For a literary journal with a focus on poetry, it may
be strange to publish an "anti-war issue." To ask poets to send me poems
that echo the present situation amounts practically to a request to send
in committed poetry. The global situation prompts media reports on wars
and war-like events in several countries (including Libya, Syria, Iraq,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine) and heightened tension in Europe and East
Asia, but what does poetry and what do poets have to do with that? The
Indian poet and medical practioner Dileep Jhaveri reminded us recently
that "Michel Foucault warned about political lyric insofar as 'we have
to discover the places of silence before the lyrical protest covers them
up.'" Jean-Paul Sartre, an advocate of littérature engagé
of the opinion that commitment can be significantly present in prose (whether
drama or novels or the short story) but that poetry is, almost by definition,
a different medium, naturally adverse to political
voids the contribution of many poets, from Ai Qing to Pablo Neruda, from
Paul Eluard to Cesar Vallejo, von Miguel Hernandez to Franco Fortini, from
Aime Césaire to Agostinho Neto.
I agree with Dileep Jhaver that we have to take a stand
against those who are "pushing through a certain agenda linked to their
ideological make-up." And at any rate, against all those (usually in a
powerful situation, as sponsors, publishers, influential culture critics,
or government officials) who do not shy away from perhaps condemning
those to "silence" regardless of whether they are poets, visual artist,
composers, or social thinkers who go "against the current"...
and this not so much because they are naturally born troublemakers, but
because they listen to their inner voice, their conscience...
This said, I ask myself, Does it imply that poetry cannot
and what is more, must not take a stand?
Most poets do, in their little way. They reveal concerns,
as they observe the world. They do it in a personal way, which is the only
way in which you can write real poetry. But many or most do it also in
a way that excludes a sphere or spheres of the world that we observe:
the sphere of political antagonisms, and the socio-economic sphere. It
is almost as if it is considered "not polite" to speak about it. Those
who did, especially if they ventured into the idiosyncratic or took sides
with dictators, like Ezra Pound, are often excused as "mad" or "out of
touch with the real world." Taking the case of Pound, I would prefer to
ask, Which serious ethical concerns, which subtext and deeper meaning,
so to speak, were buried under the manifest content? What drove him
to take a deep interest in a modern, humanist reading of Confucius and
other Chinese philosophers (and poets)? Which sensitive human passion was
buried underneath the overt, shabby fascist ideology and his American small-town
brand of antisemitism? When he linked "usury" (a stereotype) to "Jews"
(another stereotyped hetero-image), he merely reproduced bigotted
banalities present in the mind of so many who do not know a single Jew
and who engage themselves in shabby business practices, that is to say,
practices typical of a market economy. Probing deeper, Pound sensed the
shabby vulture quality of our proud voyou capitalisme:
a rogue capitalism, that betrays not for nothing so many
qualities we usually associate with the mafia.
But poets, including Pound, always were considered wrong
when they left the realm of pure poetry, poetry that may talk
of nothing but celebrate vowels and consonants, or poetry that relishes
the beauty of a morning, the wind across the plains, or the sadness of
a divorce (this, too, of course, a fact squarely situated in the social
and socio- economic sphere).
Is it then a fact that poets not all but many
shy away from writing "committed poems" because they are risk-averse?
Because they do not want to alienate readers, publishers, influential critics?
Because it is not only "impolite" but doesn't pay to shed light on certain
spheres of existence; certain ugly or disconcerting facts of our world?
And wars are ugly and disconcerting facts.
It is disconcerting, and it irritates if we, as poets, and citizens, probe
war situations, and ask Why; it is better to skirt such issues.
It guarantees a better reputation; we are less likely to be considered
mad, or at least illogical, uninformed, prone to fantasize, given to drawing
naïve conclusions, and so on
In the end, poets are like everyone else, in many respects.
We do our job, we have a profession, we try to exercise it thoroughly,
What I say seems to be applicable to most people. Why
should we, the citizens, intervene? Why should we take a stand? We have
our own ways and worries, we tend to think. Is this also like we act? A
profession, a job, keeps a woman or man busy. Then there are monetary concerns.
For some, it's the question, Is it a sound investment I made? For
others, Can I pay the electricity bill? Do I have to cut down on heating?
