Let’s start with a glorious death. Imagine a young, idealistic Englishman leaving for war in December of 1916, telling his mother, “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France…” Let us imagine that fine heroic feeling fading as he sees trench warfare, as he is gassed, as he marches through shelled and flooded terrain, as men lose their boots in the mud and march on with freezing, bloody feet while machine-gun fire impacts around them. Imagine him with his men, caught in the snow, in a field, with no support troops. “I kept alive on brandy,” he writes, “the fear of death, and the glorious prospect of the cathedral Town just below us, glittering with the morning.”
Imagine him blown into the air by a shell and then spending days trapped beside the body of a dead friend, after which he receives medical and psychiatric treatment in England. Imagine him beginning to speak out against what is happening overseas, developing his own poetic language of protest. Imagine him horrified by the war, traumatized by the war, morally repulsed by the war. Now imagine him deciding to return to France anyway.
Three months before his death, he writes: “I shall be better able to cry my outcry, playing my part.” Think about that choice, then imagine him under such heavy fire that it kills two fellow officers and wounds five fellow lieutenants from his battalion. Imagine him leading his men back to safety, then receiving the Military Cross for valor. Imagine how the constant death numbs him, how he comforts his mother, lies to his mother, tells her, “It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.”
Imagine him sitting alone, reading a copy of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, with a little postcard of old Scarborough kept in it to remind him of England. Imagine his face shining with “wonder and delight” when a fellow officer quotes Keats to him. Then imagine him on a doomed mission to build a bridge over a canal under fire. His unit drops piers into the water, fixes poles from one pier to another and hooks them together with duckboard as the machine guns open up, as gas merges with the early morning fog, quickly killing nearly three-fourths of their engineers.
Imagine our young, idealistic Englishman patting his men encouragingly amid the terror, telling them, “Well done,” and “You are doing well, my boy,” before a shell drops on the fledgling bridge, destroying it and, in the process, killing our young lieutenant.
The Englishman’s name, of course, is Wilfred Owen. And the reason we must imagine his life before considering his poetry is because, more than almost any other poet who preceded him, his life is inextricable from his poetry.
In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” his most famous poem, he addresses Jessie Pope, who took on the role of patriotic poetess during the war, writing out of her imaginative capacities rather than from personal exposure to combat, and declares that if only she too were haunted, as he was, by dreams of the horrible deaths by gas he’d witnessed, she “would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” This is not simply the somber voice of experience cautioning the neophyte, but a moral witness, drawing on his personal encounter to condemn the social values that led to slaughter. His experience in the war is the trump card he uses to silence her.
That moral witness, a voice of prophetic denunciation, speaks in poem after poem. With him, we hear the “mad gusts tugging on the wire,” see “death’s promises … and life’s half-promising” and ask, “What are we doing here?” and “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”
Just in case you missed it in the poetry itself, Owen wrote a preface clarifying his aims:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do to-day is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
In other words, despite all the care Owen took with his lines, his complex arrangement of symbol, his mastery of assonance, alliteration and slant rhyme, his work was primarily concerned not with aesthetic qualities at all, but with “Truth” and “pity,” which meant his own personal political convictions transmuted into verse. As Seamus Heaney would later describe him:
Wilfred Owen, and others like him in the trenches of Flanders, are among the first of a type of poet who increasingly appears in the annals of twentieth-century literature, and who looms as a kind of shadowy judging figure above every poet who has written subsequently. The shorthand name we have evolved for this figure is the ‘poet as witness’, and he represents poetry’s solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged. The witness is any figure in whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself.
To this we might add one other component in poetic witness—that the author’s identification with the oppressed is done not simply in word but in deed as well. This can be done by way of journalistic exposure, as in the work of the poet Carolyn Forché, who is credited with coining the term “poetry of witness.” But ideally, it is done through direct suffering. The poet’s head, even if ever so tentatively, should have spent time in the noose. Thus, for the reader, the poet’s life and work become unified: imaginatively considering the experience from which the author speaks becomes part of the aesthetic experience of the poem.
In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argued, in reference to a passage from Balzac, that “literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes … it is language which speaks, not the author.” This rather playful image of the poem as a disembodied aesthetic object could never be less helpful than with such poetry as was produced during the First World War. As Heaney put it, Owen “seemed almost to obliterate the line between art and life … His poems have the potency of human testimony, of martyr’s relics … he earned the right to his lines by going up the line, and nobody who has read Owen’s poems and letters can underestimate their cost in terms of trauma and courage and heartbreak.”
