Poets and the People
Reflections on solidarity during wartime.
September 1, 2008
Sep 1, 2008
32 Min read time
Reflections on solidarity during wartime.
It is unusual for lyric poets to inquire into civic bonds, and poets have rarely been pulled to the bosom of the American polity (Whitman is the grand exception). Indeed, there is a familiar literary tradition of configuring politics—as Ezra Pound did—as a contest between reasons of state and individual autonomy. Yet in recent years the most distinguished political poems have all engaged precisely the issue of what holds citizens together in a community, and with what consequences, intended and otherwise. In particular Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Frank Bidart, C. K. Williams, and Robert Pinsky have produced important and surprising explorations of contemporary civic solidarity.
None of my poets provides a comprehensive account of solidarity, nor are they analyzing the policies now being debated in the presidential campaign—about health care, schools, the housing market, timetables for Iraq, or fair trade. But each is alert to the ambiguities of pragmatic politics, alive to just those moments when public-policy debate cracks open and reveals an inadequately considered principle—about globalism, patriotism, democratic complicity, war on civilians, and carceral responsibility—at play in our political lives. When one recalls the reproachful manner in which poets such as Robert Bly (in “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last”) and Denise Levertov (in “Tenebrae”) wrote of ordinary U.S. citizens during the Vietnam War, one sees clearly that these more recent poets, all five of them, seek no great distance from their compatriots. Graham, Hass, Bidart, Williams, and Pinsky each has an altogether different relation to democratic politics and polity than was seen forty years ago.
I focus these reflections on poets who are well known in the mainstream literary culture on the presumption that their ways of thinking find adherents among pleasure-seeking readers who buy the books of their contemporaries. Those readers constitute a literary public sphere, thoughtfully engaged with policy and principle, resistant to the professional rivalries of academic literary interpretation.
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Foreign wars sometimes draw a nation together against a common enemy. Such was the case with World War II, but with Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq a divisive dynamic has prevailed: a coming together, followed more or less quickly by deepening controversy. To ask during wartime why the nation does not cohere in common cause is a familiar reproach, one that has commonly come from the right. The poets who now raise the issue of solidarity with admiration, as Jorie Graham and Frank Bidart do, are not conservative; they see this as an issue for the left as well as the right, even though that cuts against the grain of intellectual culture. Robert Hass and C.K. Williams pursue further the implications of solidarity: namely, the complicity Americans share as citizens of an empire. Hass and Williams ask about the basis and significance of solidarity, known popularly as patriotism, which the left, in unlikely agreement with Samuel Johnson, regards as the last resort of scoundrels. For Hass and Williams the difference between speaking of complicity or of patriotism is whether one can avow standards of common cause.
American citizenship is about much more than a duty to pay taxes and the responsibility to vote. In particular one lives with questions about the legitimacy of war in places one will never see. The American people do not willingly hazard the lives of thousands of their sons and daughters because they care deeply about Iraq and Afghanistan. No local commitment to these nations, or quest for their resources, drives Americans to prosecute war. Instead, the popular justifications explain these wars in terms of U.S. security. Where that explanation is invalidated—we find no WMD—or goes vague, support for the war effort falters, or citizens draw on reserves of blunt loyalty to the institutions of the government—the Presidency or the military. By “vagueness” I mean the uncertainties of imperial apologetics: for example, that 1) in the proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the adversary on the ground has been a substitute for another force; or 2) the global economic interests of the United States are indistinguishable from national self-defense because defense requires maintenance of conditions for endless economic expansion. Both of these representations of national defense entail abstraction from local knowledge and even elaborate intellectual analysis.
The resulting indefiniteness about the contours of a conflict is a constraint on the felt experience of citizenship. Jorie Graham understands the incompatibility of indefiniteness and patriotism. Her recent Overlord scrutinizes the solidarity of World War II, the last U.S. war to enjoy broad and sustained popular support. She has sought the edge of indefinite national interest by inquiring what Americans thought when jumping out of planes with enemy soldiers shooting at them as they descended to earth. Those paratroopers must have felt genuine conviction, a civilian would think, a certain sense of their common objective. We have recently had documentaries about the WWII generation, born in the 1910s and 1920s, and heard about the coherence of the nation then, about its idealism. This apparatus of nostalgia sets the context for her inquiry:
To bring back a time and place.