(It's what the wife of a deceased poet wrote me, "I have to cut down on
heating." Living in poverty got harder, without his small income. She's
already old, too.) Well, and the young? Almost everywhere they worry
quite understandably about the future. Their future. The difficulties of
finding a job. And keeping it. High rent levels in areas with jobs. Low
salaries, for many. Seems there is no time and energy left to worry about
other, more communual things. Global warming? About one half of the population
in the U.S. thinks it is a fairy tale invented by the media or people interested
in selling solar technology. And the other half? Admits it is a fact, but
then returns to business as usual.
The U.S. are not so different in this respect from many
other places in the world. There is not much time and energy left for worries
about the ecological future of our planet, the sustainability of our mode
of production, our particular industrial society, and the consumerist life-style
of those who can afford it.
And worries about war? Concern that peace is lacking?
After all, it is a fact that we are living, and have been living for decades,
in a permanent state of emergency, with bombers high above us that are
carrying atomic bomb on their unseen path in the blue air, with missiles
ready to be launched at the shortest of notices. They are hidden in their
camouflaged nests, in the midst of us, in our land, and on board of warships
out at sea but does that move us to action any more than knowledge about
polluted lakes and rivers, overfished, acidifying oceans, higher and higher
levels of CO² concentration in the atmosphere, or the fact that recently
the government of the most populous state in Germany briefly noted the
extinction of 45 percent of all species in that part of Germany? It is
something that hardly made headlines while the trend that propels reduction
of biodiversity is obviously unstopped.
No, it seems we don't have the energy anymore to stand
up, jointly, and change things, decisively, for the better. We may recognize
wrong developments, fatal trends, unbearable situations, but we shrug our
sholders. Or we may even close our eyes, close our ears, refusing to see,
to listen, to know.
Right now, in Europe, we witness, once again, a war
a civil war, mind you, in Ukraine. A proxy war, in a sense, with
America (backed by most NATO 'partners') and Russia involved in the background.
Yes, we see images on television. We read what the media people and the
politicians have to say about it.
Meanwhile, the price of gold is edging lower. Pundits
conclude, No serious danger of a real, big, perhaps nuclear war. Deterrence
Who are these pundits? What do they understand? Of course,
military commanders understand a few things. A former "inspector general"
of the German army (the old-fashioned word Generalinspekteur
refers to the highest commanding officer of the armed forces in that country)
publicly said he can't sleep at night when he thinks of NATO troops in
the Baltics and perhaps in Ukraine. An American officer, asked by a journalist
why NATO troops weren't undertaking exercises close to the Kaliningrad
"enclave," dryly commented, No, that would be too risky. Too much
of a challenged. After all, the Russians have missiles with nuclear warheads,
weapons of some importance for their defense, stationed in the Kaliningrad
area. If they had to fear a preemptive attack on Kalingrad, they might
launch them. Military commanders see this risk. Politicians and journalists
either don't see it or prefer to downplay it.
Are we experiencing a moment of heightened risk? If so,
shouldn't we do a lot to achieve something that the politicians and media
people refer to as "deescalation"? Something that I would like to call
a peaceful, equitable solution to an existing problem?
And yet, Ukrainian politicians speak of a Third World
War. Russian politicians warn that there are things they will not accept,
and speak openly of a preemptive nuclear strike, as a possible option.
Obviously, this would not be directed against Ukraine. The conflict is
much deeper and wider; it has a lot to do with NATO expansion, with American
geo-political aims. That small Eastern European nations have their own
traumatic memories and security interests is true enough; they may desire
the American military presence. That America is pushing Eastward, through
NATO expansion, is a different matter. The small nations in Eastern Europe
are in a way also pawns in an American geostrategic game. No wonder that
the Russian bear senses the bloodhounds right in front of its cave. Feeling
cornered, the bear becomes dangerous. The bear was made to recede again
and again, to withdraw into its sanctuary, while humans advanced, entering
what once was bear territory. But now, the situation becomes more grave.
If the bear recedes again, the hounds will stand above him, as he lies
there, on the ground. He will be in their master's hands, their jaws already
at the big animal's throat. There is only one way now, which is, to warn
them to recede. Otherwise the bear will attack.
