Monday, January 5, 2009

Yes, We Have No-War Poetry

William Everson / Kenneth Patchen / Kristin Prevallet / Meg Hamill

This post discusses two books of poems published a bit more than 60 years ago, and two published in the last few years. All four books have protest against war as the primary or key theme. Much can be said about how these poets address the theme, and I here discuss a bit of that for each book. One thing, though, is for sure: Yes, we have no-war poetry in America, yesterday and today, and some of it, including the poems in these four books, is stunningly great.


William Everson, 10 War Elegies
(Waldport, Oregon: Untide Press, 1943)

Among the so-called “greatest generation”-- those raised during the Depression who fought in World War II -- were many who rejected the war entirely. About 45,000 Americans during World War II declared themselves conscientious objectors (COs); another 25,000 became “non-combat conscientious objectors,” and thousands of others, who objected to coerced military service or were not accepted as conscientious objectors, went to prison for the duration of the war. In addition, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, via Presidential Executive Order 9066 as upheld by the Supreme Court, were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war.

Those conscientious objectors accepted as such by draft boards were assigned, for the duration of the war, to do “alternative service” at one of a number of Civilian Peace Service (CPS) camps run by certain churches. The COs were required to be placed at a camp at least 200 miles from their home.

At the CPS detention camp in Waldport, Oregon (on the coast about three hours south-west of Portland), a fine arts mini-movement flourished. Among other things, the men at the camp began the Untide Press, which published a camp newsletter, a couple issues of a magazine (The Illiterati) that was distributed among many CPS camps nationwide, and several small collections of poetry (they’d probably be called chapbooks today). Much of the matter printed by Untide concerned pacifist themes. William Everson is probably the most well-known poet among those at the Waldport camp; he both worked on the Untide project and had his poetry published by it.

All Untide Press work was done after the COs had already done a full day’s work. The camp assignees, as they were formally called, were required to work ither physical labor in the nearby forests or maintenance work at the camp itself. eight hours a day, six days a week. Waldport received 60 to 100 inches of rain each winter, and the forestry work could be dangerous (several men were killed doing it). It’s humbling and inspiring to think of those men, separated from family, toiling outdoors full-time day after day, then working on publishing projects in their “free time.”

As might be expected, much of the poetry published by Untide had decidedly pacifist themes. Untide’s first book, in March, 1943, was William Everson’s 10 War Elegies (aka, using the roman numeral, X War Elegies). The book is really but a pamphlet, a very simple production: the poems on mimeographed typed sheets with a few stenciled mostly abstract drawings, folded and stapled at the side, then glued within covers that had yellow and black typography silk-screened onto blue construction paper. Yes, construction paper, just like we used as kids, with the proviso, however, that war-time paper supplies were notoriously brittle and flimsy. As such, the 10 War Elegies is a rare book today, and the copies that can be found are often chipped and fragile.

In a short introductory note, Everson explains that the book’s ten poems were all written after the war started, including one written after arriving at the camp. He also states the the general purpose of the poems: to show the effect of war on the lives and characters of those it involves. Everson’s book struck a very responsive chord. Within months of its publication the mimeoed version of 10 War Elegies went through five printings, with about 1,000 copies published. An expanded second edition of another approximately 1,000 copies (titled War Elegies) was published the following year. Most copies were sold to detainees in CPS camps nationwide.

Although Everson’s poems are pacifist anti-war testaments, they set out or describe that position mostly in extremely nuanced ways. This thoroughness gives the poems a complexity that requires a deeper engagement from the reader than might otherwise be the case. This characteristic, plus Everson’s strong writing, probably is what made these poems so appealing when first published, and why they are worth reading today.

The book’s first poem is a good example of Everson’s philosophical and emotional complexity. The poem begins with Everson outdoors as night falls, seeking in himself “the measure of peace” that he knows “is not there.” Peace can’t be found because,“now in the east”:
The flyers high on the rising rivers of air
Peer down the dark,
See under the flares the red map of the ruined town,
Loose cargo, turn
And like north-hungry geese in the lifting spring
Seek out the long way home.

The low freighters at sea
Take in their sides the nuzzling dolphins that are their death,
Burst and go under,
Their crews lie on the rafts in the deep fogs,
And will not be found,
And will starve at last on the blue waste.
These are vivid, cinematic images, tightly edited, rhythmic, and horrifying. Everson’s equating, via simile and metaphor, of bombers and torpedoes with geese and dolphins, is nightmarish too. It shows just how wrong the world had become.