A feeling. As in “we are all in this
together.” Or “the United States and her allies
fought for Freedom.” To bring back.
The experience of killing and getting killed.
But she knows that such retrospection is profoundly misleading.
Graham’s point is ultimately that the now-proverbial solidarity of 1941-45 rested on a stunning acceptance of mortality, not on ideals of freedom, democracy, or capitalism. The esprit de corps of U.S. paratroopers at Normandy would seem to have been a very pure locus of solidarity. She learned, however, that the solidarity for which civilians now hunger actually derived from a distinct military experience. To wish to bring back such feeling is to desire war and a chain of command that takes everything. That is the horrible insight of Overlord: “There is no other human relationship like it. / At its heart comradeship is an ecstasy. / You will die for an other. You will not consider it a personal // loss.” Paratroopers die for no government, no ideology, only for paratroopers. They die willingly because of the immediate conditions of military engagement. Theirs is a morbid fraternity.
One concludes from Graham’s book that the United States may never have known a solid base in ideas for solidarity during overseas wars. This is to say that, despite its wide extension of military bases and economic concerns, the United States has not constructed an ideology sufficient to produce popular support for imperial expansion. That is the chink in U.S. imperial armor. The phrase “raw power” in this context indicates not extreme power but mere power—military and economic, but not idealistic. Graham’s dark view is that not patriotism but immediate necessity was at the foundation of the greatest solidarity the country has known in the last century. Patriotism may produce enlistments, but esprit de corps produces heroism.
The indefiniteness of political analysis is not conducive to poetry—or to clarity. Robert Hass’s recent poem “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” from Time and Materials, starts with a pseudo-syllogism that ought to close with the proposition that beauty itself is economics:
Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics.
But this syllogism instead has three premises and no conclusion. Or, better, the poem is the statement of the conclusion. In The Pisan Cantos, Pound repeatedly cites Aubrey Beardsley, the 1890s artist who loved undulating louche figures. “Beauty is difficult,” Beardsley said, and Pound felt the wisdom of that proposition as he sat in prison in 1945, wondering how aestheticism had got him there. He had been led, he said, from opposition to war to the study of economics.
A syllogism should click closed with certain knowledge, but Hass’s shifts its terms, loses that click, and instead recalls Pound, a spook of political difficulty. Rather than a cinched logical explanation, the poet must tell “more or less” how capital functions. To invoke, in explanation, a transnational system of capital is inevitably to write at a level of abstraction with inescapable indefiniteness about particular cases.
That is the difficulty of macroeconomic analysis, or the Big Picture, and of general language in poetry. Pound’s model of economic development militated against the Big Picture; it was local, agrarian, and now seems irretrievably antique. He held that the increase of the agricultural process, from seeds to crop, was the basis, or ground, of wealth, and railed against the interest charged by banks during the time the soil requires to produce its wealth. Usury, he thought, was the cause of war, though he came to see, by an older analysis, that the truer cause is greed, the sixth of the deadly sins.
Thus, when a teenage hooker in Bangkok propositions Hass, he remembers Pound and then narrates an account of the World Bank, which was founded on December 27, 1945, as Pound sat in Pisa:
Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.
The agricultural base of Thailand is undermined by the very capacity of Swedish, German, or U.S. engineers to build massive generators, by the financiers of Paris and New York, and so too by the corrupting “gifts” of Bechtel and Halliburton to the politicians who welcome them. Capital deals in regions more than states; nationality may be irrelevant. Pound’s generation understood that national boundaries had lost their force by 1918. The technology, financial instruments, and political agents have changed, but there is a girl on the street in Bangkok not so different from poor Jenny in 1890s London. The farmer’s daughter becomes a prostitute, luscious in that blue electric light, and Hass, like Beardsley a century before him, admires the risqué beauty of a girl gone bad. Greed and aestheticism still. The force of systemic economic explanation in a poem will not click as tightly as a syllogism should, as Hass seems aware. The initial predicates of this strophe—“arranges,” “find,” “melt”—adequately serve the explanation, but they obscure specific investments and the ways that nameless peasants have suffered. This imprecision attends any economic statement, and it is the price Hass pays for giving an economic argument a lyrical setting.