All this is true, so true. One cannot help but admire Owen, the eloquent tongue matched with deep moral principle enacted under great suffering to the point of death. And yet, and yet. Something in me rebels against Owen, the Christlike martyr to poetic witness. This has less to do with my time in war—I served in a fairly safe staff job in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq from 2007 to 2008—than with my time writing about it. When I write fiction, when it’s working, I feel a sort of wild, anarchic freedom, one that opens a gulf between my work and my compulsion to bear witness. This is a chaotic, unruly part of myself, one that I’m not sure speaks well of me, though it is one I suspect is inseparable from the creation of art. And it pushes me to ask impertinent questions, even of the dead.
My first impertinent question is: Who the hell is Wilfred Owen speaking for? After all, his is not a poetry of narrow personal complaint. As W. B. Yeats complained of Owen’s generation of officer’s poetry, “they were not without joy—for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men.” There’s something rather slippery there. Did these men want to be spoken for, and even if they did, would it really be their suffering they wanted pleaded on their behalf?
As the historian Janet Watson has noted, the standard image of World War I soldiers going from “idealistic volunteers” to “shattered veterans” is at odds with popular views at the time of the war itself. Likewise, Jonathan Ebel, reflecting upon his study of the personal writings of American soldiers during World War I, notes how often soldiers saw meaning in their suffering, returning from war with a religious fervor that they poured into associations like the American Legion. According to an obituarist, one of the officers who died alongside Owen in that useless bridge-building assault fell smiling in the death he had wanted, that of a “soldier and gentlemen.” This may be an obituarist’s puffery, and it may not. The writings of Ernst Jünger are proof that even a man of exquisite artistic sensibilities and perception could endure the horrors of frontline combat and still declare his country, as he does in Storm of Steel, “eminently worth our blood and our lives.” Jünger was a born warrior, of course, but born warriors exist, even if they’re underrepresented in the ranks of poets and novelists who do so much to shape our images of war.
One such man was a Special Forces veteran I interviewed for my last book, who told me about an Afghan officer he’d come to befriend and admire. “We were supposed to be teaching him,” he said, “but he was teaching me what it was to lead.” After narrating a bit of their friendship, he said, “I was there when he died, and his last words he spoke to me.” The room felt very quiet as he paused, seemingly captured by memory. Then he told me the Afghan officer’s last words. “He said to me, ‘Sir, I need more hand grenades.’” There was another pause, and the veteran shook his head. I was waiting for an expression of grief, but instead he smiled fondly and said, “Man, I wish I could die with some badass shit like that.”
That veteran is an unusual sort, but not so unusual. And he’s a sort that tends to receive more admiration from rank-and-file soldiers than your average sensitive poet-type. When R. A. The Rugged Man, in now-legendary verses narrating his father’s experience in Vietnam, raps, “Bitches and guns, this is every man’s dream, I don’t want to go home, where I’m just a ordinary human being,” he’s voicing an allure that more soldiers feel than modern war literature often acknowledges.
But it isn’t just the accounts of born warriors who give me pause; it’s also the accounts of everyday soldiers, as in the poetry of David Jones, who served in World War I as an enlisted man. Jones hews tightly to immediate perceptions, using slang and Cockney and the myths populating the minds of the Welsh soldiers he served with, creating a poetic form that is humbler in scope while more startlingly innovative with language. Here, in Jones, is the death of an officer, Mr. Jenkins:
Mr. Jenkins half inclined his head to them—he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of
He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
swings like a pendulum
and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clampt unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
and masked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap —
holds him blind against the morning.
Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
—where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes
Unlike Owen, who gives us descriptions like “devil’s sick of sin,” “froth-corrupted lungs,” “vile, incurable sores,” embedding the poet’s after-the-fact understanding into the image, Jones describes death at the level of pure perception, the imagery seemingly undigested. We are not told the officer is shot, only how he appears at the moment of his shooting. And because Jones is so close to the mind caught at the moment of perception, with all its strangeness and even weird allusiveness (like that reference to the ventaille, the protective face mask on a knight’s helmet), we get a kind of restraint, a care that contrasts with the overstepping moralism we see in Owen. There is romanticism here, but the romantic past crops up, as Jones explains in his remarkable preface, not because of an imposition of the poet but because the consciousness of history and myth is one with the perception of a group of Welsh soldiers. “I have only tried to make a shape in words,” he writes, “using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men. I have attempted to appreciate some things, which, at the time of suffering, the flesh was too weak to appraise.”