The poem then takes a surprising turn. Everson reports that he feels “an unresolvable tension” forming within himself, caused by knowing that he is “of the same breed” as those who brought on the horror he’s just described. He gets very, very specific with this thought. In his blood are “Leif the Lucky, / And Thald, and Snorre” (terrific Viking names, yes?), those who “fought all day” with “bloody beard . . . stunned eyes . . . [and] gibbering mouths . . . crazy with hate . . . .” In short, Everson acknowledges that he is, “the living heir of the bloodiest men of all Europe.” This knowledge tears through his flesh, causing him to “flinch” in guilt.

This leads to a multi-faceted declaration of pacifism. There is the expected vow “not to wantonly ever take life.” But Everson also pledges to “seek to atone” for what came from his own past, and to not only “bear the pain” but also, out of his knowledge of what he fully is, to have pity and remorse. That’s about five emotional or philosophical facets, in addition to the revulsion, tension, and guilt previously presented. It’s an anti-war position with many roots, or, if your prefer, branches.

The book’s other poems are similarly nuanced. The seventh poem in the series depicts an early morning surprise air attack on an island (Pearl Harbor, presumably), from the perspective of the attacking pilots (i.e., the Japanese). The poem insists that the pilots were victims too. After hitting their targets, the pilots “crazy with joy” seek to rendezvous “on the open sea” with the aircraft carriers from which they had taken off. But those ships are gone. The planes can only circle above the “wide waiting waste” until each pilot sees “the spent gauge caught in its final flutter,” leading to the inevitable and sad finale:
. . . straggled down on their wavering wings
From the vast sky,
From the endless spaces,
Down at last for the low hover,
And the short quick quench of the sea.
The last line’s horrible energy – its eight single syllable words perfectly suggesting how the planes knifed into the water – is extremely convincing. That’s all the more remarkable given that the end can be seen several lines before it happens. Probably not many in “The Greatest Generation,” at the time or even today, would agree that the attackers were victims, pawns in the game, to use Bob Dylan’s trope. However, Everson couldn’t have made the case any clearer.

The book’s tenth and last poem is the only one actually written in and about the Waldport camp itself. Titled “The Interment,” the poem takes– and this should come as no surprise at this point – a nuanced approach to its subject. Yes, it depicts the hard physical labor required, and reports that the detainees are “suspended in time” / Locked out” of their lives. But the complaints then stop. Everson writes that the detainees’ grievance is “slight” compared to all that obtains “Outside, in the bone-broken world.” Even more, he suggests that the detainees’ isolation permits them to better see their “place in the terrible pattern,”
And temper with pity the fierce gall,
Hearing the sadness,
The loss and the utter desolation,
Howl at the heart of the world.
That “Howl” in the last line is STRONG. I hear it, and feel it. I wonder if Ginsberg did too?


Kenneth Patchen, An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of The Air
(Waldport, Oregon: Untide Press, no date [1945])

The last book published at Waldport, as the war came to an end in 1945, was Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of The Air. It’s an exceptionally memorable book, for several reasons.

There first is the book’s cover: the title and poet’s name are printed on white paper which is then pasted over (but does nmot entirely cover) a plain black wrapper. About a decade later, these eye-catching design elements were borrowed by City Lights for its Pocket Poets series.

The book’s page design is also memorable, if way too busy. The poem titles are shown in black ink, but the poems’ number and text are in red, and all except the numbers is printed over a sort of watermark in which the book’s title is spelled out in white block letters within a grey-brown column that runs down the middle of each page. Here’s a scan of one of the pages (please excuse the slighty catta-wampus scan here), to give you an idea of how it looks (click to enlarge, in a new window):

The poems themselves – a collection of 14 new and 20 previously published works – are memorable too. All involve or revolve around Patchen’s opposition to war, as he tells us somewhat needlessly in an introductory note. The opposition to war in the poems is generally explicit, made via scathing critiques of violence and skewed social values, although there are also poems that offer, in their direct and powerful evocations of life and love, an implicit anti-war message.