We all know that the state provides services otherwise unavailable, beginning with local and national security. Still, libertarian skepticism is our daily bread. Not patria but “state power,” we often say, accustomed to the state as an instrument to coerce or constrain autonomous individuals. Graham’s paratroopers were not free to return home or even to decline a single mission. They were soldiers engaged in a theater of war, subject to inexorable demands.
In the face of this familiar skepticism about politics, Frank Bidart writes of an American state worthy of a pledge of allegiance: not an imagined America, but the very state established over time through mortal struggle. Bidart’s “To the Republic,” like Graham’s Overlord, attests that conflict forges bonds:
I dreamt I saw a caravan of the dead
start out again from Gettysburg.
Close-packed upright in rows on railcar flat-
beds in the sun, they soon will stink.
Victor and vanquished shoved together, dirt
had bleached the blue and gray one color.
Risen again from Gettysburg, as if
the state were shelter crawled to through
blood, risen disconsolate that we
now ruin the great work of time,
they roll in outrage across America.
You betray us is blazoned across each chest.
To each eye as they pass: You betray us.
Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s
their misfortune and none of my own.
I dreamt I saw a caravan of the dead
move on wheels touching rails without sound.
To each eye as they pass: You betray us.
In “For the Union Dead,” Bidart’s friend and mentor, Robert Lowell, wrote of the extraordinary casualties suffered by Colonel Shaw’s black regiment. But Bidart’s soldiers, Union and Confederate, are one in death; they all gave their lives, as we say. More than 8,000 Union and Confederate soldiers—twice the number of U.S. soldiers lost in five years in Iraq—died in three days of battle at Gettysburg. The state that emerged on the far side of civil war was, without exaggeration, a “shelter crawled to through / blood.”
Bidart and Graham seem to agree that the United States is wrongly characterized as a hyper-patriotic state. And they agree with Orwell that patriotism is a feeling that specifically concerns military defense. But Bidart is particularly bold, among literary intellectuals, in proposing greater loyalty to the state in 2005, at least partly because of prior military sacrifices. He acknowledges, as Charles Taylor wrote in Boston Review in 1994, that a democracy requires “not only a commitment to the common project, but also a special sense of bonding among people working together in this project.” Bidart’s boldness is in naming historical experience and the contemporary state as the substance of that bond. Lincoln spoke of the nation as conceived in an idea and dedicated to a proposition. Bidart, too, might have spoken of the ideal of liberty, say, or of the franchise, in order to set that bond on an abstract or Enlightenment basis. Instead he compels one to consider the state itself as the bond between citizens. His directness in naming the state even seems to close off any further analysis of civic solidarity.
Bidart’s sense of an institution that survives contention and partisanship is what rises to reproach the actual citizens of 2005. In what is widely regarded as a foundational political poem in English, Andrew Marvell praises Cromwell, even though Cromwell appeared then to have destroyed the traditional English state, the monarchy of Charles I, which Marvell respectfully calls “the great work of time.” Bidart’s “To the Republic” reasonably applies this famous phrase to monarchy’s traditional rival, parliamentary democracy. The usage is all the more apt because Lincoln had used the word “work” in the Gettysburg Address to identify the nation’s investment in the cause of democratic rule: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He implied, as many others have repeatedly said, that U.S. soldiers died for the freedoms enjoyed even by those who oppose the American state. But Bidart’s claim is that Union and Confederate soldiers died for the unity of Americans of all stripes. A state that declines to represent that diversity and citizens who refuse to honor a common cause both betray the sacrifice made by the soldiers Walt Whitman tended as a nurse, regardless of their partisanship. The poem looks in two directions to assign responsibility for the recent divisiveness of U.S. civic life.
