Prosody and Protest
Michael True, author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature, lives in Worcester. He reviews Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 by Philip Metres, University of Iowa Press, 2007, 282 pages. $39.95 cloth.
Surveying the poetry of war resistance from the Second World War to the Iraq wars, Philip Metres provides a useful commentary on a particular genre of recent American poetry. Of particular interest are individual chapters on the work of Robert Lowell, William Stafford, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), Denise Levertov, and June Jordan. A final chapter, "Proliferations: Sites of Resistance Since September 2001," suggests that recent work demonstrates "the possibilities of a new rapprochement between poetry and war resistance culture."
The principal argument of the book is convincing, that American poets and poetry "have played a crucial and even defining role in articulating, representing, and sustaining war resistance… both in their physical involvement in activism and in their poetry."
The evidence for his position is best conveyed in discussions of Stafford, Levertov, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. Less successful is the author's sometimes academic discourse. The introduction, for example, poses the following questions about lyric poetry: "how do war resister poets attempting to make visible Empire and its culture of Pure War, negotiate the lyric's tendency to privilege the transcendental moment over narrative, the effusions of subjective experience over cold knowledge, the immediate and the momentary over the distant and narrative, the individual voice over the din of the crowd?"
Are these the most important questions about why one should read the poetry of war resistance? Is a poem's being about war resistance a principal reason for our reading it? Perhaps that is true for this particular study, but I am not sure that a thoughtful reader approaches or responds to a work of art in that way. Isn't there a distinction to be made, also, between verse that condemns the horror of war and poetry that conveys "the pity of war," in the words of Wilfred Owen? Why does Owen's "Futility," for example, communicate a profound loss in the death of a young soldier, while other "anti-war" poems simply confirm the old adage that "war is hell"? The first poem may provoke us to action to try to end war, while the second may merely confirm our earlier awareness.
Philip Metres addresses these important questions, but in a way that may distance the poems rather than bringing them up close. In his words, the study "oscillates between chapters that contextualize the war resistance work of individual poets and chapters that draw from the broader archive of American war resistance poetry and considers those in the contexts of their production, circulation, and exchange."
The differences between the author's perspective and mine on the poetry of resistance may simply be that he does not expect as much from poetry as I do, and is therefore somewhat more generous in calling "poetry" what is not quite poetry. Although he regards the writers he discusses as "more effective than other imaginative writers in …articulating the vexing dilemmas of nonviolence and direct action," he also assumes that the poet of resistance is inevitably "compromised, incomplete, or idiosyncratic." That may be true of a poem heavily weighted with anti-war rhetoric, but not necessarily of poems combining image, song, and argument -- the characteristics of any good poem.
I make these comments as a way of calling attention to this study of recent American poetry and taking it seriously. In the war culture we are presently enduring, this work focuses on the important intersection between life, peace politics, and art.