And when I say explicit and scathing, I ain’t kidding. In the book’s first poem, Patchen writes of the “noble little fools” and “their war.” He declares,
the soul of the world is dead . . .
Truth rots in a bloody ditch;
And love is impaled on a million bayonets.
The poem that follows, “The Dimensions of the Morning,” contains similarly scalding language. Patchen avers:
You are wasting your lives.
You are going along with your pockets
Full of trash
You have been taught to want only the ugly
And the small;
You have been taught to hate what is clean
And of the star.
A dog will throw up
When he is sick;
Are you lower than dogs
That you keep it all down–
And cram in more?
This type of excoriating poetic denunciation, if overdone, can burn so hot that the anti-war message seems an unreal, inhuman thing, impossible to embrace. A part of Patchen’s genius is that he can push the fiery envelope of rage and cool down the message via lyrical, even romanticized images of beauty and sentiment that while just as intense sound an entirely different note. Counterpoint is a well-used tool in the arts, including poetry, precisely because it’s so effective, and it certainly is in An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air.

The first poem quoted above – with its lines about truth rotting in a bloody ditch and love impaled on a million bayonets -- nicely illustrates Patchen’s mixing of tones. Those stunning images of human failings, are both preceded and followed by an unabashed celebration of dawn. The poem begins,
The stars go to sleep so peacefully . . .
Their high gentle eyes closing like white flowers
in a child’s dream of heaven.
and, after the caustic indictments in the middle stanzas, ends on the same note:
But great God! The stars go to sleep so peacefully.
Many other poems follow this pattern. Of course, the book’s title – a striking image of mystery and wonder – also serves to balance, and thus to temper, the strong anti-war invective.


Kristin Prevallet, Shadow Evidence Intelligence
(no place: Factory School, 2006)
(Heretical Texts: Volume 2, Number 3)

Anti-war poems make up only a part of Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence. Most of the book’s 70 pages presents documentation of group activities involving poetic social protest, including much from the archives of the “Poetry Is Public Art” project (including slogans created by the group, such as “It’s so sad to love cash” and “Be American: dissent”). Of course, anti-war and social justice concerns are closely linked, as Martin Luther King explained in his tremendous 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

Although relatively small in number, Prevallet’s poems against war are HUGE. There are, for example, a set of three visual poems, of a kind. Prevallet borrows, then alters, three of the slide-images used by Colin Powell in his regrettable February 2003 United Nations presentation that, using false intelligence, made the case for war. These slides each had text in cartoonish boxes superimposed on the images, telling you what you were seeing, just as you’d expect in official propaganda. Here’s one of the slides that Powell used:

Propaganda like this, espeically when Power-Pointed as above, presents rich opportunities for subversion, and Prevallet has at it. She replaces the dangerous-sounding “decontamination vehicle” and “chemical munitions bunker,” with, respectively, “A square iron box in the middle of a cornfield” and “Off-center, it defines the parameters of the cornfield.” The box labeled “UN vehicles” becomes, in an almost dada or surrealistic touch, “arctic glaciers” and for “sanitized bunkers” she substitutes, “Some people see bombs hidden here.” Another sharp jab at fiction spoon-fed as facts is her change to the slide’s title. In Prevallet’s poem, it’s “THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO DEFINE PROOF.” This is imaginative, fun, and effective poetry. I only wish the three poem-slides, which are reproduced in black-and-white, were in color, and that Prevallet could have somehow presented simultaneously with Powell at the UN five years ago. Wouldn’t that have been something?

These reconstituted images are in a section of the book called “Shadow Poems,” in which Prevallet pays, to use her term, “(Dis)Hommage” to certain forms by borrowing and altering their structure and/or methodology. She also calls this working “in the shadow” of the source. A poem done “in the shadow” of Wallace Steven’s “Connoisseur of Chaos” is particularly powerful. Where Stevens repeatedly uses the conditional “If” to start a line, and a form of the verb to be as a confirming ending (e.g., “If all the green of spring was blue, and it is”) Prevallet does too, but in each instance (and she adds many lines with the same structure) substitutes her own first conditional, now certain, suppositions, including these:
If America was fooled to believe that a country decimated by
sanctions and bombed to pieces for 12 long years was somehow in
possession of weapons capable of eliminating the free world
       and we were.
If hundreds of thousands have been killed, wounded, maimed, gone
crazy, committed suicide just in the past year and just because of war,
       and they have.
If the memory of 9/11 is the tigers leap into the future and the future
is the present ruled by madmen,
       and it is.
Another great “in the shadow” poem subverts – twice – a paragraph taken from George W. Bush’s February 2002 United Nations speech on Iraq. Prevallet first takes the paragraph’s five sentences and lineates them, breaking the lines, it seems to me, so that they sometimes create a most critical message:
The United States has no
quarrel with the Iraqi people;
they’ve suffered too
long in silent
captivity. Liberty for
the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic
goal. The people
of Iraq deserve
it; the security of
all nations requires it. Free societies do not
intimidate through cruelty
and conquest, and
open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder. The United
States supports political
and economic liberty
in a unified Iraq.
See how the first line-break serves to make the first five words a declamation of negation? I also love, a few lines down, how “captivity” and “liberty” are become partnered, as if one actually is the other (our freedom is a prison). I also love how, a bit further down, the phrase “intimidate through cruelty,” isolated by Prevallet from its prefatory and subsequent clauses, suggests the exact opposite of what Bush asserted, and thus reads (convincingly) as the President’s actual policy. How sweet it is to jam Official Words right back up the Authority’s ass!

