In his interview for Voices in Wartime, Todd Swift discusses the poets’ need to speak out on an issue. In te excerpt below, Swift speaks of poets historically who have written about war. He also talks of the role that the Internet is playing in promoting poetry globally.
In some ways I feel that the Poets Against the War movement encouraged the other movements that then sprang up. Of course by the time you had this wonderful march in London for example, and in other cities where millions of people were marching; at that point it became truly everyone’s war to protest against. But for the first month or two, the people out there in the lead were the poets. The ones that almost made it safe for everyone to realize, “Hey wait a minute, this is something that we can do.”
And you know the thing about poets is they’re always the first to broach a subject, or to dare to say something, they break taboos — that’s what they do in society. And they don’t have as much to lose; you know we didn’t see a lot of filmmakers against the war at first, or a lot of rock stars against the war. Why? Because they have more to lose, in a few cases where people did speak out, they were censored or there were problems. People in the media were losing their jobs, they were threatened.
Poets don’t make a lot of money, and they’re not often in positions of authority, so it’s more difficult to intimidate them. S o I think that they were in an ideal position around the world to speak out, as Ezra Pound has said, “Poets are the antennae of society, of civilization.” And that’s what happened in this case.
What is the role of poets—to criticize, to look at society, and to give it an unjaundiced look?
The role of poets — there’s a lot of roles for poets—and one of the things that can never be forgotten is that poetry is an art form. I’m going to set that aside in a moment, but I want to get that on record. Because a lot of people have criticized me, and other people like Sam Hamill, almost as if we’re selling false goods or shoddy goods; as if we’re trying to put across poetry that isn’t real poetry.
Poetry is an art form, it’s like ballet or painting, I mean it can be done well or it can be done badly. That being said, what poetry is—and we all know this, I mean we’ve all seen a poem—poetry is playing with language. And it’s always a balance between new ways of using language and what language refers to, which is the world. So actually, it was an ideal moment for poets to speak out because this was a war of rhetoric. Before the war began what was happening was that we had spin doctors, particularly in England that were—and this has of course become extremely controversial with the Lord Hutton report, and the BBC, and the weapons of mass destruction, and did they exist or didn’t they—but there were all these reports, and there were all these claims being made by Blair and Bush.
It was a time of rhetoric, because they were of course trying to build this up, as Churchill did during the war, beautifully. But we had these war leaders who were using rhetoric to build up this kind of war fever. Poets were ideally placed to puncture that web of language, because they use language in a way that is more honest, more direct, and more concise. They cut through the jargon, and they express what people feel, and they show how language can be used in a different way, perhaps in a more honest way.
And I think that’s the role of poets, and that’s why poets became so invaluable to this effort. I mean obviously, I wouldn’t encourage everyone to protest, but when you’re dealing with language and exposing its flaws anyway, you’re in a good position to criticize when language is lying to us. But don’t you think that the strength of a poet—whether it’s Shakespeare, or Shelley, or Allen Ginsberg—that a lot of the strength of poets and poetry, is its absolute honesty?
Poetry is either absolutely honest or absolutely dishonest, and I’m not sure which it is, because it works on so many different levels. On the one level, no poet who’s ever written a poem to his mistress or to a woman he claims to love is telling the whole story. Half of what the poem’s about is how—and this is especially the case with Shakespeare—half of the poem is about how great I am, and how famous I am, and I’m going to live forever.
Because you know, the use of language is wonderful; so there’s always duplicity with poetry. Poets are vain like most artists, they’re very creative and they’re living in a world where they’re threatened because they’re not commercially viable for the most part, they’re not really successful in the eyes of the world in the way that most people judge success these days. But that being said, poets do take risks and they have been driven—historically—by conscience and by wishing to speak out and there is a wonderful tradition of political poetry.
I don’t accept the idea that a poem has to be either aesthetic and beautiful or political, I think they can be all, and I think that we’ve seen throughout history poets that have— from Shakespeare to [John] Milton, who’s poetry was quite political, to Dylan Thomas writing poems during the Blitz— that they are extraordinary; very, very moving. They work supremely well as poems but they also send a strong message.
Is the Internet really suited to poetry? Do you think it is a medium that poetry’s been waiting for?
