen solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of our new century.

Poet Sarah Browning is coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology and coordinates the group of the same name. She is organizing a festival of poetry of witness, to be held in Washington, D.C. in March, 2008. Contact her at poetryofwitness@hotmail.com.