The challenge of the poem is directed not only at Bush’s regime, that easy and familiar target for intellectuals. Bidart’s dead accuse us all (“each eye”) of bitter partisanship. The accusation is civic and patriotic, and it rests on pride in the sacrifice of an earlier generation to the survival of the nation without slavery. And yet the dead speak from a political position well beyond controversy or contention. The coherence of the nation was established by political and military means but rests now on the deeply settled ground suggested by the word “disconsolate,” a slightly antique term (first used in 1429; the OED’s last citation is Tennyson’s) that refers to a feeling beyond mending: the disconsolate one cannot be brought round to seeing a matter differently. I mention this because there is something absolute, non-negotiable about the state of being disconsolate. The disconsolate one cannot discuss, only mourn. Bidart’s patriotism expresses loyalty not to a place at all, not to the Enlightenment constitution of the United States, but explicitly to the nation-state, which represents collective sacrifice in time. The solidarity for which he speaks is mediated through institutions of representation and defense.
Bidart’s point is not only that his countrymen have recently compromised their solidarity to a mean individualism, though that is the small version of it, “Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s / their misfortune and none of my own.” His own mean voice is answered not with a reason or claim, as in argument, but instead with a repetition of the poem’s somber opening lines. This simple formal device—a control of pace—closes the debate forcefully, admirably.
The obvious hazard of Bidart’s advocacy is that patriotism is one thing in the context of national defense and quite another in the prosecution of foreign wars, such as those that have preoccupied the United States for over a century. Along these lines, Robert Hass begins his poem “Bush’s War” a little tongue-in-cheek, with a political commentator’s drive to marshal reason and “set the facts out in an orderly way” to undercut ideological support for the President’s military agenda. Not your war, or mine, but his, Bush’s. In West Berlin in the 1980s there was a poster: “I didn’t do it; Adolf Hitler did it.” Bush lied, the bumper stickers say, as though that were everything.
Hass proposes his initial orientation as a “dim intuition” of a “luminous” poem. The one he actually wrote is not about the chief executive’s misprision, but instead about the modern record of mass-approved or -tolerated slaughter. Why, he asks, do the rest of us go along, as the Germans infamously did with the Third Reich? That is a question about attenuated agency, or specifically democratic complicity.
The poem notes that the masses are indeed sold wars by mass media, and that wars are profitable, all of which is well known—not a tragedy but a grand, repeatedly explicable and avoidable error. The tragedy is that a democratic imagination fully accepts slaughter as a necessity, as natural as a season’s harvest of white asparagus, piled on plates like corpses on tarps. The concept of an orderly poem encompasses echoes here between the setting out of facts concerning the “tragic war” and corpses of children charred by the Allied bombing of Hamburg, or between piles of asparagus and of valises at Theresienstadt:
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the springtime,
You are never not wondering how
It happened, and these Germans, too,
Children then, or unborn, never not
Wondering. Is it that we like the kissing
And bombing together, in prospect
At least, girls in their flowery dresses?
Someone will always want to mobilize
Death on a massive scale for economic
Domination or revenge. And the task, taken
As a task, appeals to the imagination.
Thucydides witnessed the democratic appetite for slaughter himself when the Athenian armada set out for Sicily with song and spectacle in 415 B.C. Athens, the West’s model democracy, fell in a democratically supported imperial adventure. This is not Bush’s War. It has settled, like other wars, deep in the democratic imagination, even in the language the poets use to praise the foods and flowers of a good life. It is folly to think that democratic institutions constrain war, folly to think that opposition to war is properly oriented on a single executive.