We don't get it. We don't get what it means for Russia's
leaders (leaders no better or worse than ours, and certainly not your and
my friends) when US cruisers equipped with guided missiles plough the waters
of the Black Sea, Russia's soft belly, so to speak. We don't get
what it means when there is a NATO airbase halfway between Talinn, Estonia's
capital, and St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad). You've
got to look at a map, in order to start comprehending it. We don't get
what it means that the US, with Polish and other support, is constructing
a missile defense shield in Europe, "against Iran." With a semi-functioning
defense shield, the Cold War-tested symmetry of deterrence becomes a thing
of the past. Russia, no longer a self-proclaimed Socialist country, but
a capitalist big power like the U.S., will be forced to submit to every
U.S. nuclear blackmail. Its ability to talk back, or to pursue an independent
course will be a thing of the past. U.S. leaders know this, and are keen
to achieve this situation. Then, only China will have to be forced to kneel
and say uncle, and U.S. hegemony in an unipolar world will be guaranteed
once more, at least for the time being.
It is a dangerous game.
We never know how deluded leaders are and what
risks they are ready to take.
The U.S., which opposed dissolution of NATO when the Warsaw
Pact was dissolved, and which relentlessly pushed for the Eastward expansion
of NATO, knows it is taking risks, but its leaders seem to think that these
are calculated, well-controlled, manageable risks.
They simply assume that the other side will not react
vehemently, that the other side, cornered almost as they are, will give
They seem to think that no one would opt in favor of
what must be a suicidal set of actions.
We should not be too sure of that.
Japanese leaders gambled and took an enornous risk in
1941, much bigger than in 1931 or 1937.
German Fascist leaders gambled, taking a vast risk.
In that respect, and only in that respect, the hysterical
comparison of President Putin with Hitler is justified. In intra-imperialist
competition, it is always the weaker side that will risk more, and engage
in a more hazardous type of gambling.
But wasn't the "deterrence game" always a big gamble?
How often were we just a hair's breadth away from nuclear holocaust?
The liberal German Süddeutsche Zeitung, certainly
a "serious" publication that remains faithful to the dominant mainstream
consensus, reported on August 2, 2013 that British officials seriously
planned, in great detail, for a Third World War in the early 1980s, as
recently documents show. (See: Christian Zaschke, "Wenn die Russen kommen
/ Anfang der Achtzigerjahre simulierten britische Beamte auf Papier
den Dritten Weltkrieg - in allen Details. Das zeigen nun veröffentlichte
Dokumente. Sogar eine Durchhalte-Rede der Queen ans Volk war vorbereitet,"
in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Aug.2, 2013, p.8)
All the big powers have tended to buttress the assumption
that a nuclear war can be waged. The US leadership knowingly exposed soldiers
to radiation when they made them observe nuclear tests at a fairly close
distance without protection. Civilians were "guinea pigs" in Nevada, in
Utah's Wasatch Range area, in Semipalatinsk and the regions to the East
of it, in Australia and in Algeria. Medical records of civilians who got
ill due to such exposure to fall-out were evaluated.
In like manner, the consequences of the nuclear accidents
in Chernobyl and Fukushima were studied and are still studied. On October
22, 1999, the International Herald Tribune reported briefly that, in the
opinion of the US government and their medical experts, there existed "No
Added Cancer Risk for A-Bomb Witnesses." (WP, "No Added Cancer Risk For
A-Bomb Witnesses," in: International Herald Tribune, Oct. 22, 1999,
Such news are not featured very prominently. Their manifest
purpose is to tell those who were compelled to witness the tests that they
cannot blame the government, and that they cannot expect medical treatment
at the expense of the government, or compensation. The hidden content of
such a message is that the leaders are led to believe, and are willing
to believe, that a nuclear war is not that horrible: "We can win it, and
there will be plenty of people who survive."
We should digest that message, if we belong to the group
of investors who bet on a lower price for gold in the present situation.
It may be that our speculation is a mistaken one, and
that we will wake up to see a different scenario unfolding.
As for those who don't place bets at the stock exchange,
many are soundly asleep. They don't seem to care, one way or another.