His accomplishment of this seemingly humble task is why the book was met with gratitude by an ex-soldier like the art critic Herbert Read, who wrote, “For the first time all the realistic sensory experiences of infantrymen have been woven into a pattern which, while retaining all the authentic realism of the event, has the heroic ring which we associate with the old chansons de gestes … a book which we can accept as a true record of our suffering and as a work of art in the romantic tradition of Malory and the Mabinogion.” The emphasis here is on “true record,” distinct from Owen’s true warning. This makes Jones more capacious, capturing a symphony of truths unavailable to the virtuosic soloist.
The contemporary writer working in this vein who has been the most influential to my own approach is the poet Tom Sleigh, whose work in the past two decades has frequently drawn on his time as a journalist in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Kenya and Somalia. In a sort of manifesto laying out his own preoccupation with the ethical and aesthetic challenges of writing about conflict areas, Sleigh has written that when compared to Jones, “the humanist assumptions that condition Owen’s relation to war, and his vocabulary for it, are not only inoperative, but irrelevant to the men in the ranks.” At its best, Owen’s approach seems like “nothing but heroic posturing in an anti-heroic guise”; at its worst, his empathetic but limited form of identification with his men serves as “a form of unconscious class condescension.”
And here we have one obvious problem with the poetry of witness, which is that the poet’s voice necessarily imposes itself as the voice of the oppressed, always a dubious proposition. The poet of witness comes to us precisely as Chinua Achebe complained Marlow comes to us, “not only as a witness of truth, but one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition.” At his worst, Owen’s soldiers suffer the way Conrad’s Africans do, in “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity.”
Sleigh dramatizes this problem in his remarkable 2015 poem “Homage to Basho,” where at one point he tells a story from after the Gulf War. He’s teaching a class of undergraduates, one of whom he, and he alone, knows is a young Iraqi girl who lived through it. In a discussion of the conflict, the students adopt an easy, uncomplicated acceptance of the justice of the war, with not one voicing disapproval, and so he decides he’ll unsettle them:
I then asked them what they would say to someone who had actually lived through the bombardments to achieve these worthy goals—and that this someone was here, sitting among them, as one of their fellow classmates? How would they explain to their classmate the necessity of the bombs? Silence fell on the room. Everyone looked deeply uncomfortable: I realized that I’d betrayed them, as well as the young Iraqi woman, who sat very still in her seat.
Eventually, the student Sleigh singled out gives this account of her experience: “We sat in our house with the lights off. The bombs went on for a long time, and when they stopped, all of us were so tired, we went to sleep.” Sleigh presumably expected to plead her suffering on behalf of his political ideals; instead she tells a story that, though it unsettles, doesn’t easily translate into a political object lesson.
To some, though, such objects, rather than people, are what we need. The great critic Paul Fussell famously slights In Parenthesis because it contains, “unfortunately, no precedent for an understanding of the war as a shambles and its participants as victims.” For those who prefer their literature to have easily digestible messages that discard the messy complications of life, moralistic literature is an ever-present option. It just means drowning out the voices of those you’re ostensibly speaking for.
Which leads me to my second impertinent question: Why should I grant that Owen is telling me anything close to the truth? Prophetic denunciation is all well and good, but as Saul Bellow once cautioned, “the prophet must be genuine. If, in place of the word of God that he must utter, he should have a literary program in his back pocket, his prophecies can never be accepted.”
Where does that leave Owen and his followers? It should be clear, by now, that there are truths left out of Owen. His truth-telling urge is not about a capacious evocation of experience, but rather an alliance of moral outrage and sensibility. “The true Poets must be truthful,” he says. But the truths must conform to Owen’s notion of the good.
Should this trouble us? The literary critic Hilary E. Lithgow once pointed me to a 1933 exchange in the pages of the New Republic between the American writers Malcolm Cowley and Archibald MacLeish that neatly sums up the divided opinion over what truths we should bear allegiance to in our depictions of war. Both men thought the last war a waste, and were concerned with a new war looming on the horizon. They disagreed over whether veteran artists ought therefore to commit themselves to antiwar art or to a more capacious exploration of their experiences, even if those might glorify war.
