Notes on the paucity of contemporary war poetry

“A poet is the first citizen of his country and for this very reason it is the duty

of the poet to be concerned about the politics of his country.”

Yiannis Ritsos

Few academic poets write about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; few poets have been on the battlefield. Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) is an exception. Those who have not been in action but write about war include Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Carolyn Forche, Brenda Hillman, Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, and Dorianne Laux. Where are the sons and daughters of ‘Nam soldiers? Who are they? What is their personal fall out? Where are the women poets whose husbands serve or have served in today’s wars? Where are their poems? Who are they?

“Military wives now have more to do than just  hold down the fort. They often have to keep their own careers going. Perhaps unaddressed fear becomes the deterrent to not think about the consequences of those missions since there is no longer the reassurance that the government will take care of you as a widow.”  (Suzanne Bruce, poet and military wife.)

Why do we find poets of other countries such as those in South Africa, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel writing freely (or under duress) about war? Do we Americans avoid war as a subject because the battle is not fought on our own territory? The cities bombed are not our cities? The houses destroyed are not ours either. Is it because we do not experience war in our own backyard?
We are not sent into exile nor are we under martial law and yet those under martial law scribble on the walls of their houses, on walls of their prisons. “Writing Poetry Was The Balm That Kept Guantanamo Prisoners From Going Mad,” was a headline from the San Francisco Chronicle of July 17, 2005. Story has it that “a Pakastani, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, arrested in Afghanistan and held without charges in Guantanamo wrote thousands of lines in Pashto, at first scribbling lines with his fingernail into Styrofoam cups.” (Adrienne Rich, “Poetry and Commitment.” )

Do we avoid speaking of war because we see only a dearth of scenes of actual fighting presented on the television? During the Vietnam War it was almost every day Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley gave us reason to be glued to the tube. We witnessed the atrocities of war up close and personal. We witnessed the bloody indignities of battle. We witnessed funerals and memorial services.
Is most of today’s news deliberately censored so we are dependent on mediocrity, thus inuring ourselves to the suffering of others? Could it be today’s news bows to entertainment and thus is not up for introspection or discussion? Are we politically numbed? Have quick sound bites taken precedence over investigative journalism?

Today’s military service is non-compulsory. Does this contribute to the lack of war poetry? Is the younger generation perhaps more illiterate compared to that of their predecessors?

We need the courage, the felicity and finality one can expect from the finest verse.  In other words, we need our poets to have an intelligent and serious imagination, to not submit to needless harshness and violence simply out of shock value. If today’s poet does present harshness and violence, let him balance it with that which is tender and beautiful. Let him have some shred of common sense. Let him be clear, firm, human and real. In other words, “A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate, there is no other.” Ranier Maria Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet).

Why is there a proliferation of “I” centered poetry? What has happened to the “we” in poetry, the “we” that Adrienne Rich so forcibly taught us, the “we” of community, of social responsibility? What happened to the journey of individualism to collective awareness?  One poet friend of mine suggested that we are a divided society, confused and just too plain ornery. She also added that perhaps we are multi-tasking to excess and therefore not concentrating on what is deeply serious and difficult. Is today’s poet that too self-absorbed, and therefore too afraid to ask the pure fiery questions of war? Is he too intimidated to take a chance? Are our intellectuals “aesthetically over sensitized and politically numbed?” (Carolyn Forche, “On Poetry of Witness.”)

Where is the Walt Whitman oratorical verse, oracular in that it makes the reader think? Poetry started in the oral tradition, in the narrative, in the memorization of poetry. Think Homer and Virgil. Poetry was not a only a written but a spoken art.
Why is there a lack of transparency in today’s news? Does this allow for an hermetic illusion of safety for the average citizen living in an “administered Western world of an industrialized state “? (Carolyn Forche, “The Poetry of Witness.) Have we become overly complacent living within this illusion? What don’t we want to know? What do we fear about our country; what do we fear in ourselves, in the poem?

Recently our yesteryear balladeer Joan Baez was banned from Walter Reed hospital. Where are the protest songs we once knew? Currently I know of only a few including Neil Young’s “Love and War,” “The Rooster” by Alice in Chains? Are there more?  Maybe someone can enlighten me. What heavy metal bands take up the war theme? Any country groups?  See:,Top-Songs-about-Soldiers-and-War

Could it be that those who would like to write are just too ill or anesthetized to do so? Or is poetry writing for them simply an unprofitable and hence useless act? Multiple tours of duty (highly stressful and exhausting) have largely been taken for granted. 2.4 million Americans have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of whom are coming back profoundly changed by what combat veteran and author Karl Marlantes described as the “soul-battering experience” of war.

