Culture clash: The mightier of the pens

Anti-war poems outnumber the opposition

April 19, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The big battles in Iraq have been won, and the clash of poets on the home front reduced to rear guard skirmishes on the Internet.

The anti-war poets seem to have won this one, based on the word count, if not an actual body count. Poets Against the War has logged in 13,607 poems. Poets For the War posted a few hundred with a couple hundred more still to be published.

But the anti-war poets may have had a strategic advantage. James M. Dubinsky, an English professor at Virginia Tech who served 15 years in the Army, quotes Stanley Kunitz, "one of our great senior poets." (Kunitz is 97 years old and a former poet laureate of the United States.)

Kunitz says war "is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse."

"Finding pro-war poets is no easy task," says Dubinsky, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves. He turned to academia after he found he really liked teaching during an assignment to the faculty at West Point.

"Poets who may be considered pro-war usually are writing to express patriotic or romantic impulses," he says, "rather than glorifying or supporting war per se."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson comes immediately to mind for him and several of his academic peers - and The Charge of the Light Brigade: Into the valley of death/rode the six hundred.

Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, Dubinsky says, wrote patriotic poems early in World War I, which, if they weren't pro-war, weren't anti-war either. He recalls Rupert Brooke, the most glamorous of Britain's World War I poets. Brooke wrote romantically patriotic "pre-war" sonnets before he knew the cruel and grinding reality of trench warfare.

In "The Soldier," Brooke wrote these oft-quoted lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.

Brooke did, in fact, die on the way to Gallipoli, one of the bloodiest of World War I battles, of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite. Winston Churchill wrote his obituary.

"Looking at this small list," Dubinsky says, "one sees quickly that in 90 years [or basically since World War I], we haven't had too many pro-war or even patriotic poets."

Clarinda Harriss, a poet and chair of Towson University's English department, nominates Ezra Pound's "wildly pro-war" Sestina: Altaforte. This bloodthirsty poem from 1909 is told in the voice of Bertran de Born, a medieval troubadour condemned to hell by Dante Alighieri as a stirrer up of strife. The final verse says it all:

And let the music of the swords make them crimson

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!

Hell blot black for always the thought "peace"!

Of course, after World War II, Pound was charged with treason for broadcasting pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic screeds in Mussolini's Italy, then spent a dozen years at St. Elizabeth's, a federal mental hospital in Washington.

Charles L. Weatherford, a Michigan poet who turned out occasional poems on demand as "AKA Wordsmith," created the Poets For the War Web site in February as a reaction to Poets Against the War. "A lot of the more conservative columnists were basically lumping all poets together," he says. "I was looking for a way to express that not all poets are the same and not all in that one category of being either liberal or conservative or anything. Instead it's a full spectrum, and I wanted the full spectrum represented."

He figured Poets Against the War was "kind of the left half of the spectrum on the war itself."

So is he satisfied with the poems from the pro-war group?

"It depends on what you mean," Weatherford replies. "This type of site is really political. It's not a literary journal. So speaking from a literary perspective some of these poems were not literary gems.

"Among the 200 or so I've got published down there, the likelihood is that maybe one or two of them is of any literary merit. ... And that includes ... eight or 10 of my own."

Dubinsky seems to agree: "I think you'll find few poems that will enter the canon there."

"There were a lot of fun poems," Weatherford says. "There are some that were a little more extreme than I would have preferred. They covered the gamut basically the right side of the spectrum ... the pro-war spectrum.

"Some of them I did not publish because they were a little too far out there. There were some that were just plain warmongering. I suspect that may have been some of the anti-war activists trying to make us look bad. That I don't know."

The poetry "was not edited on the basis of literary merit," he adds. "It was edited on the basis of how well does this conform to the purposes of the site, which were anti-terrorist, anti-Saddam [Hussein] and `pro' this particular war."

He argues that Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War didn't filter out for literary merit either.

"They've got the bad and the good," he says. "They've just gotten more of each. It just might be easier to find a really good poem in there."

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