To Cowley, who served as an ambulance driver in World War I, it matters little whether one of Owen’s fellow officers died smiling, having proved himself a “soldier and gentlemen.” He writes:
If we emphasize the useless deaths of the last war, we can be certain of our attitude toward the next! But if, on the other hand, we emphasize the happy illusions of these men who died … then we can look forward more or less calmly to the battles in which other generous and loyal men … will die in the same courageous fashion. We may even come to share the illusions of the dead, and we shall in any case defend the system which makes the next war as inevitable as tomorrow.
This is the literary version of the “noble lie.” The writer must take care which truths to tell, since the wrong truths can support monstrosities. Trim your own memories, lest you believe them, and especially lest others believe them.
To MacLeish, who served in the artillery and lost a brother in Belgium, this “is the First World War seen through a keyhole, interpreted from a mountaintop, judged in its causes and its effects. It is a very impersonal and terrifying war. It has no heroes. It is not human. … Its stories are not stories of men in warfare but of beginnings, devices, forces—the greed of bankers, the treachery of politicians, the rapacity of munitions makers, the starvation of nations, the deaths of millions…”
Such a description of the war might satisfy our desires for political categorization (though whether politically didactic work actually does the instrumental work its advocates want is often left as an unstated and rather large assumption), but it leaves aside something critical. The war, MacLeish writes, was “a human war. Its adversaries were men and its stories were stories of men.” Then, in a powerful assault on the notion of judging men by the historical events they are tethered to, he continues:
Obviously, standing here upon the little heap which time forever pushes up to give a better perspective of the past—obviously you and I, alive in the year 1933 and looking back—obviously we can say in your fine phrase: “they died bravely, they died in vain.” The history of the post-war world proves they died in vain. Every economic consideration proves they died in vain. But what, I demand of you as poet, not as editor, what is vanity in death? Is it economic frustration? Is it failure to ameliorate the lot of society? Is it historical abortiveness? Or is it perhaps conceivable that death is something between a man and his own soul, a personal and not a social experience? Is it perhaps conceivable that the measure of vanity in a man’s death is to be found not afterwards in a history which to him has no existence, but presently in the circumstances in which his death is met? Is it perhaps conceivable that to die generously and in loyalty to a believed-in cause is not, regardless of the success of that cause, regardless even of its validity, to die in vain? I ask you this as a poet.
The insistence here, that historical, political, economic and social estimations do not exhaust our understanding of ourselves—that perhaps that which is of deepest importance is only obscured by these things—firmly situates “poetry” in service of that deeper thing. The rhetorical question is meant to answer itself—if it means anything at all to be a “poet,” then it must mean an allegiance to something beyond any such reductive ways of analyzing human experience.
But MacLeish also makes a reduction of his own, in his insistence that there is a clear division between the personal and the social. It’s a necessary division if MacLeish, who served in a military whose commander-in-chief told them they would “make the world safe for democracy,” wants to insist that one can set aside not only the success of the cause one fights for but even its validity when evaluating the soul of the soldier who fights and dies for that cause.
Uglier missions would lead to uglier responses. After Vietnam, the writer Tim O’Brien decided that the variety of actual experiences and perceptions of soldiers was unimportant—“you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” he writes. Echoing Owen, he would declare, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” His example of this, provocatively, is a classic story of military heroism, which he tells like this:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out.
One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.
It’s a satisfying takedown of the military cliché of jumping on a hand grenade, moving from the most generic version of the story to an absurdist rendering that emphasizes the fatalist humor so common among soldiers. It becomes more troubling as we try to imagine the cliché more fully. For me, personally, this is easy enough to do, since, in passing at a Marine Corps event, I happen to have met a man who jumped on a grenade. He was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1989, and 21 years later was manning a patrol base in Marjah, Afghanistan, as part of the hopeless surge of troops initiated by President Barack Obama. On November 21st the Taliban attacked his base, and one fighter threw a hand grenade that landed in his sandbagged position that he shared with a fellow Marine.
We may pause here to wonder what we would do in such a circumstance. What Kyle did was jump toward the grenade, which promptly detonated, sending burning hot slivers of steel tearing into his body. The blast shattered his jaw, knocked out most of his teeth, shattered one of his arms, and destroyed one of his eyes.
Kyle lived. He endured multiple surgeries, as well as nightmares and hallucinations while on pain medication. Today he tries to stay upbeat, claiming to have never lost his faith in God, though he has questioned why he survived.