But Prevallet is not done, far from it. She then repeats her Bush-word poem five times, each time substituting the word “oil” for about a dozen randomly chosen words (and tweaking slightly the lineation as she does so). The aptness of the substitute word is self-evident. By the final iteration, “oil” engulfs just about oil (all) of Bush’s words. Here’s the second-to-last version, which retains about 20 original words:
Oil United Oil oil oil
oil oil the oil people; they've oil oil
oil oil silent
oil. Oil oil
the oil people is
oil oil moral oil, oil oil oil strategic
goal. Oil oil
oil oil oil
it; oil security of
oil nations oil oil. Free societies oil oil
intimidate oil cruelty
oil oil, and
oil oil do oil
oil oil world oil oil oil. Oil United
States oil oil
and oil oil
oil oil unified oil
In addition to the grand subversion of the official text, something else brilliant goes on here. When read aloud (try it, please), the mechanics of pronouncing the word oil, repeatedly and repeatedly, cause the laryngeal and/or mouth gears to jam up something fierce. Soon enough in the reciting, the reader – or is it just me? – begins literally to gag or choke on the word. A poem that causes us to actually choke on oil. How perfect is that?


Meg Hamill, Death Notices
(no place: Factory School, 2006)
(Heretical Texts: Volume 3, Number 2)

At the heart of Meg Hamill’s Death Notices are almost forty prose blocks, formatted like and written somewhat in the style of newspaper death notices. Each of these notices is about a person or persons dead from war in Iraq. There are notices about Americans, Iraqis and citizens of other nations, soldiers and civilians, the privileged and the poor, men, women, and children, the alone and large groups, warriors and the utterly innocent. Here are three examples, that happen to concern Iraqi citizens, scanned from the book (click each notice to enlarge it in a new window):

Taken as a group, the book’s more than three dozen notices do a number of things, in addition to having an extremely sobering emotional impact on the reader. The notices also mock and subvert, pay tribute, and set up a series of questions or ideas.

The death notices mock and subvert first because we, of course, never see – could never see – most of them. There’s no way our newspapers could print notices for the hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the war in Iraq, and of course there’s also no way they ever would, even if it were feasible to do it.

Hamill’s notices also subvert by making use of the formulaic structure and cliches (e.g., “in lieu of flowers”) of published death notices, and by using actual language about the deaths gleaned from news accounts. Here, the well-worn form seems new, first because it is recontextualized as poetry, and second because many of Hamill’s notices veer into the meditative, reflective, responsive or speculative material. Most of the notices don’t just report the death, they prod some about it too.

Yet the notices also honor the dead. Hamill lets us know – reminds us in a very specific way – about at least a few of the war dead, most of which we’ve never heard about, and others that even if we have we’ve too easily forgotten.

And the notices, particularly by reminding us of the scope and variety of the dead, and by including material beyond the simple (or complicated) immediate facts of death, also suggest a series of questions or ideas. These ideas and questions also arise, or are reflected as well, from the lineated verse Hamill intersperses between the death notices. Some of this verse is written entirely by Hamill, but much is “found” or borrowed, including statements made by wartime detainees (from Abu Ghraib?), soldiers, and media covering the war, which Hamill arranges into verse.