Is it madness to think that we are all asleep,
in a way? A Russian mystic told people exactly that. I have always shied
away from reading him. Too many artists and writers were hooked by this
man, or a few of his sort, and thus they were turning to theosophy, to
anthroposophy and what not. I ask myself, What were people like G. or
Ou. up to, or Steiner, for that matter? Did they take to the streets,
did they picket barracks, the gates of military compounds? Did they write
pamphlets against war that moved the masses, forcing them to think twice
before they donned a uniform and picked up a rifle?
G's warning that "all of you" are "asleep" may have
been pointless, a diversion. And yet, who was awake in 1910, 1911, 12,
13, as one international crisis after the other unfolded, and the world
edged closer to the first big global industrial, mechanized war of the
modern era? Bertha von Suttner, Rosa Luxemburg? Did they make a difference?
And if not, why was that so? Where was the voice of artists, of philosophers,
of novelists, poets? They were heard, yes, in August 1914. Their exuberant
hooray still echoes in my imagination.
Asking a friend, a poet to boot, whether he could send
me some poems that reflect the fact that we live in a world that sees one
war or military intervention leading up to the next, an almost endless
cascade since the "war that would end all wars" drew to a close in the
summer of 1945, I got a pensive reply, "[,,,] and anyway," he wrote, "no
poem had ever averted a war or has shortened it at least for an hour."
He then added, as an afterthought, "and yet, I'm shocked that I have nothing
that I could contribute" to an issue with this theme war, again
and again war, or absence of peace, in our world.
How could I not be tempted to agree almost, and nod sadly
when he wrote that "no poem ever averted a war"? How can I hold it against
any painter, poet, writer, if she or he turns to themes, or to modes of
artistic research that are authentic, because they correspond to a deep
urge inside, a "necessity" felt, a desire embraced?
It is true that we run the risk of becoming pamphleteers,
or worse yet, pliable propagandists if we respond to ethical, religious,
or political tenets preached to us by those who preach lightly whatever
is fashionable, or desired by the powers that be, and the institutions
they lean on. We know too well, or might know it, that those who preach
"Take everything you have, and give it to the poor," preach such words
of Sunday, and during the rest of the week, it is business as usual, even
As a teenager, I held a booklet in my hands. It's title
was "No Arms, No Wars." This was perhaps in 1961, or 1963. There was a
war going on already, in Vietnam. I was very much aware of it, and against
it. But the booklet, printed by a Soviet publishing house, made me just
shrug my shoulders. I sensed the gap, between words and deeds.
We are on our own, you and me. That's the bitter truth.
And we know, or sense it, or fear it, that there are a lot of preachers
around. Governments create rapid intervention forces for "peace missions."
Orwellian Newsspeak abounds. It is understandable that we would rather
shut up than join the chorus, adding words that sound hollow because they
are misused and perverted so often, to a chorus of hollow words.
And yet, if people had not taken a stand, again and again,
wouldn't the course of history perhaps been different? I know that the
praxis of civil rights activists like Medgar Evers made a difference. But
were there not also songs like "We shall overcome" that added to their
courage and gave them strength?
I know that there was a strong anti-war movement in the
1960s and early 70s in the United States. Perhaps what brought the war
to a close were considerations that focused on cost economic considerations,
in other words. But did not activism make the scales point toward one side
the side of peace, perhaps? And didn't it matter that there were
people like Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan who kept the
longing for peace awake as they sang their songs? There are situations
and thus historic conditions when literature that echos vague, yet painfully
existing concerns, widespread fears, and emerging new hopes, can
contribute to a sharper vision, a renewed and clearer consciousness of
the population that may prompt them to act. The literature that emerged
in the wake of May 4th, 1919 in China is a case in point. Perhaps words
make a difference. A small difference, I agree. And yet, sometimes it is
one drop of water that makes a rain barrel overflow. Sometimes, constant
showers bring about a new spring.
Revista de cultura
(Fortaleza; São Paulo9
in Society, issue # 14
de la Universidad Autónoma
Estantería. Reseñario de Poesía
archived in Pandora
Une revista de literatura
Revista de poesía
+ artes visuales + otras letras
The Poetry Society website
Mike Horovitz and Alan Ginsberg
PO Box 3840, Minneapolis, MN 55403
Anti-war demonstration in Seoul, Mar.