It’s worth noting that Kyle’s story is useful to the Marine Corps, which celebrates him for providing a shining example of the selfless courage that the Marines are supposed to represent, disconnected from questions about the failed war in which he was so selflessly courageous. For O’Brien, truth lies in the waste and failure of the war. But the mind recoils at the prospect of looking Kyle in his one good eye and telling him that the happeningness of his story is irrelevant—that a thing may happen and be a total lie. Suddenly, the idea becomes monstrous.
This leads to my third impertinent question: If the obligation is to truth (or to a truthy moralism), and not to poetry, then why the hell be a poet?
The inherent complexity in any poetry worth a damn always makes its political utility unpredictable. Even in Owen. When I was joining the Marine Corps, “Greater Love,” Owen’s subversion of a Swinburne love poem, is one of his works I came back to. I even memorized it after listening to it many times on a recording incorporated into a track on the undergrad rap group Jedi Mind Tricks’ album Violent by Design.
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!
Note the hierarchy Owen establishes in his verse, with his suffering soldiers immeasurably more valuable than the civilians back home. In another poem he asserts, “These men are worth / Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.” Owen’s poem assured me that, by joining, I’d be ascending to a higher moral category than civilian. Even his depictions of horror have an erotic charge, as in, “Your slender attitude / Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed.” This does not trouble the militarist as much as Owen might think.
In a widely discussed essay for the New York Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose own work dramatizes the complex struggles over the memory of war, accused American fiction of being too apolitical, and of blithely assuming that we can speak of aesthetic and craft choices without considering their ideological import. In this regard, I think he is on to something—the aesthetic choices made by an artist are related to the sensibility he wants to evoke. Ernst Jünger’s bombastic and yet cold style is, after all, not disconnected from the enthusiasm with which fascists embraced his writing. But sensibility is importantly different from political message.
Sensibility is less about downloading a conviction into the reader’s mind than it is about what issues of moral, aesthetic or spiritual concern the writer wants to confront the reader with and the ground on which he intends to stage that confrontation. Here is how I see, declares the writer, and faced with this vision—whether it’s the farce of Robert Graves’s World War I, the nihilistic grotesquerie of Celine’s or the sacred horror of Isaac Rosenberg’s—the engaged reader responds creatively, using aspects of the writer’s vision as tools in their own attempt to grapple with life.
This is evident in the work of a writer Nguyen goes on to praise, the Palestinian American poet Noor Hindi. Hindi’s work often evinces a discomfort with the idea of witness, at least as it is understood within the context of American culture. In her poem “In Which the White Woman on My Thesis Defense Asks Me About Witness,” she poses questions about what it means to see yourself, on television, dying, evoking the strange way in which racial hierarchies and trauma transmitted via media have replaced Owen’s moral hierarchy of frontline soldiers and trauma transmitted via exposure to combat. She declares, “I am tired of watching myself watch death before turning around and explaining it all to you.” And in “Breaking [News],” she writes:
In interviews, I frame my subject’s stories through a lens to make them digestible
I become a machine. A transfer of information. They become a plea for empathy,
an oversaturation of feelings we’ll fail at transforming into action.
What’s lost is incalculable.
What is lost when the poet becomes machine is, of course, the very humanity of the subject that spurs her to write in the first place. Nevertheless, the moral urgency of the subject of the war seems to compel such reductions, as we see in the specific Hindi poem that Nguyen singles out.
This poem, called “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” is a clearer inheritor of Owen’s poetry of witness (an alternate title for “Greater Love” might be “Fuck Your Love Poetry, My Soldiers Are Dying”), and it begins by dismissing traditional evocations of beauty. Hindi writes:
Colonizers write about flowers.
I tell you about children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks
seconds before becoming daisies.
I want to be like those poets who care about the moon.
Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.
It’s so beautiful, the moon.
They’re so beautiful, the flowers.
There’s a wonderful sharpness and energy to this poem, alongside a canny yet accusatory appropriation of flower imagery. When the children are transformed into daisies in the third line, we feel first a surprised, satisfied pleasure at the clever turn of imagery, followed by self-conscious recoil as we process its meaning. The poem, whose title is perhaps intended to be read with a touch of irony, is carefully crafted to question the pretty effects one can achieve with craft. But it also leaves the poet caught in precisely the kind of reduction she notes in “Breaking [News].” Are Palestinians restricted to political poetry? Do only colonizers write about flowers? No. And casting a population solely in this light has dangers. As Simone de Beauvoir once noted about Algeria, images of the Arab population that only emphasized their oppression and the dehumanizing misery forced upon them perversely seemed to appease the consciences of colonists: “the more miserable [they] were, the more contemptible they seemed, so much so that there was never any room for remorse.”
