SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER review of Voices http
Friday, April 15, 2005
By WILLIAM ARNOLD
In early 2003, apparently unaware that the literary establishment of the nation was opposed to the war in Iraq, first lady Laura Bush invited a group of eminent American poets to the White House for a symposium on American Poetry.
When the invitees all threatened to come with a solid anti-war agenda, the White House symposium was abruptly canceled, but the non-event had put the poets into e-mail contact, and inspired them to mobilize into a politically active group called "Poets Against the War."
Rick King's eloquent and informative documentary, "Voices in Wartime," chronicles and celebrates this specific organization, while going back to trace the long history of verse as a vehicle for expressing the inexpressible horror of war.
The most unlikely poignant voice of the film's many interviewees is Lt. Gen. William Lennox, the superintendent of West Point, who has his cadets read war poets because he believes theirs is the only literary genre that can capture the totality of the combat experience.
As evidence for this, the film stages readings from "The Iliad" of Homer, Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson's Civil War poems, and the works of the shell-shocked WWI poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Among the several dozen contemporary poets who read and explain their work are Vietnam vet David Connolly, Seattle poet Emily Warn (whose father never recovered from WWII) and two Iraqi poets who suffered under Saddam but see the American presence as an equal nightmare.
Other interviewees are journalists and authors who make the case that war has long been a constant -- some three dozen are in progress around the world at any moment -- but has profoundly changed in our lifetimes because it is now waged primarily against civilians.
As a group, the poets seem very confident, almost cocky, about their craft's special ability to bear witness for humanity, to express universal truth in a scoundrel time and even change policy -- "to fill the air with poems so thick that even bombs can't fall through."
At first I found this confidence rather naive, but the film gradually delivers a good education on the power of poetry to mold culture and argues convincingly that, if nothing else, the poets are putting a much-needed voice of reason into the air.
King also ends his film with a quote from Sophocles that shook me right out of my cynicism: "History says, Don't hope/ On this side of the grave/ But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up/ And hope and history rhyme."
P-I movie critic William Arnold can be reached at 206-448-8185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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