In their mouths, love becomes “the triumph of imagination over intelligence” (H.L. Mencken). Hate is “the consequence of fear” (Edmund Burke). Lucy Ellman proposes that “men like war: they do not hold much sway over birth, so they make up for it with death. Unlike women, men menstruate by shedding other people's blood.”
That's their inalienable talent-to shed odd light on the most wily existentialisms and obtuse notions. And for thousands of San Diegans whose loved ones are fighting in Iraq, the emotions are too large to explain: fear, hope, anxiety, pride, anger, sacred love and religious hatred.
That's where poets come in, if they are so inspired.
“Poets are not wiser than others; they use words in more interesting ways,” says Robert Pinsky, one of the poets who will read at this year's farewell performance of Quincy Troupe's music, literature and arts series, Artists on the Cutting Edge: Cross Fertilizations. Though it has been argued that the most visceral art is produced-in bulk-in the darkest hours, Pinsky is skeptical that war will inspire chapbooks of poetry by the truckload.
“I think art is spawned by artists, and it is hard to predict what they do or will do,” he says. “Almost by definition, they do what we don't expect. They are The Anti-Cliché Squad, those artists. Aspiring to be one of them, one aims for a higher destiny than any literary prize or title.”
Those against the U.S. military invasion of Iraq could use a few words used “in more interesting ways” to help them articulate their detraction. Those for the war could use some words used in interesting ways to articulate their support. More importantly-regardless of whether you're waving the flag or burning it-war is a democratic process in that it affects everyone. The lives of friends and strangers are being snuffed out; the survivors may arguably have it harder. Death doesn't consider affiliation.
Pinsky would seem a good man to turn to for perspective. Born in New Jersey in 1940, he was a child during WWII. He graduated from Stanford while the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam. He served as the United States poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, and, as the poetry editor for the online magazine Slate, he has used poetry to elucidate, among other topics, the remembrance of Pearl Harbor, Veterans Day and war in general.
“The old question of poetry's authority in political life has been in the news again,” he wrote in Slate on March 14. It was his introduction to four poems he thought fit our war on Iraq. The first was W.B. Yeats' “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:
I think it better that in times like these A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling, who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter's night.
“The politics of Yeats are not so attractive, but his poems on 1910 and 1916 and on civil war are worth saying over aloud to oneself,” Pinsky explains in an email conversation with CityBeat (not so surprisingly, the poet prefers written interviews).
The other poems Pinsky chose to elucidate the reluctant relationship between poetry and war included Yvor Winters' “Before Disaster,” which compares war to a traffic jam that “levels drivers to its kind.” Pinsky was also moved by the grim effects of mustard gas in Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” (“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling”), which is especially fearsome considering Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of chemical and biological weapons.
In another poem of Pinsky's choosing, Robert Lowell wishes “peace to our children when they fall/ in small war on the heels of small/ war-until the end of time...”
It was Lowell who, in 1965, publicly refused Lyndon Johnson's invitation to attend a White House Arts Festival as a protest against U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam.
As it is wont to do, history repeated itself in January when first lady Laura Bush opted to cancel a celebration of the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman because Sam Hamill, a poet and editor of the Washington D.C.'s Copper Canyon Press, had e-mailed friends asking for poems or statements opposing military action against Iraq. Hamill planned to present the poems at the White House during the event.
In numerous published reports, Noelia Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Bush, explained her cancellation as such: “While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.”
The irony, of course, is that poetry is inseparable from politics. Two of the poets Mrs. Bush wished to “honor”-Hughes and Whitman-were very critical of the government in their times. Hughes was placed under FBI surveillance for his criticism. Whitman was even more accusative, claiming the presidency and other offices were “bought, sold, electioneered for, prostituted, and filled with prostitutes.”
Two former U.S. poet laureates-Rita Dove and Stanley Kunitz-called the first lady on her hypocrisy. “This White House does not wish to open its doors to an ‘American voice' that does not echo the administration's misguided policies,” Dove said. Traditionally liberal press like the New York Times and Washington Post hailed the poets; more conservative publications like Newsweek and The Weekly Standard dismissed them.
