The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

20 April 2012

All true poets

. . . an elegant statement not only about the devastation of war but also about poetry's 
power to amaze”  — The New York Times

Sunday, April 22, 4 pm, Opalka Gallery*
Discussion and reading with Dr. Ed Tick to follow
$5 Admission  •  Book Table in Lobby
One showing only

The seeds of the documentary Voices in Wartime were planted in January, 2003, when First Lady Laura Bush made the error of inviting a group of poets to the White House to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Mrs. Bush no doubt harbored benign notions of who poets are, and maybe imagined a scene of literary decorum similar to Robert Frost reading at JFK's inauguration. Distracted by the duties of First Ladydom, she may not have noticed that her husband and his handlers were manufacturing a tissue of lies to coerce the United Nations and the US into war in Iraq. Unfortunately for Laura, the poets had noticed, and rather than being solicitous they became unruly. Sam Hamill, publisher of the indispensable Copper Canyon Press, and Emily Warn, answered the invite by founding Poets Against the War. The third person they called was Andrew Himes, who Warn had worked with at Microsoft; within days, Himes had set up a website and the anti-war, anti-Bush poems began to pour in, eventually at the rate of five per second.

Laura Bush cancelled her tea party, but the poets kept on dissenting. Himes, observing the worldwide press coverage and watching the hits on the website whirl upward, understood there was a story to be told. He contacted his friend Jonathan King, who in turn contacted his brother Rick King with the idea of directing a film about Poets Against the War. Less than a year after the three men conceived the project, a rough cut of Voices in Wartime was screened to an audience.

Originally imagined as the chronicle of a protest movement build on poems, Voices morphed first into a history of war poetry and eventually into its final state, a meditation on the poet as the persistent witness to warfare. More than language, more than image, more than music (poetry's three graces), this persistence lies at the heart of the film, the tenacious sense of purpose that compels poets to speak the truth of war. Poetry born of combat occupies a unique literary niche; it never exists for its own sake, but as a phenomenon of testimony, to give voice to suffering, stand clear-eyed before death, cast light on carnage, and condemn bellicose pride and the counterfeit glories of battle. Homer's audience reveled in gory descriptions of battlefield deaths, and praised valor as it cast its spear, but the blind bard knew the toll aggression takes on the soul, and evoked it even as his heroes flashed and gleamed.

Increasingly over the past hundred years, wars are mobilized around armies but waged on civilians. Nuclear weapons have rendered war between major powers untenable; 21st-century conflicts are either techno-mechanical police actions or barbarous feuds between competing factions; in all cases, the destruction is wrought around and on the innocents, and so-called "collateral damage" is the common result with the most casualties. The testimony of poet Wilfred Own during World War I was of fellow soldiers choking on gas and bleeding in the trenches; today, from Afghanistan to Syria to Ivory Coast, eyewitness accounts are of burned children, raped women, the scattered dead of suicide bombers—atrocities committed in the name of someone's fundamentalism or nationalism or old-fashioned brute force.

No poet's cry ever stopped a bullet or bandaged a wound or ended a battle. Yet as warfare becomes  more and more—not just savage, but ruthlessly immoral, our humanity depends on the persistence of poets. The voice of witness, the shout of outrage, the cry of horror and sadness must be raised. "All a poet can do today is warn," wrote Wilfred Owen, whose elegiac descriptions of war's savagery are quietly eviscerating. "That is why true poets must be truthful.". Owen's directive is the ethos of Voices in Wartime and its lasting moral.

A poet functions as a kind of journalist of the interior landscape and brings back reports from the front. The front is the struggle in the human heart. — Andrew Himes

*  The Opalka Gallery is located at 140 New Scotland Avenue in Albany. For information and directions, click here


Kristin said...

How I do enjoy the image of the poets turning their backs on Laura Bush. Almost as much as I enjoy the snippets from this documentary (Emily Dickinson rocks!).

Congratulations for bringing a truly thought-provoking effort to the attention of John Q. Public.

Kristin Yates

Anonymous said...

stirring. the language of death- in just a few words we realize again what the machines of war hope we will continue to overlook.


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