Washington Post - O'Sullivan

'Voices': Putting War Into Words

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE39

A PICTURE, they say, is worth a thousand words.


It's interesting that, in a documentary about war poetry that supplements literary readings with the occasional use of exceedingly bloody archival war footage, the words more than hold their own against the pictures. Interesting, but unsurprising, given that, as West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. William Lennox notes at the beginning of director Rick King's short but unslight film, "Voices in Wartime," there is no better genre than verse to articulate the range of emotions experienced by the soldier in battle -- from joy and elation to horror and fear.

Cut to Vietnam veteran David Connolly as he walks down the street reciting one of his poems, which contains the following gruesome passage:

He lifts his head just enough for the round to go in one brown eye and, I swear to Christ, out the other. And he starts thrashing and screaming and bleeding and trying to get the top of his head to stay on.

Heavy stuff, but certainly nothing new to the poet's art. As Jon Stallworthy, poet and editor of "The Oxford Book of War Poetry" points out, such violent imagery goes all the way back to Homer's "Iliad," in which we're given images of hand-to-hand combat so violent they contain descriptions of "spears going through a brain" and "how the brain then spatters the shield of the man who's thrown the spear."

If you're getting the sense by now that, despite the appearance of Lennox and other current and former soldiers, there's a strongly antiwar bent to "Voices in Wartime," you're right. Poets, after all, tend to be humanists (read "pacifists"), according to Sam Hamill, a writer who co-founded Poets Against the War in response to the war in Iraq.

Hence, there's nothing that could be said to glorify war here in the least. Along with that staple of high school English class, Tennyson's suicidally grim "The Charge of the Light Brigade," we listen to Garrison Keillor and other readers intoning the somber, sometimes macabre visions of poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes, whose poem "Expendable" ultimately sets the film's wryly morbid tone:

And when you're dead

In the nice cold ground,

We'll put your name

Above your head --

If your head

Can be found.

VOICES IN WARTIME (Unrated, 74 minutes) -- Contains brief obscenity and sometimes graphic images, both visual and verbal, of the horrors of war. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.



© 2005 The Washington Post Company