Seattle Times - Brodeur

Thursday, September 09, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

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Nicole Brodeur / Times staff columnist

Poetry helps us understand

For a time, Jonathan King fretted that the documentary he co-produced, "Voices in Wartime," was coming out too late.

But the timing is perfect. The other day, Michael Moore said that he would submit his controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" not in the Best Documentary, but Best Picture category of the Academy Awards. So the medium works.

And this week, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq passed 1,000. The bodies serve not as a tragic tally, but more something we scratch at, like poison ivy from a field we wandered into, not knowing it was there.

"Voices in Wartime" offers a salve to rub into our worries and wounds; and a way to understand war when so much of it seems incomprehensible.

"Poetry distills experience and emotions the way few art forms can," said King, 47, a former journalist and Web producer who lives in Wallingford. "We're trying to give people a sense of what war is really like, and its complexity."

The film includes commentary from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges and Lt. Gen. William James Lennox Jr. of West Point.

It also offers a historic view of wartime poetry, from Homer's "Iliad" to the World War I writings of Wilfred Owen, from a Vietnam veteran to two Iraqi poets, all sharing the same pain and frustration.

Three branches of the Seattle Public Library will host free screenings of the film on Saturday: the Central Library at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; the West Seattle branch at 11 a.m.; and the Capitol Hill branch at 3 p.m. A talk will follow the 1 p.m. Central Library screening — but it may be slow to start.

A screening for the film's investors was followed by "a kind of silence," King said.

"You have to think about it a little. There's no easy answer, no call to take any specific political action."

A subplot of the film is the start of "Poets Against the War," a movement spurred by a planned White House symposium on American poets.

Invitee Sam Hamill, of Port Townsend's Cooper Canyon Press, found the idea of a politics-free poetry symposium "A ... virtually illiterate way of thinking," especially since the U.S. had just invaded Iraq.

Instead of sending his regrets, Hamill sent an e-mail to 50 fellow poets, inviting them to write something to send to Washington, D.C., and to post on

The response was worldwide — just like war has been, throughout history.

"We wanted to show how poetry evolved with warfare," said King, "and that there is a continuity in the experience of war, even though the weapons and opponents may change."

It is an experience even children sense. Michigan fourth-grader Cameron Penny wrote this poem, featured in the film:

If you are lucky in this life, a window will appear
on a battlefield between two armies.
And when the soldiers look into the window,
they don't see their enemies.
They see themselves as children.
And they stop fighting and go home and go to sleep.
When they wake up, the land is well again.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or