Entertainment Insiders

  Director: Rick King,
Starring: Lieutenant General William J. Lennox, Jr., Sam Hamill, Chris Hedges, Todd Swift, and other poets, soldiers, historians, and combat experts.
Length: 74 minutes
Rated: NR
Capturing The War Poetic
by Jonathan W. Hickman
reviewed: 2005-01-12 

"Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful." --Wilfred Owen


Poet Wilfred Owen's lines were written during World War I. As a result of his war experience and prior to his death on the battlefield, Owen had been treated for post traumatic stress syndrome which had a different name back then. Obviously to know the horrors of war first hand leads one to decry it and in the case of Owen and his muse or compatriot Siegfried Sassoon to attack it in the poetic. Owen's words have special significance today.

Rick King's fascinating and extremely literate documentary "Voices in Wartime" manages to present the poet's position on war without turning completely into an anti-Bush film. This is because he has assembled a varied group of soldiers, journalists, historians, and experts on combat to put their hands around war poetry. While the catalyst for this project may have been First Lady Laura Bush's White House invitation to poets to join her in honoring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, the film focuses smartly on the nature of poetry and war rather than providing a soapbox for present day anti-war poets to slam Administration policies. And this is important because awareness is raised uniquely by "Voices in Wartime" leaving interpretation ultimately to the viewer.

Many diverse people are interviewed in "Voices in Wartime" including military representatives like Lieutenant General William J. Lennox, Jr., the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Lennox wrote his PhD dissertation on American war poets and believes in the use of poetry to display the horrors of the battlefield. His comments help to balance the anti-war statements of others like Sam Hamill, author of more than thirty volumes of poetry, and co-founder of Poets Against the War.

The overall mood of the film is decidedly anti-war and specifically honed in on the current Iraq conflict. However, I don't think that director King forsakes all objectivity especially by smartly acquainting us with historical examples of wartime poetry such as excerpts from the work of Homer, Whitman, Hughes, and others. The film serves as a great primer on wartime poetry for non-poetry fans.

Much time is spent on the Poets Against the War movement and we are shown footage from poetry readings around the country and the world. Poems by young people and folks who have never crafted poems before are very moving. At one point, a poem by a 4th grader is read that captures the innocence of the youthful perspective but, at the same time, reminds us all how naïve we are about war. You see, one perspective exposed well in King's film is that if you haven't experienced the battlefield first hand it is impossible to make any meaningful attempt to relate to it. But through poetry the feelings are captured articulately providing non-combatants with a window into the field of war.

I remember the great amount of pro and con email that I received when in my review of "FahrenHYPE 911" I attempted to compare and contrast the experience of deaths of Americans on the our highways to the tragedy of 911. My attempt was to place deaths all on the same field of view and to emphasize that unless one has had experience with death first hand, whether it be from a car accident, the 911 attacks, or from the battlefield in Iraq, one cannot completely understand the opinions and positions of those who have such experiences. Death is the common factor. And until it comes to your doorstep, you might discount it in some marginal way or even an undetectable manner.

In "Voices" one poet yearns to fill the air with poems so not even bombs can fall through. This is a startling image because for me it is the conflict between the purely concrete basic analytical thinker and the dare I say, poetic one. While both groups might share an analytical approach to their craft, my point is that one group might be counting the bombs and the bodies while another is appreciating each and every one of them. The poet's perspective is unique where the world is seen from a different view. Sometimes that view is in conflict with the mainstream and acts to remind us that not everyone has a uniform opinion. Other times, the poet reminds us that the dead have faces, fingers, toes, flesh, bone, all the things we too share.

Jonathan W. Hickman