Poets and war (National Post, March 2003)

Ars longa, vita brevis. Life is short, but art is long.
That was then, when artists stuck to their calling, and to their diverse habitats of stage, screen and study. Now life is still short, but so is art, because lately, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, many of our most prominent artists have been distracted from genuine creativity, that which endures, for the pseudo-art of political propaganda.
In previous times, when their countries went to war, entertainers did what they have always done best. They entertained the troops, wrote morale-boosting songs, or made patriotic films. Raising the bar on the hallmark narcissism of the celebrity cult that marks our era, however, many in our postmodern artistic community have taken a break from old-fashioned creativity to become anti-war panjandrums in the lockstep leftist parade of America-bashers.
First it was the usual Hollywood suspects, deploying their actorly wiles to produce polished video and sound bites denouncing the Bush administration for their warmongering. What, Susan Sarandon asked, staring limpidly into the camera in wide-eyed innocence and a little thespian quaver to the voice, have the Iraqis ever done to us? It became Say-No-To-Wollywood 24/7.
Marvelling at the publicity the actors were getting, the poets said to themselves: Why should film stars get all the glory? What are we, chopped liver?
Thus, in February 2003, when First Lady Laura Bush attempted to organize a literary symposium at the White House to promote American literature, Sam Hamill, founder of Poets Against the War, announced his intention of using the occasion to - metaphorically speaking - smack the Bush administration upside the head. In forcing the cancellation of the event, Hamill scuttled what could have been a golden opportunity for lesser-known writers to gather, perform and network with their literary idols. Hamill went on to organize an electronic write-in and received about 15,000 (mostly terrible) anti-war poems. Culled, they are to form an anthology, "100 poets against war 3.0."
Before the footlights at last, poets have swelled with a sense of their importance on the anti-war scene. They seem to think they are…somebodies. But a recent Gallup poll, commissioned because sponsors of the West Wing feared they would suffer from actor Martin Sheen's strident public role in protesting the Iraq war, reveals that 80 per cent of Americans couldn't care less celebrities think about the war, and are not influenced in the slightest by their opinions.
This poll should give the poets pause. If the well-bruited opinions of supernovas Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand are being ignored even by their millions of fans, who is going to listen to the (mostly terrible) poetry of - basically - nobodies who spend their lives in anguished soul-dredging for the benefit of similar nobodies and perhaps .00001 percent of the general population.
One of the great myths in our received wisdom concerning artists is (a poet's dictum) that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". (This statement would have more credibility if written by a legislator, no?). This is wishful thinking on a grand scale. Poets have never been the legislators of downtown parking regulations, acknowledged or un- let alone the source of inspiration for political or military decisions.
But there has been a long history of poetic commentary on war, much of it in robust support of the patriot's honour and the warrior ideal. Indeed, the three most famous poets of western civilization recognized the terrible effects and conditions of war, yet devoted much of their talent and passion to the defense of war in the national interest of their various homelands.
"Would that strife might pass away from among gods and men," said Homer, and yet his The Iliad is the first great war epic. "Arms and the Man I sing" is the opening line of Virgil's The Aeneiad. And finally there is Shakespeare, whose comprehension of the human condition was so definitively explored in his verse that no competititor has come seriously close to matching him in almost 500 years. Is there a line in the 15,000 e-mailed anti-war poems in Sam Hamill's computer that can touch the soul like this famous excerpt from the Battle of Agincourt scene (IV, iii) in Henry V:
"This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
One significant difference between war poets of old and anti-war poets of today is that in previous ages poets lived like ordinary people, not in an academic bell jar of illusory superiority to the common throng. They were immersed in communal and national life, and wrote about what they knew. Not presuming on any special treatment simply because they could rhyme and scan a little better than the next man, they fought for their country and afterward wrote the poems out of their individual experiences. They didn't 'unionize' over an idea, or whip up protest groups to validate their squeamishness. They didn't unite in condemnation of their king or government either. That would have been treason.
In contrast, Sam Hamill once joined the Marines, then realized "I was not willing to kill for my country or my flag." Ever? It's a sad commentary on the state of patriotism amongst the literati when such a public statement can be made with such obvious pride.
In 1649 poet Richard Lovelace begs his mistress, in "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars", not to think ill of him because he is leaving her warm embrace for "a new mistress" (war), "And with a stronger faith embrace/A sword, a horse, a shield." She should forgive him, he says, because "I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honor more." Honour without irony is, one suspects, a concept today's gang of poets would have difficulty understanding.
In his poem "Boots" Rudyard Kipling recognized the tedium and misery of war: "I -'ave-marched-six-weeks in 'Ell an' certify/It-is-not-fire-devils, dark or anything/But boots-boots-boots, movin' up an' down again,/An' there's no discharge in the war!", but he didn't use war's discomforts to justify pacifism in the face of a mortal threat. Indeed, he was England's most passionate advocate for the necessity of war, even pre-emptively where necessary. Had England taken Kipling's advice in pre-emptively disarming Germany when its expansionist goals were evident to all, the First World War - and consequently the Second as well - might very well have been averted.
Perhaps the most famous modern war poet of all is Wilfrid Owen, out of whose own terrible WWI experience came "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est", works evoking the grievous waste of youthful life that war entails. You read his poems and shudder at the horror that may be waiting for American and British young men in Iraq ("Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,/Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time").
Randall Jarrell does the same for the reader of his WWII poems ("I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters./When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose").
There are battles that never should have been fought, that were ill-conceived and contemptuous of human life, such as the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimea in 1854, and certainly conservative thinkers, who understand well the horrors of war, are as put off as anyone else by Tennyson's paean to the nobility of the doomed six hundred of that battle in his "Charge of the Light Brigade" who "rode into the jaws of death" because "Someone had blundered."
But to say that a battle-turned-slaughter is wrong and ignoble is not to say that all war is wrong and all armies ignoble. Conservative thinkers understand the difference, and know when a just war should be supported - or at the very least they know not to give comfort to the enemy, which has been the unfortunate effect of well-publicized celebrity apologists in the case of Iraq.
There is a middle ground for poets between the rote glorification of war and rote America-bashing. You can hate the idea of war in general, and write about it for any medium that will publish it, yet decline the temptation to parade the ignorance, naivete and sense of entitlement that have become the signature features of the American "artistic" community. What rhymes with "almost nobody cares what you think of the war."? How about "Self-serving scribes start to make people snore…"

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