Montague Reporter - Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno

(This article first appeared in The Montague Reporter, Massachusetts, 9/16/04)

The ancient Sumerians (Iraqis) told them:

Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.  You are blood rushing down like a mountain.

Homer told them:

Hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds...

The 16th Century Maya told them:

The misery goes on
day after night after day
goes on and on
patiently punishing the earth
and all its mournful children.

Walt Whitman told them:

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket
And buried him where he fell.

Wilfred Owen told them:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out these hasty orisons

Siegfried Sassoon told them:

Does it matter—losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

And E.E. Cummings, to whom I owe this paraphrase, told them:

…I told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no

sir)it took
a nipponsized bit of
the old sixth

avenue el;in the top of his head:to tell

And now, our contemporary poets are telling us too:  War = death, dismemberment, destruction and despair.  War = wounds that never heal; souls that never recover.

This message is the theme of Voices in Wartime, a new documentary film directed by Rick King that premiered across the country on the evening of September 11.  Ellen Watson, director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, arranged for a local showing at Smith’s Wright Hall.   The film opens in theaters nationally beginning April 8th.  >>>>>

Voices in Wartime is a startling, gripping film that chronicles the writings of poets about war.  Interspersed with the contemporary footage of poets—famous and unknown--reading their work are often grisly and horrifying segments depicting the actual face of war: Civil War soldiers face down in the mud; infantrymen dying in the trenches in World War I, the bombings of cities during World War II, bloodied soldiers and civilians (many of them children) in Vietnam, and, of course, the mayhem in Iraq.  There are also poignant scenes of “forgotten” wars such as those in Biafra and Columbia, where civilians were mainly the casualties of power politics.

Voices in Wartime reveals how for millennia poets have taken a stand, how war has always compelled poets to speak out, to chronicle the horror with words.  The haunting verse of poets long gone, such as Homer, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Shoda Shinoe from Hiroshima are combined with more recent voices: South Boston native, David Connolly, a Vietnam vet; Sinan Anoon and other poets in war-torn Baghdad; and Nigerian poet Chris Abani, a poet whose family experienced the devastating war in Biafra.  

Soldiers, journalists, historians and experts on combat are also interviewed in Poetry in Wartime.  All of these, including Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., Superintendent of West Point, add diverse perspectives on war’s effects on soldiers, civilians and society.

The apparent inspiration for the film was Laura Bush’s rescinding of an invitation to American poet Sam Hamill to participate in a symposium on Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson at The White House.  When it became clear to the Bush folks that Hamill intended to follow in the footsteps of his poetic forebears and use the occasion to read poems that told the true story of war, the White House abruptly cancelled the event.  Within days, Hamill, with the help of fellow poet Emily Warn, put together a website called Poets Against the War ( Within days, poems began to arrive for posting on the site.  As of last week, there were over 16,000 contributions, including many from children and young people.  The contemporary poets featured in this documentary are all contributors to the website and Hamill’s organization.  

Among the more famous poets featured are Hamill, Marie Howe, Marilyn Nelson, Emily Warn, Rachel Bentham, Terry Tempest Williams and Todd Swift.  But the unknowns are also quite remarkable.  Nine-year-old Alexandra Sanyal from Boston recites a moving poem she wrote that combines images of snow and war.  Sampurna Chattarji, a poet from India, reads a stunning and stirring poem “Easy,” that ends with these words: “Death is easy to pronounce / it’s the smell of burning children / that’s hard to pronounce.”

Voices in Wartime, while certainly a political film, is also a film about people, and their responses to war.  Its focus on poetry seems natural, for poets have always been in the forefront as witnesses to the immense human catastrophe that is war.  

Or as British poet Wilfred Owen, killed in World War I, put it: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.”