Hindi’s first book of poetry is forthcoming in May, and how she places this work alongside other poems will inform how to approach it (in the past she has engaged thoughtfully with Philip Metres’s work on “documentary poetics,” which treats its subjects very differently). As the given example in a New York Times article for how writers ought to engage politically, though, it poses an obvious question: If the urgency of the title is to be believed, why be in the vicinity of a craft lecture at all? There’s something faintly absurd about the image of a poet assuring the dying, “Don’t worry, I’ll write you a poem, but at least I won’t give a shit about craft while I do it.” When it comes to political poetry, the mismatch between the urgency of the cause and the form of the response always leaves me with the sinking suspicion that such literature is less “political” than parasitic on politics, drawing more emotional power from the underlying cause than it adds to that cause’s support.
When the poet George Oppen became increasingly political during the Great Depression, he famously joined the Communist Party and stopped writing poetry. As Eliot Weinberger noted, Oppen was perhaps the only Party writer who never wrote propagandistically: doubting poetry’s usefulness for practical politics, he set himself a role of agitation and organization in which poetry had no place.
Later serving in World War II, Oppen saw combat and was severely injured. Lying wounded in a foxhole, surrounded by injured and dying soldiers, he buried his dog tags, which would have identified him as Jewish to the nearby Nazi enemies. After his return to poetry, he wrote glancingly on the experience, in ways that reject totalizing political visions. In “Route,” published in 1968, he writes:
Wars that are just? A simpler question: In the event,
will you or will you not want to kill a German. Because,
in the event, if you do not want to, you won’t.
In a 1963 letter, Oppen would explain the origin of his poetic urge like this:
The mystery for me begins where it begins for Aquinas: The individual encounters the world, and by that encounter with something which he recognizes as being outside himself, he becomes aware of himself as an individual, a part of reality. In that same intuition, he registers the existence of what is not himself, what is totally independent of him, can exist without him, as it must have existed before him, as it will exist after him, and is totally free of nothingness and death (which is, for Aquinas, the intuition of God. It is at any rate the intuition of the indestructible).
The ideological underpinnings of the poet of witness threaten to gobble up that aspect of reality totally independent of the poet. But for Oppen, the poetic response is neither intellectual nor discursive. The poet, he says, “responds by faith … and to his own experience.” For Oppen, that “faith” is toward the possibility of the representation of reality. As with Jones, we are back to a humbler but more difficult task than propping up political slogans.
There is an even more basic question at hand. In an irascible response to Owen’s “The Poetry is in the Pity,” the poet Geoffrey Hill declared, “The poetry had better not be in the pity, or it will not survive.” Something like craft, like aesthetic sophistication, like beauty, needs to be present as well. And beauty is a problem in war. In no other human endeavor does Keats’s line run falser. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Hence Adorno’s infamous declaration: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And though Adorno later walked the claim back by acknowledging that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream,” note what recovers poetry’s value here: its documentary aspect, not its aesthetic qualities. Is this enough?
In 1979 Seamus Heaney wrote a beautiful poem about the death of his cousin, Colum McCartney, killed in the Troubles in Ireland. It’s called “The Strand at Lough Beg,” and in it the poet walks to the site of his cousin’s murder, where he has a vision of the cousin, who he cleanses with moss and morning dew. It’s a beautiful image, a gorgeous poem. But the shame of that beauty, of his audacity in transmuting horror into prettiness, however well meant, haunted Heaney. Five years later, he wrote “Station Island,” where he is confronted by ghosts, one of whom is his cousin, come to complain about Heaney’s earlier poem. When, at a reading in New York in 2010, I asked Heaney about the discomfiting attraction of some of his lines about violence, he quoted these lines to me, from memory:
You saw that, and you wrote that—not the fact.
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.
Here Heaney’s cousin, fighting against his transformation into elegiac symbol, asserts his humanity. In this account, beauty does to the human subject of the poem what moral warning does in Owen and in Hindi: it effaces the individual, eliding their inconvenient qualities in service of the writer’s broader vision.
