Victoria, BC Times Colonist

Poets do battle for peace

Pat Burkette
Special to Times Colonist
Sunday, September 05, 2004

The house of the city is blue with spilled blood, even its roof is torn away, torn and fallen on the people it should protect, the people of the house of the city, the blue people, the screaming people, the dead people.

Hold the light up while you can.
See what someone wanted.

-- Shirley Graham from The Roof

A famous ex-librarian unintentionally revived a poetic anti-war movement last January. But the former librarian, American First Lady Laura Bush, probably never imagined that Poets Against the War would march on her symbolic turf in 2004, proclaiming Sept. 11 an International Day of Poetry, when Voices in Wartime, a 75-minute documentary film, will be shown in libraries and meeting rooms across North America. The film, which looks at war through the images and words of poets, can be ordered online ( by anyone who wants to organize a screening.

"We didn't set out to make a protest film at all," says Seattle-based producer Jonathan King of Two Careys Productions. "It is our hope that in the film, the poetry helps illuminate the reality of war and the imagery of war can help us gain insight into the poetry."

In the midst of trauma, violence and death, the film makers contend on their poetryinwartime Web site, poets help us make sense of the senseless.

Perhaps that's what American poet Sam Hamill was trying to do when Laura Bush sent him a January 2003 invitation to Poetry and the American Voice, a discussion of the work of poets Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Hamill, fresh from reading about U.S. President Bush's proposed "shock and awe" attack on Iraq, responded by sending other poets an e-mail that said: "I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam." Hamill also asked for anti-war poems.

A Web site, was set up within four days to handle poems from more than 1,500 poets. By March 1, 2003, more than 13,000 poems, from well-known and unknown poets, were posted on the site. Canada's poet laureate George Bowering contributed Good Prospects, originally written in 1963 about the Moscow Test Ban Treaty. An impressive 16,403 poems have been posted to date, and a print anthology has been issued by Nation Books. Hamill was not alone in meting out poetic justice.

Canadian poet Todd Swift, who lives in London, England, produced a downloadable e-book called 100 Poets Against the War, featuring British and Canadian anti-war poems, at his online poetry magazine site, On March 25, 2003, Poets for Peace, who want to fill the universe with poems of peace to counter thoughts of war, presented then prime minister Jean Chretien with 13,000 poems.

Bush cancelled her symposium, saying, "It would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." But if poetry and war have been linked since Homer wrote The Iliad, so too have the mighty pen and politics long been brothers in arms. In the 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley's In Defence of Poetry said poets were "unacknowledged legislators."

In the 1930s, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck took sides against Franco in Spain, putting together Writers Take Sides: Letters About the War in Spain From 418 American Authors.

Proving deja vu is no illusion, President Lyndon Baines Johnson invited poets and writers to his White House Festival of the Arts in 1965. Robert Lowell declined, as a protest against the Vietnam War. Poet Robert Bly set up American Writers Against the War, which organized protests and teach-ins.

Poet Peter Levitt, born in the United States, but now a Canadian landed immigrant and resident of Saltspring Island, along with wife, poet Shirley Graham, and son Tai, is a life long anti-war activist who scoffs at any attempt to separate poetics and politics. He received Hamill's original e-mail and appears in Voices in Wartime.

"It is simple minded to believe that any word spoken in the public arena does not have a political aspect," says Levitt, who goes on to quote Wilfred Owen: "Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war."

In fact, like Owen, the three poets Bush chose for her symposium have all written poems on the subject of war. A look at their poems and those of colleagues appearing in the film, raises the question: Should "war poetry" actually be called "anti-war poetry"?

Emily Dickinson, who lived through the Civil War era, wrote My Portion is Defeat.

Poet and Civil War nurse Walt Whitman's The Wound Dresser, read by Garrison Keillor in the film, graphically describes battle wounds.

Poet and essayist Langston Hughes's Expendable talks about the sacrifice of human life to accomplish a military objective.

Besides Bush's three, American poet Randall Jarrell was a soldier and control tower operator who documented the fears and moral struggles of young soldiers in the Second World War. Canada's own John McCrae's In Flanders Fields is an eloquent plea to remember those who have died in battle. And Wilfred Owen, Britain's soldier poet, wrote I Saw His Round Mouth's Crimson, before he was killed in action a week before the 1918 Armistice.

Of 27 contemporary poets in the film, Chris Abani, now Middleton Fellow at the University of Southern California, was imprisoned in Nigeria's Kalakuta, a death row cell for political prisoners. His poem Jacob's Ladder is about a prisoner of war's day of release. Boston poet David Connolly is a Vietnam veteran whose poems, such as Thoughts on a Monday Morning, speak fiercely of the changes visited on those who go to war. Hasham Shafiq is an Iraqi poet living in Baghdad, who's written a poem about "the killer of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein."

Levitt says that poets treat the subject of war as they do any subject. Poets, first and foremost, serve lady truth.

"Poets can't be bought because nobody wants us -- that makes us free. We don't have the sponsors. We're not trying to sell things. We are in service to the truth beyond any subject truths. If there's no truth, there's no poetry."

Does being in service to the truth mean that war poetry is really anti-war poetry because what poets write about when they write about war is death, a word and concept to which it's very hard to give a positive spin?

Chris Abani, by e-mail from his home in Los Angeles, says: "The question of facing death is essentially what all art, philosophy and social contract is about. I think that poets against the war, which is no different than students or housewives or drycleaners against the war, is merely an articulation of our greatest human right -- the right to choose how we die. Isn't this why we have such debates over abortion, euthanasia etc.? Because we want to choose that? But war, which is not a moral vehicle or a just one, but a political and economic one, removes the right to choose. More often than not, the victims of war are not warmongers, or even soldiers, but innocent civilians, mostly children. Any enterprise that denies its citizenry agency, not to mention the lives of innocents, wouldn't be condoned outside the myth of war and the bigger myth of its honor and heroism."

Abani doesn't know where, as a poet against the war, he'll go from here. "Not to be bleak, but I am not sure that protesting the war will stop war. But not to protest is to die silently, or to live in silent acquiescence. Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Laureate (1986), in his prison memoir The Man Died, says that every time we are silent in the face of tyranny, that which is human in us dies. So, like Dylan Thomas, I rage against the dying of the light. What else is there?"

Levitt speaks of light too. He says his wife, poet and psychologist Shirley Graham, is talking about the purpose of poetry in The Roof, her anti-war poem about a bombed out city, when she writes "hold the light up while you can/see what someone wanted."

And Levitt is raging about the dying of the light, evidenced by young people going to war. "These kids are the age of our children and grandchildren. We did not let them take us. Do you think we're going to let them take our children?"

Pat Burkette is a Saltspring writer

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2004

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