In past wars we had the likes of Walt Whitman, Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, James Tate, James Dickey, Michael Casey, Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa who served in the military and informed the masses. Where are their likes today?

C.K. Williams in his brilliant essay “Beginnings” stated that the artist “must move to the center of history, not as a commentator or moralist, but as a lyric participant, as the most exactly self-conscious enactor of secular and usually democratic aspiration.” Art must become not merely an instrument of ethical suasion or of delight, but a redemptive risky resolve in and of itself.  The poet must see his verse as empowering enough to be within the framework of the cultural and the historical. Whitman defined it as “the very substance of our spiritual consciousness, that we are to become utterers, intimate and active participants in the universe of ecstatic awareness.” (“Leaves of Grass”) Isn’t this what Eliot meant as the “socially engaged personality?” If we are indeed compassionately engaged, let’s hope our current poetry will not be what James Wright often criticized about his generation of poets as “flaccid, obtuse, muddied, fragmentarily crippled.”


Leonore Wilson

Author: Leonore Wilson

Leonore Wilson taught English and creative writing for more than twenty years at various colleges and universities in the San Francisco bay area. Her new book of poetry is Western Solstice (Hiraeth Press, 2011). Her poetry, stories and essays have been published in such magazines as Quarterly West, Madison Review, Laurel Review, and Third Coast.

6 thoughts on “Notes on the paucity of contemporary war poetry”

  1. There actually is quite a bit of war poetry written from the veterans’ perspective and the pacifists’ perspective. People that are close to poems by vets include Abby Murray and Sarah Hautinger. The pacifist war-poem can be read regularly in magazines like The Progressive, Atlantic Monthly, Z, Sojourners, etc.

    What is true is that this is primarily street poetry. The typical MFA poet lives in dream-world academia, and you see very little activist or culturally-aware poetry there.

    It’s like the European Nobel judge who says Americans are rarely awarded Nobels for prose-literature because of the old English-class dictum to “write what you know.” Many American novels end up being about boring relationships in New York City. The judge did not suggest inauthenticity — he suggested more Americans need to be out doing missions with the poor in Africa, living in war zones in Afghanistan, etc.

    The other aspect about not seeing good war poetry is the same as the aspect of popular music, the people who say there’s no good pop music these days — untrue. There is nothing visible to a mass audience. The good stuff must be hunted down, it is on obscure web sites and in obscure journals. The mass audience for anything has fragmented into a million shards.

    Is there a problem with confessionalism and too much “me” poetry? Absolutely, and this is true both in street poetry and MFA poetocracy. The entire culture has erased the difference between fame and notoriety, and everyone wants to be well-known, whether for being a great writer on Stephen Colbert, or being a mass-murderer in Aurora. Everything is all about me.

    The first step to being a more universal poet writing about political topics is to forget the self exists. Go dwell in your past lives for a while! Yerself is steam, as a great comic once said.

  2. At the risk of a sweeping overstatement, Loring, and based only on my own reading experience, I think that another problem with what you call MFA poets might be that their politics are sometimes simplistic and predictable. Starting a poem with the intent to restate a simple, commonplace idea or matter of dogma surely makes writing an effective poem very difficult. I encountered quite a few undergraduates in creative writing classes who seemed to think that any poem against cancer or domestic violence, etc., was necessarily a good poem, and that another student’s suggesting some technical weakness was tantamount to challenging the sacred theme. I believe that some amateur-poet veterans similarly believe that expressing the “proper” attitudes relieves the poet of the hard work of constructing a good poem. The analogy that comes to mind is the political speech, in which the speaker can draw applause (perhaps even coerce applause) by simply iterating some core belief of the audience in pedestrian or clumsy wording. At the 2012 Democratic and Republican conventions, applause would surely have followed if some otherwise boring speaker merely said or shouted, respectively, “Diversity!” or “Liberty!” Good poems are good poems, not merely vehicles for good ideas or worthy values.

  3. Somewhere somebody is writing great poetry about some war, but maybe only the next generation will care who that is, or know who that is.

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