So that’s one problem with beauty. But there is another problem, which is that beauty itself is too chaotic to be tethered to moral impulses. Consider this passage from Ango Sakaguchi’s extraordinary essay “Discourse on Decadence,” written and published in the months following Japanese surrender to the Allies in World War II, while Tokyo was still in ruins. Explaining why he remained in the city during the devastating firebombing, which killed around one hundred thousand people, he writes:
The curiosity I felt towards the coming miraculous rebirth in an unimaginable new world was by far the most striking emotion I’ve ever experienced. What kept me in Tokyo was, quite simply, a magical spell that demanded that, in exchange for experiencing that mystical intensity, I risk my life by remaining in the city. … I loved the colossal destruction. There is something eerily beautiful about humans surrendering themselves to fate. While in Kōjimachi the mansions vanished, turned to smoldering ruins in a heartbeat, on the grassy banks of the palace moat an elegant father sat with his daughter, a single red leather suitcase between them. If not for the vast expanse of smoking rubble at one corner of the landscape, it would have looked like a pleasant picnic.
This is honest, and beautiful, but what a terrible beauty it describes. Adorno would know this for the barbarism it is, no matter how much it speaks to parts of the human soul we don’t always admit. Owen complained to his mother in a letter of “the universal pervasion of Ugliness … the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.” But here is what Jünger, who spent more time on the front lines than Owen, saw:
The battle of the machines is so colossal that man almost completely disappears before it. Often already, caught in the force fields of the modern battlefield, it seemed to me strange and scarcely believable that I was witnessing world-historical events. Combat took on the form of a gigantic, lifeless mechanism and swept an icy, impersonal wave across the ground. It was like the cratered landscape of a dead star, lifeless and radiating heat. And yet: behind all this is man. Only he gives the machines their direction and meaning. It is he that spits from their mouths bullets, explosives and poison. He that elevates himself in them like birds of prey above the enemy. He that sits in their stomach as they stalk the battlefield spewing fire. It is he, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty, and purposeful being that the Earth has to carry.
This might be morally ugly, but it is magnificent. And I suspect Owen felt it too—you catch glimmers of it in his work, in a way you don’t in the more blandly didactic work of other trench poets. To speak honestly of beauty is morally dubious. To avoid speaking honestly of beauty, though, is an act of deliberate blindness.
Unlike the propagandist, for whom the humanity of their audience matters less than the spread of their cause, and to whom readers are merely potential carriers of their message, the artist wants engagement. I write about modern war, about our society that kills people via drones, airstrikes, special-operations forces, proxy forces and mercenaries, because I am captured by it, made hostage to it by the way it has shaped my life. Having known those who’ve fallen, having walked through the ruins of cities destroyed by U.S. airstrikes, having served with complex pride, the subject is not an intellectual puzzle to me. It’s entangled with my sense of myself, my sense of the obligations I owe to others as a U.S. citizen and as a veteran. Especially at a time when much of American letters carries on blithely, as if there were not ongoing wars, or as if the fact that there are ongoing wars is at best an occasion for light political posturing, my goal is to attempt to capture the reader in the same orbit I’m in, even if only for a moment.
This means I write less to transmit knowledge or meaning than to convey an experience. And I do so acknowledging that what the reader takes away from that experience will lie outside my conception of it. A reader is a conversation partner, not a computer decoding a message, and a conversation partner whose responses you can predict is boring. The morality for writing of this kind, then, entails faith. Faith in the reader to be able to handle reality as the writer has seen it, and faith that the creative responses of numerous readers will contain greater wisdom than the narrow strictures of a lone genius bitterly convinced that he, and he alone, has the answers.
We experience a poet’s vision and attempt to navigate through their world with the tools supplied by their sensibility. We care for a novel’s characters, sometimes love them. If the writer has faith in us, and in our ability to grapple with the full weight of realities we must all confront, we see war’s beauty, and feel its uncomfortable force and fascination as well as its horror. At times we even experience ourselves desiring that which we know to be hateful. Faced with such art, our objectivity fails us. We’re left adrift before a vision of the world that compels us morally, politically, aesthetically and spiritually, that doesn’t lend itself to abstract truths or cheap pity, that expands our conception of the world in the way that only art can because it is too vivid and concrete to fit into the old categories. And then we, the readers, decide what to do about it.
Art credits: Megan Vossler. Reconnaissance: June 13, 2006 (Searching for Weapons Caches), graphite on mat board, 32 × 40 in.; 2007. Rubble, graphite on paper, 60 × 108 in.; 2006. All images courtesy of the artist.