Emily Warn offered Voices in Wartime an extensive interview, talking candidly about her father who fought in the Second World War and the effect that war had on him. She also discusses the role of poetry in her life and the writings of other poets. Below is an excerpt from the interview.
What about Walt Whitman?
Walt Whitman is one of my favorite war poets and one of my favorite poets just in general. And he wrote very movingly about war because of his sense of compassion for the soldier who is wounded or dying in battle. Now compassion, of course, means suffering with, so he didn’t necessarily lionize or glamorize the soldier, but he spoke about [war] in terms that were very real. His beautiful poem “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” is about staying up with a very young soldier who died when he was with him. He just sat with him all night until it became light enough that he could bury him. That poem was very similar to what Jonathan Shay talked about—how soldiers have to respect the burial rights of their special comrades—so he could write in that poem about digging a grave and wrapping the soldier in a blanket and at the same time talk about the boy as someone who had felt but could no longer respond to kisses.
So what Whitman does is what the best poets do—he creates a poem which is just words, and he organizes the words in such a way that they become a felt presence. And when we read that poem we encounter ourselves in it, so in this great poem “Leaves Of Grass” when he says “I celebrate myself, I sing myself, what I shall assume you shall assume, and every atom belonging to me is good, belongs to you,” does he mean we literally have his atoms? No. What he’s saying is, he is making audible a connection between us and other human beings, between us and nature.
So in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” which is a marvelous poem about that, he says, “For me, the many long gone voices, voices of the interminable prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseased and the despairing, of the thieves and dwarves, voices of the preparation and accretion of cycles, of the threads that connect the stars.” So Whitman very much writes poems in which there’s a current moving through them, and that current is one in which there is sympathetic suffering and sympathetic joy. And that is one of the functions of poetry—that poetry, unlike prose, organizes language so that it approximates music, and because it’s rhythmic, and because we then speak it in our own bodies, because we embody the voice of Whitman, we then continue on this transfer of energy. That’s what Muriel Rukeyser called the poem, a transfer of human energy.
What do you think the role of the poet is in a war?
I think there are actually many roles a poet can play in relation to war. There are many different types of war poems: there are protest poems, poems of witness, poems of grieving. Poetry has the ability to express and evoke the full range of human emotion, so in part it’s just an expression of the range of emotion that people, men and women, feel, going to war.
I think that good poems about war, that bear witness to the reality of war, imply a trustworthy listener, that they have organized the language in such a way both rhythmically and syntactically to evoke those emotions in such a way that one can listen and experience it. So poetry, if you’re a soldier who turns to poetry to write, could help you heal by knitting together your consciousness. I think poetry helps a culture grieve, that if we’re going to integrate people who have suffered from war, from violence that’s so extraordinary that it fractures consciousness, if we hope to integrate those people back into our communities, then we need in some way to make the grief communal. I think poetry in some way makes grief communal.
What does [poetry] allow the people who are feeling this grief to do? Does it allow them to dissipate it?
I think that in expressing grief, in making it communal, [poetry] does create a place for it. Poetry, unlike prose, has a great deal of silence surrounding it. So there are two kinds of silence. There’s a kind of silent emptiness I felt growing up—that’s a deadness, that’s a despair that many sufferers from combat trauma feel—but there’s also a silence that’s a sense of emptiness in which all things arise and fall away. So I think poetry in giving voice to grief does allow it to rise up and fade away, but it does so in a way that allows us to re-experience it without harming ourselves, so that it doesn’t need to be something that we need to be continually fixated on.
And I think this is what sufferers of combat trauma like my father suffer from: They are continually reliving the experience of emptiness or being fractured in hopes of mastering it, but they’re continually losing because they have no way to organize something that was the absolute definition of disorder. And poetry does that. For some reason, poetry, whether it’s war poetry or poetry about anything else, creates an order out of something that was disorderly. But in creating that order, in putting together words in a certain way, you actually unlock consciousness, you can open it up then to possibility. And that is what to me is the joy of being human, that there are endless possibilities of who we might become as individuals in relation to one another.
I think poetry allows us to exist in uncertainty. To heal as a result of listening to a poem doesn’t mean that you sew everything up and it’s all rosy and you feel consoled. It’s that you somehow are then given strength to exist with the uncertainty that anything could and might happen.
So you’re saying that [poetry] doesn’t necessarily take away the grief but by articulating it, by making it concrete in a way…
I’m saying that poems about war and grieving don’t necessarily end with everyone feeling good, or they don’t redeem, or they don’t find some meaning that allows you to go on. What they do is provide you an experience of grief or uncertainty or anxiety that rises up and falls away, so that you know then, the next time something like that happens, a car backfires, OK, I’m gonna’ feel this but it’ll rise up and fall away.
Discussion Questions: American Voices: The Poet in Wartime
- Research the writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Comment on her statement that a poem is “a transfer of human energy.” How does this transfer occur in the poetry of Walt Whitman as talked by Emily Warn in her interview?
- Comment on each of the three types of war poetry Warn describes: protest, poems of witness, poems of grieving. What type of poem is her poem, “California Poppy?” Explain your answer.
- How would you describe grief? How have you experienced grief? How can poetry help a person cope with grief?
- Warn talks about the silence of poetry. Explain what you think she means by her statement.