I think poems and the Internet are an ideal match because you have a form, you have a poem, which is text, which is words; and it’s easy to send out on the Internet. And the Internet can reach, as we know, instantaneously tens of thousands or maybe millions of people, the Internet’s an incredible delivery system for poetry, for text. And what it is that you have with a poem that you don’t have with just a normal email? You have a message that’s been crafted in a delightful way that intrigues people so that they want to share it with their friends.
So what we were discovering at that moment was that if people wrote poems that were clever, or witty, or satirical about Bush or Blair, or had a strong emotional message about why war was best avoided, these poems could not only be sent out but then re-circulated. Because people like them and wanted to share them with their friends. It was just a moment when poems were in vogue and the Internet was perfectly suited to deliver them quickly.
Do you think it’s a good thing for poetry that this medium is available? As opposed to 1,000 copies of a book.
I think that the way new media has impacted not just poetry, but literature in the last few years is—there’s no other way of saying it—is a paradigm shift, and a lot of publishers and writers haven’t accepted that yet. I mean I, myself, I’m not writing hyper-poetry. That’s a different thing, that’s almost a new form in and of itself.
But even the idea of distributing poetry or any kind of book, electronically by the Internet, is only now just beginning to find its full role and impact. And what it’s going to do, and what actually happened with the 100 Poets Against the War e-book—which had never happened before and which is historical, and has to be remembered—is that e-books had been around for several years.
Stephen King had put one out, had tried to sell it. No one went to them, they were like floating there in cyberspace, and you’d put out an e-book with your poems or the memoirs of your grandmother’s trip to Africa. It would be wonderful, it would be there in cyberspace, but your mother and three friends would go and get it; no one else would.
No one had found a way to connect the audience that was there with the idea of the e-book. And by suddenly distributing the e-book link in an email and by having it available—not on just one web site—but saying hey, “Put this on as many web sites as you want, download it, it’s free.” Suddenly it all exploded, because a lot of things came together at once: ubiquity, not having to pay for it, and a reason to read it. So when people get very excited about the Internet, and literature or poetry at this time, we can never forget that it’s because people were angry at the war that was looming. It wasn’t because literature suddenly became more special, or the poets were suddenly better, or that everyone in the world was using the Internet and was suddenly more enlightened. It was just that there was a zeitgeist moment, a moment that isn’t there now, a moment that came together when people around the world felt something very wrong was happening. And they found one way to protest it that was quite effortless and fun.
But the Internet will learn from this and will move on; but that moment is gone. There’ll be other iterations or other forms of it, but it’s a process—if I can just say one thing–that mainstream publishers didn’t learn from. They continue to produce books, and people continue to buy them, and the system is still chugging along. But eventually people will realize, “Wait a minute, it happened once. Books were free, books were eminently available.” And they’ll return to that; maybe when it’s easier to produce, to download books in an attractive format.
Art Form, Popular Medium, or Both?
One of the things that you’ve mentioned and I think you feel a bit uncomfortable with it also—is the idea of poetry as a sort of popular medium. But isn’t anti-war poetry a bit like pamphleteering in a way? Do you think this should have the same form of criticism that academic poetry does?
Some critics were saying that the poetry that was being written wasn’t real poetry and in some cases they were right. There were a lot of people writing things and some of it was doggerel. Just like there will always be poems, we write them on Valentine’s Day, that aren’t very good but maybe they’re sincere. So that’s not a fair criticism.
As the Poet Laureate of America, Billy Collins said last year or two years ago, “Ninety-three percent of everything is crap.” So why criticize poetry, when 93% of that is crap? I mean, it’s just a given. Excellence is always rare. But really it’s unfair to say, “Hey wait a minute, a lot of this political stuff, it’s not very good.” Because people are going to write poems about their dogs, or falling in love, or when someone dies; these are legitimate reasons to write.
And some of the poems are going to be very moving and some of them are not going to be. In general the question, has good poetry ever been written that’s political? Well obviously, yes. In fact I can’t think of many major poems that aren’t political. The very first great poem by Homer, which is the one that frames all of our civilization’s relationship to poetry, is political. Both The Odyssey, and The Iliad, these are political poems.They’re about war; they’re about society, the divine comedy.The great medieval poetic masterpiece is a profoundly political poem, I mean Dante puts Popes in hell, in certain circles of hell, there’s nothing that could have been more political an act than that and he got in trouble for it. Milton’s poem Paradise Lost was a thinly veiled allegory on the Civil War and issues in Britain at the time.