Hass set this poem to the familiar, ceremonial pace of blank verse, though his lines only loosely conform. They are reconciled more fully to the syntactic demands of a casual, plausible speech. This is a collective style in that it originates in the idioms of current educated usage but also carries a calm recognition of the main line of poetry in English. His contemporary medium has absorbed the measures of English poetry, as Katyn, Hiroshima, Theresienstadt have also been absorbed as instances of a concept more than particular place-names. Proper nouns evolve through atrocity into semi-common nouns. Maybe the exotic sounding train-stops of Berlin—Krumme Lanke, say—or the names of birds (amsels) and trees (chestnuts, red and white) are poised to evolve too into instances of mass-vanishing, “whole races of tropical birds.” The phrase “Bush’s War” is a kind of respected fiction or placeholder, like Fea’s Petrel or Cherrie’s Tanager, a piping of particularity on the way to annihilation. The particularity of life in a locale, or food in a meal constructed with care—these are moments only in the passage to a statistical generality. Du auch.
Hass’s approach to the Iraq war is so indirect because what he sees are the non-obvious ways in which calm ordinary life has been reconciled to appalling destruction. Even though the newspapers are full of charges against someone or other, the ethical consequences of civic life in the United States are routinely suppressed. C. K. Williams focuses directly on the complicity that comes with civic solidarity. His poem “War,” dated September-October 2001, derives from the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. It has three twelve-line sections. The first is a prosy musing on the ways that poets in particular, and intellectuals generally (explainers, all), may be held accountable, even punished, for not foreseeing the approach of adversity. Mayan scribes, he observes, suffered mutilation of their hands and were sacrificed when their side lost a war:
Poor things—the reproduction from a mural shows three:
one sprawls in slack despair, gingerly cradling his left hand with his right,
another gazes at his injuries with furious incomprehension,
while the last lifts his mutilated fingers to the conquering warriors
as though to elicit compassion for what’s been done to him: they,
elaborately armored, glowering at one another, don’t bother to look.
The conquerors’ aversion is profound, and exactly what conquerors must answer for: not just for the acts of destruction they commit, but also for that of others—here the Mayans—they provoke. That look away—no doubt, here as elsewhere, uncomprehending—is what critics of empire stress.
The second section invokes the time-honored withdrawal of the gods, Greek, Trojan, Mayan, and Judeo-Christian:
And we, alone again under an oblivious sky, were quick to learn
how our best construals of divinity, our Do unto, Love, Don’t kill,
could be easily garbled to canticles of vengeance and battle-prayers.
Christian generosity evaporated with the news, Williams observes, that the Twin Towers had fallen. Those two sections prepare for the true poem here, the sonically rich conclusion:
Fall’s first freshness, strange; the seasons’ ceaseless wheel,
starlings starting south, the annealed leaves ready to release,
yet still those columns of nothingness rise from their own ruins,
their twisted carcasses of steel and ash still fume, and still,
one by one, tacked up by hopeful lovers, husbands, wives,
the absent faces wait, already tattering, fading, going out.
These things that happen in the particle of time we have to be alive,
these violations which almost more than any ark or altar
embody sanctity by enacting so precisely sanctity’s desecration.
These broken voices of bereavement asking of us what isn’t to be given.
These suddenly smudged images of consonance and peace.
These fearful burdens to be borne, complicity, contrition, grief.
Williams begins as a single speaker, reflecting on the fate of fellow writers come to adversity, then shifts to a plural third-person subject: contemporary bomber-pilots, abstracted above their targets, like Greek and Trojan gods eventually indifferent to mere mortals, and the Mayans resisting to the bitter end. At the end of the second section he assumes the plural first-person address needed for the last section. Such positionality is essential to political poetry. But at no point does he identify our opposites in the war that began in 2001; they are beyond address of any kind. His proper interest is in what U.S. citizens might derive from the trauma of September 11, beyond “canticles of vengeance.” “Canticles”: the United States here is a godless society whose remnants of Christianity could not accommodate a national trauma.
The significance of the trauma is compacted into a series of three words, “complicity, contrition, grief.” Is this a progression? Williams suggests an equivalence between the burden of complicity and the images of those lost in the attack—“These suddenly smudged images of consonance and peace”—as if the victims were complicit in their own demise. This is the closest the poet comes to fixing responsibility for the attack, and he does so in a strenuously controversial manner. The “broken voices of bereavement” would surely rise against the claim that the lost were responsible, in any part, for this violation. (The verb “bereave” refers to taking or robbing by force.) Contrition, meanwhile, is recognizably Christian, a ritual precondition for forgiveness of one’s sins. And grief is more or less where anyone starts with this trauma; secular contrition, if such can be thought, can lead back only to grief. Outside of a religious context, the series goes nowhere.
