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 was 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 engagement. This 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, competently.

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 works. 

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 in.
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, p.3). 

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 for them.

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 can 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.



    Agulha. Revista de cultura
    (Fortaleza; São Paulo9

    Art in Society, issue # 14

    Beloit Poety Journal

    buenos aires poetry

    Bula. Revista

    Crítica. Revista cultural 
    de la Universidad Autónoma 
    de Puebla

    Cutthroat Magazine

    La estafeta del viento

    La Estantería. Reseñario de Poesía

    Exit. Revue de poésie

    Hanging Loose Press

    Hunger Mountain

    Jacket magazine

    Jacket magazine
    archived in Pandora

    La Máquina del Tiempo
    Une revista de literatura

    La Otra. Revista de poesía 
    + artes visuales + otras letras

    Periódico de Poesía

    Poiein kai prattein
    Athenai, Hellas

    Poetry (magazine)

    Poetry Foundation

    Poetry Olympics

    The Poetry Society

    The Poetry Society website
    on Mike Horovitz and Alan Ginsberg

    Racha Cuca

    Rain Taxi
    PO Box 3840, Minneapolis, MN 55403

    Recours au Poème

    Wings Press

    Words on Fire

      Anti-war demonstration in Seoul, Mar. 7,2013 






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