Washington DC City Paper

Short Subjects

From the April 15, 2005 issue.

334 words.

Voices in Wartime


By Mark Jenkins

Directed by Rick King

After the fighting is over, the legacy of war is ceded to the poets. That’s why it’s unsurprising to see West Point’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., enthusiastically discussing anti-war verse in Voices in Wartime, an impassioned documentary by Road Ends director Rick King. The slaughters of the Civil War, World War I, and other conflicts can now be acknowledged as horrifically pointless, deserving of smoldering literary outrage.

Questioning a war that’s in progress, however, is another matter. King’s film could have been made at any time, but it was clearly inspired by an event—or rather, a nonevent—once scheduled for February 2003. Laura Bush invited poets to the White House to celebrate the work of three now-respected but once-controversial authors: Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson. Sam Hamill, co-founder of Poets Against the War, responded with a request for verse that was relevant to the American invasion of Iraq and received 1,500 poems in 36 hours. The symposium was quickly canceled. In effect, though, it’s carried out in this film, which offers a quick history of war and its bards, from Homer to Tennyson to Auden to contemporary Michigan 12-year-old Cameron Penny. (The globally thinking filmmakers also include India’s Sampurna Chattarji, Japan’s Shoda Shinoe, and Nigerian-born Chris Abani, whose subject is the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.)

But the focus is primarily on two historical developments: World War I, which brought a new technological barbarism—and such writers as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon—and the “total war” that explicitly targeted civilian populations, exemplified by Guernica, Auschwitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima. The film has its awkward aspects: King probably should have avoided having poets declaim their work while standing on American streets near such symbols of upscale obliviousness as Starbucks, and he doesn’t quite acknowledge that his testimonial to the power of poetry relies significantly on the impact of images. Still, Voices in Wartime is smart, angry, and unflinching, an admirable cinematic elaboration on Owen’s maxim that “true poets must be truthful.”—Mark Jenkins