The one source of U.S. complicity proposed in the poem is aerial bombardment. “Bomber pilots in our day” aim at “generalized,” “digital targets” far below and rarely have occasion for assessing their responsibility for the death and destruction they cause; they work “more or less,” as Hass puts it, with the Big Picture. I take Williams’s reference to aerial bombardment as a synecdoche for a panoply of atrocities realized away from U.S. soil and with costly technology paid for with federal funds. In fact, Hass identifies the same issue in “A Poem,” which concludes: “The nations of the world could stop setting an example for suicide bombers. . . . They could abolish the use of aerial bombardment in warfare. You would think men would relent.”
We may wonder whether citizens are all comparable to bomber pilots, whether taxpayers are accomplices to all that is perpetrated in the nation’s name and alleged interest. If so, as the poem suggests, exactly where does complicity begin. With compulsory payment of taxes? Or with awareness of the effects, say, of aerial bombardment, or of indefinite or secret incarceration? Awareness of certain political or military actions may plausibly entail an obligation to resist, beyond one’s ordinary minimal civic obligation to vote, but under what circumstances? Are we there now? If complicity is easily incurred the concept may become trivial. If the mere awareness of violations of human rights, say, entails a moral obligation to resist, the scope of legitimate personal freedom is reduced. One may not be justly free to live without much regard to state activity, as many U.S. citizens now live. Is a concept of complicity that requires citizens to adjudicate the rationales for all the military and para-military activities of their state meaningful? Does a free press, or a lively public sphere, entail complicity by establishing means of collaborating and negotiating interests? Where does such complicity end? A nation of accomplices is a meaningless term. A concept of complicity that requires constant, comprehensive vigilance of all citizens may leave too little autonomy for contemporary democratic citizenship.
A parable here about the refusal of complicity. In A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power tells the story of Raphael Lemkin’s relentless advocacy of a U.N. sanction against genocide. Lemkin—who first faught and then fled the Third Reich, and in 1944 published a historical account of the Nazi regulations and legislation leading to the Final Solution—coined the term “genocide.” He moved to New York in 1946 to lobby at the new United Nations for a convention against genocide, which the General Assembly did adopt 2 years later, though it would be another 40 years before the law was ratified by the United States and another decade before its first enforcement. Though he was extraordinarily driven, Lemkin chose his life freely; one cannot speak of external constraints on his autonomy. One may doubt, however, that a life so limited, by ordinary measures, can reasonably be accounted a general model. He once told his friend that, although women were attracted to him, he could not “afford to fall in love.” He lived in a one-room apartment, alone with his books and memos, until in 1959 he died of a heart attack.
Though his name had been suggested several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, only seven people attended his funeral. Were his more ordinary contemporaries accomplices in atrocity because of their lack of similar commitment? When one accuses oneself or another of complicity, one indirectly avows as normative some other sort of life free of that violation. Under what circumstances might Lemkin’s life be a just response to his time? Or, when is voting not enough? One might ask, especially after reading Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music, to what end the U.S. government holds prisoners in Guantánamo. A practical policy might conform to a desire to accomplish particular ends—such as the acquisition of intelligence—by means of short-term imprisonment. But even that seems doubtful as the years pass. In “Immature Song” Pinsky suggests indirectly that the nation has grown quite accustomed over the last sixty years to confining people whose use to the country is vaguely imaginable but as yet unknown:
I have heard that adolescence is a recent invention,
A by-product of progress, one of Capitalism’s
Suspended transitions between one state and another,
Like refugee camps, internment camps, like the Fields
Of Concentration in a campus catalogue. Summer
Camps for teenagers. When I was quite young
My miscomprehension was that “Concentration Camp”
Meant where the scorned were admonished to concentrate,
Humiliated: forbidden to let the mind wander away.