The questions and ideas raised involve, among other matters: pain and human interconnectedness, the consequences of the failure to grieve and the advantages of doing so, our complicity both in the deaths themselves and the lack of or limited mourning, the fate of world-systems where grief is limited and whether limiting grief causes violence, the role of media in what we feel, and how daily life, grief, interconnectedness and compassion might co-exist, particularly when “all the bad and all the stunning” (a phrase used by Hamill) are overwhelming.

These are critically important ideas and questions. Hamill’s interest in these matters in part arises from her familiarity with the writings of Joanna Macy (a quotation from Macy serves as the book’s epigraph and three of her works are cited in a note that ends the book), and Judith Butler (the end note cites Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, and Hamill has said she was inspired by these writings).

Butler and Macy are big thinkers. Part of what makes Death Notices such a powerful book is that Hamill’s exploration of these big thinkers’ big ideas is not heavy-handed, programmatic, or glib. On the contrary, the personal/political/anti-war/social/philosophical principles that both undergird and emanate from this poetry seem natural, sincere, and direct. I credit this entirely to Hamill’s writing and artistic skills. She shows discretion in places but when necessary lays it all on (in) the line. She mixes subtle suggestion and trumpeted themes, and neither relies too much on nor abjures entirely personal thoughts and experiences. And, as the book as a whole is a kind of collage given its extensive use of found text and information, Hamill’s touch as an assemblagist must be credited. The ordering and juxtapositions never seem clunky, even though surely many choices about ordering the material were necessary. Combine all this with the impact of the dozens of stunning and haunting death notices themselves, and it’s no wonder that this book’s a very impressive achievement..

End notes and sources:

Much information about the Untide Press and Waldport was found in “Waldport: An Interview With William Everson,” published in Imprint: Oregon, Vol. 5, no. 1-2 (Fall-Spring 1978-1979); additional information was also found in the Untide Press bibliography in that issue.

There is of course, much other poetry -- entire books, series of poems, and single poems -- that I might have written about here. If I were to include single poems, Robert Duncan’s Vietnam era “Uprising: Passages 25” would serve as an exemplar of indignant protest.

Finally, the wondrous strange image conjured by An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, the title of the Patchen book, is not unique to that poet. Reproduced below are three particularly powerful uses of that image. The Henry Miller book, with a dust jacket using a cover design very similar to that pictured below, was published in 1939. The Philip K. Dick book was originally published, as pictured below, in 1957. The final image is a painting, by Jess (aka Jess Collins), completed in 1975. The painting, which measures almost 20 by 20 inches, is a translation of an image found by Jess in a 1958 book, which in turn was based on a woodcut done in the 16th century.


Miss Lonelyhearts said...

Steven, great post. Sends me back to Everson, whose work is so wierd and important and left out of so many discussions, and on to the newer works, which look to be quite powerful. Joe D

Steven Fama said...

Thanks much, Joe.

On Everson: I should have said in the end-notes (and perhaps might add one) that the particular poems in 10 War Elegies have been re-printed and thus can be found and read in a number of Everson collections. For example, all 10 War Elegies poems can be found in any Everson collection with "Residual Years" in the title (there's both a New Directions and a Black Sparrow book with those words in the title).

The problem, though, is that in these subsequent collections Everson did not keep together the poems first published in 10 War Elegies, but instead interspersed them among other poems from the same period.

In addition, when originally published, the poems did not have titles (other than a roman numerals, I through X). But when he subsequently had the poems re-printed, Everson gave a title to all of them.

This all means that it's very, very hard, to say the least, to find out what poems were in 10 War Elegies unless you actually look at a copy of that book.

I did, of course, when writing the post. I can send information about the exact sequence of poems to anyone who'd care to get it.

Meg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nicholas Liu said...

Hi Steven,

I only just discovered your blog and it's already introduced me to lots of writers I hadn't known about and told me new things about other writers whom I had. It's a joy.

I wonder if you might be willing to post (or email me, at metastasis[at]gmail[dot]com) a scan of the back cover of Patchen's "Astonised Eye"? I'm dreadfully curious to know what the whole artifact looks like. I'd be very grateful if you could.


Steven Fama said...

Hi Nicholas,

Thanks for the kind words. Your comment has arrived while I'm away from the books, but when I return home, I'll get out the Patchen book and see if there is anything to scan. My memory tells me the pasted on white sheet, that on the front has the title, just wraps around to the back, and that there is nothing but that blank sheet on the back of the book. But I'll check and let you know.

Nicholas Liu said...

Fantastic. Thanks so much!