There has never been a major poet who hasn’t written a major poem that had an explicit or maybe even a hidden reference to politics.We are political animals and poets are social beings. We’re very excited about politics. Ezra Pound’s bizarre sprawling masterpiece The Cantos; it’s riddled with politics. So I don’t really accept the idea that once you set out to write anything political it’s necessarily less well-written, or less enjoyable, or less crafted, or less classical. That’s just not true.
If you start in World War I, you get these great poets. Get to World War Two, and it’s still highly educated poets but much more identifying themselves not as officers with a responsibility to the enlisted men but as enlisted men or as parts of a machine. And then you get to Vietnam and it is working class guys, who are writing very powerful poetry.
Talk to us a little bit about this sort of sequence in terms of poetry and war?
At the beginning of the 20th century the idea of the war poet was not an anti-war poet. The war poet was someone who was in the war, probably an officer who had been educated at Cambridge or Oxford, and certainly in England this was the tradition. And with the great First World War poems, their strength comes from the fact that it’s a collision between two worlds, an extraordinarily barbaric modern world —and we’re all familiar now with the brutality of the trench warfare and the use of technology really in a whole different way—with these very refined sensibilities.These were not 20th-century poets, up until the moment that they experienced these bombardments and this horrific mass-slaughter. So what you get there is the first flowering of modernism in poetry. So what makes the First World War in relation to war poetry special is the poetry is particularly good.
Now there aren’t really very many famous Second World War poets and certainly we don’t have anthologies of Second World War poetry in the same way that we do First World War poetry. Yes they’re there, but everyone lumps them in with the First World War poets and keeps going back to them. The reason is that by the Second World War poets knew that war was terrible.
All of the old Napoleonic illusions of you meet on a battlefield and, “Isn’t this, aren’t we dressed wonderfully? And isn’t the weather fine? And can’t you wait to just get back after the end of the day into the tent and have some sherry and talk about it, and compare little wounds from sabers or whatever?” That was gone. Everyone knew it was horrific; it was a nightmare. So there wasn’t the same—and modernism had already flowered with Eliot at that point—you didn’t have an incredible transition in language taking place.
Nor did you have an incredible transition in sensibility, it was kind of the status quo, “Okay, more slaughter. We’re going to use more modernistic techniques. Where do we go from there?” But by Vietnam, what was interesting is that post-modernism had been introduced because the beat tradition in America is essentially post-modernist. It’s suddenly, it’s guys who aren’t afraid to say, “I take drugs. I have sex, often with people that aren’t women.” And also they’re exploring different religions and different cultures, Buddhism, Eastern traditions in general. All that comes together and it’s a different kind of war again and you have different kinds of people facing that war, so that the anti-war poetry in Vietnam—and the poetry written about Vietnam—is interesting again. And I think what’s also happened now, and what happened in 2003 and 2004, is that once again we had a shift both in technology and in sensibility of language.
Changes in War and Changes in Poetry
We were talking about changes in poetry and war from World War One to World War Two to Vietnam, and you mentioned that there was something new that was happening. What was that?
When poetry and war become interesting together is when you have a shift in sensibility. When war changes or when the language the poets use change; and in World War One, that happened. Because the battlefield techniques were different, the equipment was different, the technology was different, and so was the poetry. Because these were 19th century people who were suddenly faced with a whole different way of fighting.
So it was an interesting collision of experiences, and we got great writing from that and very powerful writing. The Second World War was less interesting because people were familiar with the brutality of war at this point and total war, and we still had a kind of modernist sensibility. By the Vietnam time, with the beat poets and also Robert Lowell and confessionalism, you had a different sensibility. You had subjectivity, an introduction to people much more honest about their own sexuality, their willingness to take drugs and experiment in general—that was the 60’s—coming up against a different kind of war in Vietnam, a kind of police action. And again at the beginning of the 21st century, what really made this whole collision of poetry, war, and protest—I think once again innovative and interesting like it was in the First World War—is that poets are writing differently again. They’re much more innovative, they’re being much more experimental.
