Protestors holding signs. One sign reads "ENOUGH."

The Citizen at the End of the World, Part 1

The first portion of a lecture I gave for The Chicago Literary Society on January 16, 2006.

Poetry and Protest

When we think of poets and their public speech today, we are likely to think of poetry as protest. In America our poets oppose, with a passion approaching ferocity, the war in Iraq and the current administration generally. Many of you will recall “Poets Against the War,” the Internet-based, anti-war demonstration that drew such attention a few years ago. That opposition continues, most recently in a letter from the poet Sharon Olds publicly declining an invitation to the White House: “I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of candles, and I could not stomach it.” Many of you will also remember our poets in protest forty years ago, when the war was Vietnam and the poet was Robert Lowell, publicly refusing an invitation to visit the Johnson White House. It would be easy to connect these dots, and other dots in the history of Modernist poetry, and conclude that this is what poets have always done: oppose their government, and protest in time of war. The purpose of my talk this evening, “The Citizen at the End of the World: The Poet’s Role in Society,” is to test that impression against a historical context and then, more broadly, to think about poetry and responsibility.

Anti-war poetry began not as a poetry of political protest so much as a poetry which registered the horrors of modern warfare. In the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in 1919, a week before the Armistice ending the First World War, the sensibility of a Georgian poet runs full tilt into the realities of trench warfare on the western front.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning….
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.

This poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” serves our discussion as a kind of fulcrum point. Not only does it set the tone for the 20th century war poetry which followed; but the irony of its title makes the point that the poet’s attitude towards war was not always thus. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” translates to “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” Horace may have written those words, a few decades before the birth of Christ, knowing that they would be read by his patron, the Roman emperor Augustus — but he wrote them nonetheless. Virgil, a mentor of Horace who also enjoyed the patronage of Augustus, struck much the same tone in The Aeneid. Armed combat in The Aeneid is the occasion for heroes to demonstrate their courage, strength, cunning, their leadership in the pursuit of noble aims. Virgil took as the model for his epic the twin epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Here again, for Homer war is the stage on which human destiny — with divine intervention — plays out. Vivid scenes of hand-to-hand combat — fully as gruesome as those in Owen’s poem — populate The Iliad. But death in combat, in all its gory detail, leads neither Homer nor Virgil nor Horace to repugnance and the moral repudiation of Owen and the Modernists. It probably did not occur to the ancients to think of war as something avoidable — or even undesirable. Virgil used the Trojan War to create a mythical past and divine sponsorship for his Rome. Homer used it to explain the ways of gods to men. That tradition carried over into English literature, when Milton wrote his Christian epic to explain the ways of God to man. In Paradise Lost, the battle for Heaven between God and Lucifer is the necessary prelude to explaining original sin. For most of the history of Western literature — call it 3,000 years — the attitude of poets has not been to oppose war per se. The anti-war poetry that is with us today is of recent vintage — not quite a century.

The poetry of political protest, as distinct from anti-war poetry, has a somewhat longer, but not dissimilar history. A few years ago, when I was teaching poetry in an MFA program, a faculty colleague posed this question to my class: How can one write poetry in an empire? The question referred to the Bush administration (the “empire” was America today) and the war in Iraq. My answer, not the one she wanted to hear, was that most poetry has been written under conditions of empire. Given the political history of the world, which is basically the story of the rise and fall of empires, it could hardly be otherwise. If we confine “poetry of political protest” to its current meaning, which is poetry written against one’s own government, it goes back further than anti-war poetry, if not so far as the ancients. Because Ireland has produced so many great poets, and because Ireland has for so long been a restive member of the British Empire, one can find a strain of protest extending back through the 20th century and beyond. The satires of Swift connect in an unbroken line to the poems of Yeats on the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Nor is the poetry of political protest limited to the Irish. In the English Romantic poets the political awakening that was then sweeping Europe is clearly present. Although none of these wrote poems against their own government, Wordsworth embraced the French Revolution, initially at least; Byron died with the freedom fighters in Greece; Shelley was a political firebrand. Nor is the poetry of protest limited to the British Empire. The underground poetry that survives from the Stalin era certainly includes political protest. And there might have been more Osip Mandelstams had the penalties for such writing not included the gulag or execution.

But not all political poetry is a poetry of protest. Running as deep and perhaps much further back, is the poetry of patriotism and love for one’s country. I don’t mean here “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and similar verse from the front which is not taken seriously in the poetry community. I mean Whitman in poems such as “I Hear America Singing” and “For You O Democracy” and all of the martial poems in Drum-Taps, including “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” I mean the plays of Shakespeare, whose histories were carefully crafted to celebrate and justify the Elizabethan monarchy whose patronage the King’s Men enjoyed. And the Greeks, who called upon the poet Simonides to write the epitaph for the fallen Spartans at Thermopolae:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie.

Why, then, is the poetry now written in America, when it addresses war and politics, so vituperative and single-sided? One reason, I think, is that most of the anti-war poets have not been there. They write not from a personal experience of combat but from university campuses, where patriotism is not fashionable and opposition to war is a matter of principle and political persuasion. Actual combat experience is by turns boring, exhausting, terrifying. Poetry written from the battlefield is likely to take no position at all on the wisdom or necessity of the war in which it occurs. Its subject is the intensity and complexity of combat itself: the self-knowledge that comes uniquely from looking death in the face. (Think of The Red Badge of Courage, where the protagonist wonders whether he will fight or run — and in the event does both.)

That leaves unanswered the question of why there is no second strain — the poetry of patriotism and love of country — apparent in contemporary American poetry. It is a question I can pose but not answer. It is a question that invites reflection by other poets.

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