The Displaced Persons of Europe in the years following World War II are equated to U.S. teenagers in summer camps and then colleges, filling their days with distraction in anticipation of the mystery of their future. The analogy seems to excuse, as though the confinements at Guantánamo were more or less well-meant, like a parent’s check for tuition; as though we may resolve this political issue, as we do our children’s upbringing, just by waiting with what patience we can muster for them to grow up.
“Immature Song” moves gingerly toward the subject of incarceration by dropping “by-products,” analogies, and metaphors. Displaced persons, for instance, are connected by misapprehension and word-play to hallucinations induced by alcohol withdrawal: “At that same time of my life when I heard the abbreviation // ‘DP’ for Displaced Person I somehow mixed it up with / ‘DTs’ for Delirium Tremens, both a kind of stumbling called // By a childish nickname.” That acronymic link inevitably evokes a pertinent cliché: drunk with power. Yet Pinsky is careful not to suggest that U.S. abuses are more egregious than abuses perpetrated by other nations. He names as imprisoning powers not the United States—which he does not need to name—but “the Holy Land” and “Mother Africa.” At this general level, Guantánamo and Shatila and Robben Island coexist as zones for the miscomprehension of human rights. “Culture the lock, culture the key,” he says: behaviors reproduce themselves promiscuously, surprisingly, but not insidiously.
Stumbling, confusion, and even the malapropisms of George W. Bush (“Do you disrespect Authority merely // Because it speaks so badly . . .”) are incidental features of U.S. politics that stir Pinsky to write of the abuses of Guantánamo with self-recognition more than outrage or disgust. “Immature Song” is controversial exactly because it magnanimously and genially proposes that Guantánamo is a site we have good, familiar, small reasons to understand as truly our own. Pinsky’s comic tone extends to state activities a measure of sympathetic understanding that would not seem controversial in a debate between citizens passing time in an airport. The controversy lies in whether it is just to collapse the distinction between nation and state and to interpret the government’s activities as indicative of the nation’s mores.
Pinsky assembles related incidentals and leaves it to us to infer a unifying principle, namely, an analysis of the nature of American imperial power. “I have heard that . . .” the poem begins, as if he were going to recount the loosest sort of inquiry: allegations, misunderstandings, misconstruals, euphemisms. He avoids the familiar address of a political poet (like Pound in Canto 45, or Margaret Walker in “Jeremiah”) who knows or understands what readers should know or understand. The poem’s significance resides just below explicit statement. At the level of etymology, for example, he connects the routines of bourgeois education with atrocious incarceration: “Like refugee camps, internment camps, like the Fields // Of Concentration in a campus catalogue.” That’s a stretch. “Camp” derives from the same Latin root as campus, namely “fields.”
One may proceed as though little hangs on etymology, as though one may take or leave such a link. What the poem does not permit, though, is indifference to the claim that Americans have absorbed deep into their spirits, as Plato said, a structure for arresting change in time, or suspending judgment. All the camps and colleges are arrest-structures. We believe so deeply in the benignity of arresting development that we give our children to these structures gladly, ambitiously. This is to say that, however wrongly the state incarcerates prisoners, even Guantánamo is not conceived of as a death-camp. Like lax parenting, it may derive from indecisiveness, from faith in the advantages that come of waiting.
Pinsky is a busy promoter of the living art of poetry, but he asks himself in “Poem of Disconnected Parts”:
Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.
They are ancestors, both, but the preposition is difficult. Surely he does not mean that he writes so that they will read and know what he is up to. Poems may be for the dead, but letters only for the living. Nor does he mean that he does not expect to affect his readers. “For” means somehow for their having lived, or for the standards exemplified by them; so that those standards may survive, as the pronoun “whom” may not. One honors a standard, or not. Choices are being made constantly, and erosion is inevitable.
I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.
One wants to honor one’s ancestors, not shame them. For their honor, as in for a cause. Ancestors are forms of value that seem to talk back, to offer counsel even, but also judgment. Yet they mean well; theirs is a judgment that should go in one’s favor. They should approve. Why not consult them freely?