No one had really used the Internet technology in the same way to distribute the poems and I think everyone was amazed by how they were reaching everyone else, which created a kind of coffeehouse atmosphere but on a global level. You could write a poem and then share it with someone you know in India, or someone in India could suddenly be sharing a poem with someone in Indiana; it was extraordinary. People were excited by that, so they were challenged to write new and better poems, and try out new things. But also the war was different, and in the sense that we weren’t; you know it as famously a war with embedded media, and more and more so-called “smart technology”. And this is what the poets were writing about, a lot of them were writing about the language of war, about the involvement of the media, about the camera eye being their eye.
A lot of the poets of course weren’t in Iraq during the lead up to the war, but they felt that they were there. They felt uniquely that they were almost in the boardrooms where Bush and Blair were meeting, but they also felt that they were on the battlefield because of the way the war was being packaged for them. And so it allowed the poets to kind of unpack that packaging and re-explain it and re-explore it.
How did the poets feel that they were actually there on the battlefield?
The poets that were writing pre-war about the war, they mostly weren’t actually in the war but they felt that they were. And what I think was unique about this moment is the way that the media had packaged the build-up to the war and the war itself. It was as if they were in the boardrooms or the secret meetings between Bush and Blair. And then when the war happened, with the embedded media, the way it was presented, the poets felt that they were able to unpack the package they were being given by the media and then re-present in a new way in the poems. There was this willingness to really play with the ideas of the language that the Pentagon was using, the language that the media was using to describe the events that were taking place, and to re-describe the images. One of the things that I think is incredible about this moment, is that a lot of people thought we had already discovered that war was hell.
And of course over the 20th century—anti-war poets, even the war poets of the First World War— they’re writing poetry to shock us, to tell us, “War is terrible. Look at the rats, look at the exploded people, look at the stinking muck in the trenches.” But this had been forgotten by the time of the 21st century, and what the poets had to do again—but without being there—was re-describe those images. Almost to reeducate the public, to say, “Wait a minute, you’re being told this is going to be a painless war. You’re being told that no one’s going to get hurt. But the bombs are still going to explode and innocent people are still going to get maimed.” So a lot of the poems are about what happens to children and what happens to innocent people. A lot of the poems are about collateral damage and reminding us that it still happens.
A lot of the poetry was talking about people that the press could not see, the Iraqis, the civilians, the people that they are not embedded with. Are the poets speaking for people who don’t have a voice?
A lot of the poems in the build-up to the war and then when the war started, were writing about the people that weren’t being described in the mainstream media; the people that were being killed. And most of the people that were being killed were innocent civilians that just happened to be Iraqi because it was Iraq that was being attacked.
So a lot of the poems that we received, were just describing that terrible loss of innocence; the brutality of war, and the injustice of it. And I think what was driving the anger of the poets was that the war was not being described to us as a necessary evil, it was being described to us almost as a necessary delight. No one actually came out in the British or the American government and said, “This is going to be terrible, and we’re very sorry, but we have to do it.” They said, “We have to do it.” And then they forgot to mention the terrible nature of it. And the poets were describing that—and certain journalists with a conscience like Robert Fisk and people like that—and there were many of them—but certainly the embedded journalists were, for the most part, selling a story or providing us a line that was being spun by the Pentagon.
Discussion Questions: Poets Are the First to Broach a Subject
- How do poets pave the way for others to say what is on their minds?
- Why is it that poets seem to be the first to speak out on a social issue, cause or political event?
- Do you agree with Todd Swift that poetry is an art form? What is your reasoning?
- Swift makes reference to the Hutton report. Investigate the reason for the report and discuss its significance to the Iraqi War.
- Swift claims that the time leading up to the Iraqi War was a “time of rhetoric.” Explain what you think he meant by that? Has this time continued? What effect does using language correctly have on people? How does poetry super cede rhetoric?
- Swift speaks of some poetry as “doggerel.” What does he mean by this? What place does such poetry have?
- In his interview Swift talks of poets through the ages who have written political poetry—John Milton, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg. Research the writings of these men and report on their work.
- What place does the internet and e-books have for promoting poetry?