All of this suggests that a poet laureate plays an interesting part in the United States government. They are chosen to be this country's poetic figurehead, but the poet's political alliances are, to a large degree, inconsequential to their appointment. After all, poets are known more for exploring the human line than towing the company line, which makes the poet laureate a rather unpatriotic sort of patriot.
“I have a provincial cosmopolitan's mistrust of all nationalisms, identity politics, parochial purities. Patriotism is love for the nature and texture of the place that is like your parent, the patria,” Pinsky says.
“I love the mixing and combining and changing of American jazz and cities and movies and poetry. I love the sounds of the language spoken where I grew up in New Jersey. I love our crazy mix of high and low culture. I love our inventions of pizza and chop suey, and the art of Buster Keaton and Emily Dickinson and Dexter Gordon and Preston Sturgis and Frank O'Hara and William Faulkner and Willa Cather and George Balanchine and Robert Hayden. I love the look of towns like Saratoga Springs, New York. I love an American boardwalk, and its smells and sounds.
“That is the direction of my patriotism.”
Poets-from Homer to Lowell to Pinsky-have a long and very contentious relationship with war. The old question arises now: just as Anna Akhmatova immortalized the cruelty of the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s, is it the conscionable responsibility of the poet to use his or her gifts to illuminate what's going on? To capture the unseemly turmoil in words?
“It is my responsibility to evade your expectations-to surprise you or reveal something to you, about what we both know,” says Pinsky. “To ‘capture the times in words' suggests the honorable goal of journalism. What would be the parallel responsibility of the poet? Maybe something like, ‘to see the times from outside the times, as well as inside them?' And not exactly or merely ‘in words' but ‘in the sounds of words and sentences?'”
During his term as poet laureate, Pinsky embarked on a massive project to document America's favorite “sounds of words and sentences.” He called it “The Favorite Poem Project,” based on his belief that poems are meant for voices, not simply the written word. He asked for Americans to submit their favorite poems (he received more than 18,000 submissions), and Pinsky created 50 short documentaries of people reading and talking about poetry that touched them.
“Best of all is the idea that some one other person will read aloud something I wrote-will want to read it aloud, maybe even-greatest glory of all! Get it by heart,” he says. “That is the pinnacle.”
Personally, Pinsky says he agrees with the venerable Sen. Robert Byrd, who says Congress failed to debate “this tremendous issue adequately,” and that the case has not been sufficiently made that the Hussein regime is a real threat to the United States.
“The desire to be unanimous has perhaps stifled our political process, and our desire to be autonomous has distorted-as so often-our participation in it,” the poet suggests. “This doubleness is reflected not only in polls that reveal lukewarm, inconsistent views of the Iraq situation. I find it in my own feelings: I am against our preemptive invasion, and I express that view autonomously. But I want to be part of a unanimous need for us to succeed, if we are committed to this course, however unwisely.”
Pinsky says “poets write about the world they live in.” And as CNN's live broadcasts rumble out of our television sets with the muffled detritus of bombs hitting the earth, it's obvious that this is the world we now live in.
Pinsky may feel compelled to read a war poem during his time in San Diego. He may not. For all we know, Pinsky may simply contemplate the shirt on his back:
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams, The nearly invisible stitches along the collar Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break Or talking money or politics while one fitted This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter, The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union, The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
-from “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky
SCHEDULE FOR ARTISTS ON THE CUTTING EDGE
April 3 James Luna, Kartik Seshadri and Robert Pinsky
April 10 Jeffrey Reynard Allen, Greg Osby and Jane Hirschfield
April 17 Nora Okja Keller, Gary Snyder and Mississippi Charles Bevel
April 24 Vinx, Diana Garcia and Robert Stone
May 1 Elizabeth Alexander, Michael Ondaatje and Bill Saxton