A special power comes with the identification of that which is honorable: the avowal of a cause or standard is an implicit lesson to others, an act of proselytizing. At the outset of his poem Pinsky recalls the noble strategy of the prisoners of South Africa who taught one another, but then he recalls that the military junta of Argentina had its idea of teaching, too:
In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as “Profesor.”
It is one thing to torture someone, but an altogether different matter to profess torture. One may, as an individual, at a particular moment, in anger, hurt another, but professors speak openly of what they affirm and will continue to stand by. A professor means to behave consistently, predictably, not at all arbitrarily. To be imprisoned by one who professes torture is to live without hope, because professors do not intend to change. They intend to live long, to establish continuity with their predecessors, and to train their successors.
The title of professor is a reminder to the prisoners of their need to learn to comply with their captors’ instructions. These torturers have constructed a culture; their cruelties are not incidental. In Pinsky’s poem, the Americans at Guantánamo first deprive Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost of writing materials, then later provide him with pen and paper and even some of the monuments of English-language literary culture. When Dost was released in April 2005 most of his manuscripts were retained by his captors, to his great dismay, though their potential intelligence value is unclear. Dost’s captors were either arbitrary or unresolved; in “Immature Song” Pinsky speaks of their “capricious / Kindnesses and requirements and brutality.” American captors have not, to their credit, found the power of a culture of torture and imprisonment. The challenge to those who use the term “culture of abuse” to characterize policies at Guantánamo, Pinsky implies, is to find those who profess torture. Otherwise the term “culture” is being used inexactly.
Culture is the establishment of such avowed choices as sense-making and inheritable, from one generation to the next: “Only your own ancestors can help you.” One is saved by values remembered, for they are the only basis of continuity, and Pinsky asks his readers what might honor or shame their ancestors. Similarly, Frank Bidart says that to the fallen at Gettysburg, if to no one else, we owe an effort at national solidarity.
None of these poets supports the war in Iraq, but none seeks to break with the polity. Common life—in the sense of shared life—is what engages poets now, and they bring some independence of mind to the issue of civic solidarity. They are especially attuned to what the War on Terror reveals about our daily lives—our food, families, patriotism, honor.
Williams is right, in a way, to suggest that ordinary citizens are complicit in the War on Terror, on both sides. But what Graham and these poets see clearly is that the United States has not produced an aggressive, explicit imperial ideology that commands the nation’s imagination. This is why soldiers returning from war for a good half-century have felt resentment that they had to go it alone. This is also why complicity is so hard to measure. It is not clear what notions civilians collectively adhere to, what responsibility we have knowingly undertaken. U.S. civilians are held responsible by Williams for unintended consequences of unrecognized affiliations. The critical reflection that engages Williams and all of us, as reports of atrocities come home, is obscure exactly because as a nation we sing no songs of conquest.
Sociologists have evidence that U.S. citizens are especially patriotic, and our leaders pursue an aggressive foreign policy on behalf of economic imperialism, but the poets suggest that we do not pursue such a policy because we are patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism, let alone imperialism, are not equivalents. I love my wife ardently, deeply; it does not follow that I have compared her with all other wives, nor certainly that I wish her to prevail over other men as she does over me. In fact, our imperial adventures are imperiled by the faint-heartedness of our nationalism. The most effective justification of the Iraq war is altogether pragmatic: ‘Bush wrongly sought WMD, but now that we are there . . .’ The same was said forty years ago. Bidart is right to worry that the United States is a less coherent nation-state now than ever; the popular values of the nation do not align closely with the activities of the state. The poets have been looking for the nation—for our operative ideals of collectivity. These poets write as citizens of a bloody republic, but not as outsiders. In their poems, not revolution but pending policy decisions are clearly visible or easily imaginable—the incarceration of foreign nationals, for example, or aerial bombardment of Iran. What can be named can be considered, supported or opposed, with awareness of costs.
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September 01, 2008
32 Min read time