The old question of poetry's authority in political life has been in the news again. Poets protesting the Bush administration's policies—especially its plans for war in Iraq—by declining invitations to Mrs. Bush's White House poetry event on Feb. 12; poets (some of the same ones) protesting when Mrs. Bush canceled the event; critics praising the poets or deriding them.
These events recall the long history of poetry and war, from the Homeric poems to the Vietnam War teach-ins, with Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg marching on the Pentagon. Here are some of the poems that went through my mind in response to the recent controversy. First, two drastically different ways of dealing with the question of political engagement or disengagement. On one side, William Butler Yeats' poem "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.
Of course this poem is political: written by an Irish poet in relation to the English participation in World War I. But Yeats' title carefully puts the focus on the request for a war poem; he declines to "meddle" on a specific occasion. On the other hand, Yeats wrote a great poem, "Easter 1916," that certainly does engage political material—in this case, the famous IRA uprising in Dublin on that date—though the power of that poem lies in its ambivalence.
Political in a quite different and more overt way is Yvor Winters' poem "Before Disaster," comparing countries to car traffic on the highway—still a relatively new and terrifying sight in the early 1930s:
Evening traffic homeward burns
Swift and even on the turns,
Drifting weight in triple rows,
Fixed relation and repose.
This one edges out and by,
Inch by inch with steady eye.
But should error be increased,
Mass and moment are released;
Matter loosens, flooding blind,
Levels drivers to its kind.
Ranks of nations thus descend,
Watchful, to a stormy end.
By a moment's calm beguiled,
I have got a wife and child.
Fool and scoundrel guide the State.
Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.
Nowhere may I turn to flee:
Action is security.
Treading change with savage heel,
We must live or die by steel.
Winters' poem, with its sense of immense lethal forces barely controlled and soon to be released, seems particularly suited to this moment of waiting for war—more so, perhaps, than the Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg poems of trench warfare that have been recently read at public events.
Unfortunately, World War I's poetry of military horror may become more germane any minute. Here is Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," with its terrifying evocation of mustard gas—no longer just an archaic period reference:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like of old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind:
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
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.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in sonic 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 talk with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
These poems were written in the 20th century; older poems speak to the moment with another kind of authority. The most ancient poem I have heard at any public reading these recent weeks is Tom Sleigh's version of an ancient Babylonian text. The city of Ur is in modern Iraq—partially under an Iraqi airbase, I am told.