St Louis Post-Dispatch

Voices in Wartime 


Voices in Wartime *** (NR; 1:14): How best to convey the horrors of war? With poetry.

It's not surprising that the anti-war poets profiled in this documentary believe that verse can shine a light on humanity's darkest deeds. But that's also the judgment of an instructor at West Point and of numerous soldiers who've set their feelings to paper since the American Civil War.

Notwithstanding soldier poets such as Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell, the towering figure of wartime poetry remains Walt Whitman, who revived a tradition of clear-eyed reportage that dates back to Homer. Yet, in the midst of the Iraq invasion, when Laura Bush announced a White House symposium on the great American poets, she singled out Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson - all of whom decried the kind of aggression that her husband was spearheading. The irony was not lost on many of the modern-day poets who were invited to the symposium. They organized a group called Poets Against War, and the White House event was canceled for fear it might deviate from the party line.

But most of the poems we hear recited in the film are not overtly ideological. Like the graphic newsreel footage that accompanies them, they focus on the physical and psychological toll at the grunt level. At its best, this potentially sentimental survey is genuinely poignant. But like a short poem, it adheres to a single hue, and the bloody red becomes dim when it is detached from a narrative fabric. Even the ostensibly climactic rally of Poets Against War seems polite and punchless when it is staged in front of the White House with a few dozen spectators. Poetry might be able to describe war, but it's done depressingly little to stop it.

Playing at the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis.