Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10181
Lorrie Smith (essay date November-December 1986)
SOURCE: "A Sense-Making Perspective in Recent Poetry by Vietnam Veterans," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1986, pp. 13-8.
[In the essay below, Smith comments on the distinctive traits of Vietnam veteran poetry and analyzes the work of W. D. Ehrhart and Bruce Weigl.]
Amid the flurry of special magazine issues, photo retrospectives, and television documentaries commemorating the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, one back-page item brought into focus our continuing failure to make sense of the Vietnam War. An ABC News-Washington Post poll found that "while most Americans believe U.S. involvement in the war was a mistake, one out of three does not know on whose side we fought." Among adults thirty years old and younger, "48 percent did not know that the U.S. fought on the side of South Vietnam." Although the recent visibility of Vietnam in the media temporarily bestowed the illusion that we could "relive the era" and assess "the legacy of Vietnam," these disturbing figures suggest that the war remains as remote now as when fabricated body counts and official double-talk masqueraded as fact.
It is now commonplace to observe the violence done to language, hence thinking and moral judgement, during the Vietnam era, to regret the euphemism, tautology, jargon, and illogic epitomized by phrases like "peace offensive," "destroying a town to save it," and "kill ratio" [In an endnote, Smith adds: "See, for instance, Thomas Merton, 'War and the Crisis of Language,' in Robert Ginsberg, ed., The Critique of War, 1969. The corruption of language, which, as Orwell pointed out, always peaks in periods of war, is a major preoccupation of poets in this era."] Likewise, we now know, the ubiquitous visual images of our first T.V. war did little to clarify these obfuscations. Instead, our responses to atrocity were numbed by redundancy or made safe by bland newscasters. With such forces confounding our ability to imagine the war fully while it was happening, it is natural that our retrospective view is one of suppression and denial, an almost willful collective amnesia only rarely jarred by intruding reports of MIA remains or Agent Orange. When we do choose to look back at Vietnam, the past is often cast in light of the prevailing conservatism of the eighties. Men have been known, for instance, to invent Vietnam military service records on their resumés, tailoring a once-unpopular war to a new vogue for patriotism. Such slippery psychic and cultural holds on history inevitably generate myths which distort the real significance of the war, narratives which too easily master and enclose its anguish. Most popular media treatments of Vietnam are incomplete versions of history at best; slick, sensational, or sentimental fictions at worst. A new generation—the forty-eight percent whose misconceptions are tallied in this survey—may already be succumbing to the mass-market fantasies of Hollywood, persuaded by Rambo that American machismo still wields force in Southeast Asia and may yet redeem our tarnished myth of military glory.
Though a growing body of personal memoir and oral history is beginning to map a more accurate historical terrain, our knowledge of Vietnam remains fragmented and its full cost unmeasured. Journalist Pete Hamill suggests [in "Vietnam, Vietnam," Vanity Fair (April 1985)] why the actuality of this war continues to be so elusive: "The truth of the war was internalized, mythic, surrealistic, allusive; its darkest furies, deepest grief, and most brutal injuries could not be photographed. This war belongs to the printed page." Questioning the putative objectivity of documentary and film—our most visible attempts to come to terms collectively with the Vietnam Era—Hamill suggests that the war might be recovered more fully in imaginative literature. In fact, one valuable and largely untapped source of truth about the war lies in poetry by Vietnam soldiers and veterans. The protest poetry of stateside poets like Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and Allen Ginsberg provides one chapter in the story of our national trauma, but the war for them was a necessarily distant moral and ideological cause. [In an endnote, Smith adds: "There is no sustained study of poetry by participants in the war, and few critics have distinguished it from the general body of Vietnam literature. Cary Nelson, in Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry, 1981, grounds his book's argument in an introductory discussion of 'Whitman in Vietnam' but admits the work of veterans is outside his scope. James F. Mersmann, in Out of the Vietnam Vortex, 1979, also bypasses veterans' poetry. Jeffrey Walsh's American War Literature 1914-Vietnam, 1982, looks briefly at several poets. Philip D. Beidler's American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, 1982, is a more penetrating and far-reaching study of Vietnam literature as a project of cultural myth-making. Though he concentrates mainly on fiction, he examines the work of poets D. C. Berry, Michael Casey, John Balaban, and Bruce Weigl. John Felstiner considers veteran poets in 'American Poetry and the War in Vietnam,' Stand 19:2 (1978), and in 'Bearing the War in Mind,' Parnassus 6:2 (1979)."] Like the letters in Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam [edited by Bernard Edelman, 1985], poems by Vietnam veterans provide a repository of first-hand knowledge about the war and retain the living contexts of history by naming people, battles, dates, and places. Beyond this project of anamnesia, however, veteran-poets have begun to locate the larger significations of the war in American history and consciousness. Theirs is a poetry of witness but also, at its best, of retrospective and heuristic vision.
The enormous outpouring of poetry by participants in the Vietnam War is a singular event in American literary history. Though previous wars have all had their lyric rememberers—Whitman, e. e. cummings, Karl Shapiro, Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell—there is no corresponding body of poetry by war veterans and few workable literary models for the Vietnam poet. Even the British poets of the First World War, whose poetry and whose war were in many ways akin to the Vietnam veterans', had considerably more literary and cultural resources to support their enterprise. As Paul Fussell has pointed out [in The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975], the age of serious readers, a coherent and continuous national literature, and an assumed consensus of values was shattered after World War I; indeed, such supports may never have been available to the American poet, as Whitman discovered.
While war poetry naturally treats archetypal themes of life and death, it must also respond to the specific conditions of its time and the needs of its contemporary audience. The Second World War can be read as a coherent narrative of struggle and victory, because the soldier-poet's suffering made sense in terms of shared national values; the culture glorified the soldier's sacrifices, helped expiate his guilt, and welcomed him back as a hero. But the peculiar qualities of the Vietnam War further complicate poetic sense-making. In addition to being appropriated and distorted by the media and effaced in our collective memory, the war itself took place in a hermetic microcosm where all normal points of reference—ethical, logical, even linguistic—were suspended. (In soldiers' argot and throughout these poems, "the world" refers to any place outside Vietnam.) Fighting a war to which his country did not assent, returning to ambivalence, scorn, or silence, the veteran has been left alone to make what sense he can of his private agon. Thus the Vietnam veteran attempting to bring poetic language to bear on his experience of the war faces a dual problem of memory and form, historical representation and literary representation. As Philip Beidler observes [in American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, 1982], "It would become the task of the Vietnam writer to create a landscape that never was, one might say—a landscape of consciousness where it might be possible to accommodate experience remembered within a new kind of imaginative cartography endowing it with large configurings of value and signification." For such a project and such a war, irony seems too redundant, pathos too weak, realism too unrealistic, epic scope too broad, mythic redemption too spurious. The veteran's recourse, most often, is an anti-poetry stripped of transfiguring metaphor but enriched by the accuracy of a witnessing moral vision. Its content is empirical rather than idealistic, its epiphanies sardonic rather than transcendent. Indeed, most Vietnam veteran poets shun the traditional affirmations and consolations of lyricism. Their motives are decidedly to instruct rather than to delight—a stance entirely appropriate for a subject which is, after all, political.
Not surprisingly, as Beidler demonstrates in his chronological study of Vietnam literature, the perspective of veteran writers gains a wider angle with time and distance. Three stages mark progressively more complex and mature responses to the war. The many poems written under the pressure of battle and directly after the war constitute a poetry of close-up witness providing visceral description for the reader and, one suspects, catharsis for many writers. Driven by a need to pin down the ambiguous facts and experiences of war, many soldiers recorded the texture of life in Vietnam: its decimated landscapes and torn bodies, its mud and monsoons, its prostitutes and peasants, its moments of fear, frustration, and comradeship. Whether written by poets with evident literary training or by less sophisticated writers, these early poems are uniformly prosaic but enlivened—often quite artfully—by anecdotal realism, satire, wry or deadpan humor, soldiers' slang, obscenity, and catalogues of concrete details. [In an endnote, Smith states: "This empirical, colloquial style marks most of the poems collected in the three anthologies of veterans' poetry: Larry Rottmann, Jan Barry, and Basil Paquet, eds., Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, 1972, Jan Barry and W.D. Ehrhart, eds., Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam, 1976, and W.D. Ehrhart, ed., Carrying the Darkness, 1985."] Though few soldiers could shape their war-time experiences into larger patterns of meaning at the time (it is helpful to remember that the average age of the Vietnam GI was nineteen), their topography of physical detail and event is essential to a deeper imaginative penetration of Vietnam.
If the only poems to come out of the war were these, we might dismiss veteran poets as chroniclers locked in a moment of the past. But several poets emerged in the seventies with a broader mediating perspective, negotiating between the extremes of concreteness and artifice, quotidian and universal. Such a stance is most apparent in volumes conceived as sequences, whose formal coherence begins to give shape to the still-near past. Two have gained recognition by the academic establishment—Michael Casey's Obscenities, a Yale Younger Poet selection, and John Balaban's After our War, a Lamont Poetry selection. Many others remain largely ignored: How Audie Murphy Died in Vietnam (1973) by McAvoy Layne, The Long War Dead: An Epiphany (1976) by Bryan Alec Floyd, War Story (1977) by Gerald McCarthy, Vinh Long (1976) by Perry Oldham, and saigon cemetery (1972) by D.C. Berry are particularly significant. Each gains the advantage of an extended and ordered vision composed of vignettes, character sketches, and sensory details which evoke the soldier's life in Vietnam. Resisting traditional forms of lyric affirmation and closure in individual poems, they discover meaning in larger structures of sequential or interlocking poems: Layne's mock-heroic Bildungsroman of drafteeturned-Maoist Audie Murphy, Casey's cryptic account of a year's tour of duty, Floyd's elegant elegies to each member of his platoon. Each finds a way to organize the random and often senseless experience of Vietnam into a meaningful form. Still located in Vietnam, they predict the even broader sense-making perspective of more recent poetry, by veterans who have gone on to explore how the memory of Vietnam impinges on the present and to gauge the extent to which, in Cary Nelson's terms, "history has usurped" visionary poetic language and form. Veteranpoets' continuing engagement with the moral and political questions raised by Vietnam dismantles the popular myth that we have regained our national innocence and forces us to scrutinize our well-meaning but still unexamined consensus that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. By continuing to bring the war home and inviting our own empathic response, they map our common ground of history.
Two veterans have emerged in the eighties as leading poets of the Vietnam War, their differences staking a range of possible retrospective treatments of the war. W.D. Ehrhart is a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an important editor and advocate of veterans' poetry, and a highly polemical poet. His collection of previous and new poems, To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired, traces one representative veteran's growth from naiveté to disillusionment, anger, and political activism. In an attempt to find cultural contexts for his angst, Ehrhart connects two converging continuums: his personal coming of age and the destructive flow of history. Bruce Weigl re-presents Vietnam with more dense and resonant language. In his two recent volumes, A Romance and The Monkey Wars, Weigl takes memory itself as his main theme and insistently links Vietnam with contemporary life in America. Both ground their poems in the immediacy of the war but move beyond a mere litany of atrocities to imagine the war's continuing and palpable presence in American life. The anaesthetized flatness of earlier veterans' poetry has evolved into a broader range of responses which measure and connect the war's psychic, cultural, political, and literary costs. Refusing to recuperate a past before war or a poetry untinged by its anguish, Ehrhart and Weigl both extend the possibilities and expose the limitations of a lyric response to Vietnam.Ehrhart's poems set in Vietnam are often typical of the poetry of direct and graphic witness. One "Sergeant Jones," for instance, is described as "The kind of guy the young enlisted men / admire: / he can hit a gook at 50 yards / with a fuckin' .45." The sinister shift in diction, of course, exposes and condemns this callow but common sentiment. While many early poems from the front are curiously devoid of protest, Ehrhart early on places his personal experiences in a larger political context. In "The Generals' War," Ehrhart speaks with contempt of the ironic disjunction between "Paper orders passed down and executed" and the actual execution of soldiers "straggling back in plum-colored rags, / one-legged, in slings, on stretchers, / in green plastic bags." Such outright bitterness extends to Ehrhart's poems written after he returns from the war. He first attempts to make sense of his personal fall from innocence, to retrieve the lost ideals of his small-town youth and reconcile them with the bare facts of war. "To the Asian Victors" presents an emblematic crisis of identity and dilemma of cultural dispossession:
I remember the dead, I
remember the dying.
But I cannot ever quite remember
what I went looking for,
or what it was I lost
in that alien land that became
than my own can ever be again.
Since nothing in American culture helps Ehrhart assimilate his experience, he turns to his enemy, in one poem cursing the "cock-eyed" North Vietnamese gunner who sent him "back alive among a people / I can never feel / at ease with anymore," and pleading "do not let it all come down / to nothing." But the war's meaning, Ehrhart realizes, must lie closer to home, so he shifts the battleground to America. Speaking on behalf of his fellow veterans and addressing the American public directly, he inveighs against the culture that piously celebrates its Bicentennial while ignoring the veteran next door. His voice is often collective, his position a combative us-against-them which points up our complicity and complacency: "they always assume the war is over, / not daring to imagine our wounds, / or theirs, if it is not." Though justifiably angry, Ehrhart is also willing to help us overcome our amnesia and heal our collective wounds. In "The Teacher," he recounts an oath made after the war "to teach you / all I know—/ and I know things / worth knowing." Yet he fumbles and asks for his students' patience "until I find a voice that speaks / the language / that you speak." Implicit in this exchange is our need to meet the veteran halfway in dialogue, to decode a language which is not, after all, so inaccessible.
Between his nightmarish memories of Vietnam and his longing for empathy at home, Ehrhart does find consoling moments of love, self-knowledge, and comradeship. In "A Confirmation," a long, blank verse narrative reminiscent in setting and situation of Hemingway's "The Big Two-Hearted River," the speaker camps with a fellow veteran he hasn't seen since the war on a river "tumbling through the darkness toward the sea / that laps the shores of Asia." Their companionship differentiates these veterans from Hemingway's shell-shocked Nick Adams, replacing his code of tough reticence with one of compassion and vulnerability. Hammering stakes and catching fish become, as in Hemingway, masculine rituals—here binding the two men in the present by recalling their shared experiences in Vietnam. Like Hemingway's skittish veteran, Ehrhart has a moment of near-panic; after a half-hour struggle to catch a rainbow trout, "I throw the fish back / in the awkward silence, and you / slip your arm around my shoulders / gently for a moment, knowing why." Away from society, sharing both an "awkward silence" and a "perfect stillness," the two men find common meanings for their private anguish. Ehrhart's poem echoes—and perhaps even pays oblique tribute to—veteran poets of an earlier war. Like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg, Vietnam veterans must reanimate the dead ideals of their fathers with their own darker meanings, salvaging
something worth clinging to
out of the permanent past of stillborn dreams:
the ancient, implacable wisdom
of ignorance shattered forever, a new
reverence we were never taught
by anyone we believed, a frail hope
we gave each other, communion
made holy by our shame.
The healing power of love, nature, and friendship may be effective in Ehrhart's own life, but his most recent poems suggest that such personal consolations are insufficient to counter the force of history or to correct the mistakes of the past. He is openly didactic in his call for a reformation of our national vision and policies. In "A Confirmation," he says "good-bye" to "high school history"; his recent poems attempt to correct the history books with "what I know." Thus, Vietnam figures in many poems as an important node on a continuum of self-destructive events in American history: imperialistic aggression, the disinheritance of Native Americans, the build-up of nuclear armaments. Ehrhart does more than protest or propagandize, however. By claiming his own place in history and inscribing his personal fall within the story of our national will to destruction, he reminds us that the veteran is a truthful witness to history, his war an active force in the present. "The Invasion of Grenada" never mentions that recent military escapade but instead uses what he knows about Vietnam to make a broader statement at once personal and political:
I didn't want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives …
What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
What I wanted was an end to monuments.
But no one
ever asked me what I wanted.
Ehrhart manages to be didactic but not dogmatic, lyrical but not transcendental; his plain-spoken, chastising style is appropriate for a moral and political re-conception of Vietnam.
Bruce Weigl's poems begin at the point of assimilating the war into large imaginative and historical constructs. Like Ehrhart, he continually goes back to the war in an attempt to go beyond it and, like Ehrhart, his efforts to reconcile past and present, memory and imagination, often end in dilemma. In his 1976 volume, Executioner, poems about America and Vietnam are gathered in two separate sections. In his latest volumes, however, Weigl juxtaposes Vietnam's cloying jungle with Midwest factory towns whose slag heaps, smokestacks, bars, and graveyard shifts recall the grey landscapes of James Wright and Philip Levine. Whether viewed from Vietnam or Ohio, the war penetrates all of Weigl's observations. Linked by peculiarly American brands of violence and pathos, the two places are not so far apart. The dark underside of Vietnam is finally, as in Ehrhart, a monstrous exaggeration and a logical extension of the more banal forms of violence and moral depletion of home.
In both recent volumes, Weigl images the war as a monkey on his back—a tenacious memory, potent and insidious as a drug; a carnivalesque Doppelgänger, both intimate and repugnant; a symbol of man's unregenerate brutality. The climactic poem of A Romance, "Monkey," is a fractured nightmare in which language nearly disintegrates under the pressures of psychic and physical pain. Present reflection and past experience intermingle as Weigl searches for a way to live with and speak of the war. Memory erupts in disconnected flashes or is suppressed altogether as the speaker tries to "Forget the stinking jungle." He compulsively conjugates the verb "to be" and grasps the activities of daily life in an attempt to fix reality and to fend off memory and desire: "I am you are he she it is / they are you are we are … Good times bad times sleep / get up work / sleep get up / good times bad times." The poem finally places the war in time, expressing present fatigue as the speaker remembers the past:
I'm twenty-five years old,
quiet, tired of the same mistakes,
the same greed, the same past.
The same past with its bleat
and pound of the dead,
with its hand grenade
tossed into a hootch on a dull Sunday
Like Ehrhart, Weigl longs for a thoughtful and responsive audience, but he goes further to address a sympathetic interlocutor and to pull us intimately into the poem: "I'm tired and I'm glad you asked." The speaker finds temporary release from the redundancies of battle and nightmare only through fantasy that finally itself dissolves into further repetitions:
my monkey my beautiful
monkey he saved me lifted
me above the punji
sticks above the mines
above the ground burning
above the dead above
the living above the
wounded dying the wounded
Though he survives the war and transcends it in imagination, the fighting continues—with or without him—stripped to the archetypal motions of all wars, a cartoon endlessly re-run, a game of king-of-the-mountain never resolved. "Monkey" runs down and endlessly around with a weary cynicism that colors many of Weigl's later war poems:
Men take hill away from smaller men.
Men take hill and give to fatter man.
Men take hill. Hill has number.
Men run up hill. Run down.
The alternating impulses to immerse himself in actuality and to rise "above the / wounded dying" in Keatsian flights of imagination structure many of Weigl's war poems. Though he soars toward transcendence in many passages, he almost always falls. In "Him, on the Bicycle," the speaker is riding "In a liftship near Hue" when "the door gunner sees movement / … four men running, carrying rifles / one man on a bicycle." The poem then leaps to a fantasy in which the speaker becomes one with his enemy and the two fly past the battleground like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
He pulls me out of the ship,
there's firing far away.
I'm on the back of the bike
holding his hips.
His hat flies off,
I catch it behind my back,
put it on, I want to live forever!
The real and the imaginary fuse, however, in a final ambiguous image in which the Vietnamese man may either be literally torched by the gunner or apotheosized in the speaker's fantasy. He disappears "Like a blaze / streaming down the trail."
The Monkey Wars pushes this oscillation of flight and fall toward a darker view of the limitations of transcendent and redemptive imagination. In the first poem, "Amnesia," Vietnam has obliterated the memory of a world before war, much as it effaced Ehrhart's past in "To the Asian Victors":
If there was a world more disturbing than this
Where black clouds bowed down and swallowed you whole
And overgrown tropical plants
Rotted, effervescent in the muggy twilight and monkeys
That came to sound like words to each other
Across the triple-canopy jungle you shared,
You don't remember it.
The enervated speaker is caught between his lost past and an impotent yearning for the future; between them, mentioned only obliquely, lies Vietnam, the monkey, as he says in another poem, "no myth this time, / Grinning, howling, never letting go." The speaker yearns to "Fly up to … the crows calling autumn into place," but lacks "the strength and will." In "Burning Shit at An Khe," the speaker does manage to escape temporarily from the literal and symbolic "shit" which he is ordered to burn because "You had to do something / Because it just kept piling up / And it wasn't our country, it wasn't / Our air thick with the sick smoke." He sinks "deep to my knees" until
… it all came down on me, the stink
And the heat and the worthlessness
Until I slipped and climbed
Out of that hole and ran
Past the olive drab
Tents and trucks and clothes and everything
Green as far from the shit
As the fading light allowed.
But the speaker suddenly shifts to the present, where the remembered actuality of the war blocks his escape:
Only now I can't fly.
I lay down in it
And finger paint the words of who I am
Across my chest
Until I'm covered and there's only one smell,
Several other poems remember Vietnam in sharp focus. Always, however, the details of war yield larger symbolic significations in retrospect. In "The Last Lie," Weigl observes a soldier hurling a can of C-rations into the face of a begging girl: he "laughed / And fingered the edge of another can / Like it was the seam of a baseball / Until his rage ripped / Again into the faces of children / Who called to us for food." With one deft simile, Weigl transmutes the sanctioned violence of the war into an all-American pastime. Even in poems not directly about Vietnam, the language of battle and the memory of terror shadow all present thoughts. In "Snowy Egret," a young boy's clandestine hunting of an egret re-enacts a soldier's naive killing. The final lines draw us in and expand beyond this incident to condemn all such "innocent" atrocities, to insist on our complicity, and to elegize our collective fall:
What a time we share, that can make a good boy steal away,
Wiping out from the blue face of the pond
What he hadn't even known he loved, blasting
Such beauty into nothing.
In the final poem of The Monkey Wars, "Song of Napalm," the war infiltrates a tender domestic and pastoral scene. Again, Vietnam is the glass through which the present is seen darkly, the obstacle which keeps the speaker from flying freely into the future. Standing in the doorway with his wife after a storm, Weigl sees with double vision: "branches / Crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire / But you said they were only branches." Though it seems for a moment "the old curses … swung finally away from me," Weigl cannot finally shake his monkey. Past and present collapse together in equations of literal rather than figurative correspondence:
But still the branches are wire
And thunder is the pounding mortar,
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
As the poem's darkly ironic title suggests, the lyric imagination utterly fails to ameliorate or transform the memory of Vietnam; napalm is "like jelly" because it is jelly. At stake, and paralyzed as in "Amnesia," are the speaker's future and, implicitly, the possibilities of a salvific poetic vision which might unify past and present, anguish and affirmation:
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
Into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume. Nothing
Can change that; she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
For Ehrhart and Weigl, the war will not go away simply because we forget it or refuse to think of it, nor can lyricism sustain "the lie" or reclaim the innocent "green / Pasture unfolding" now violated forever by the "stinking jungle." The veteran poet's witnessing vision can, however, guard against the peculiarly American habit of denying history. His memories and nightmares and dilemmas are ours as well, drawing us intimately into the fallen history we share—"her pain … and your pain, and mine"—and reminding us, as Hemingway did for an earlier generation, that his war took place "in our time." By rooting Vietnam in our collective consciousness and connecting it to contemporary American life, these poets insist that their memories form part of our past, their anguish part of our present. Vietnam veterans do, indeed, "know things / worth knowing." If we ask and listen and respond, we may finally relinquish our illusions of national innocence and personal neutrality and begin to chart a truer history of our involvement with Vietnam.
Stephen P. Hidalgo (essay date Fall 1993)
SOURCE: "Agendas for Vietnam War Poetry: Reading the War as Art, History, Therapy, and Politics," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 5-13.
[In the following essay, Hidalgo focuses on language and sense-making in his discussion of Vietnam War poetry.]
This is about the margins of the poem, as much as it is about the poem itself, at once act and artifact, as is every written or recorded spoken word. At its margins the poem rests within the consciousness of the author and retrieves evidence of the poet's own implied situatedness in his or her social, political, and historical context, functioning as a source of meaning. Within the context, the poet of war experience, Veteran or protestor, endures a kind of social, political, and historical marginalization which the war poem seeks to invert, redefining the center of common experience out of its socially and psychologically repressed margins. If the poem is an artifact, it is not an "object," Wendell Berry insisted in 1974 ("The Specialization of Poetry" [in Standing By Words, 1983]), but a relevant understanding, a vision, and more, as Czeslaw Milosz concluded in The Witness of Poetry (1983), "a passionate pursuit of the real" carried by a "historical force … inventing means against destruction." Still earlier, in 1968, in "Leaping Up into Political Poetry," [American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, 1990] Robert Bly had explained the political poem as an appeal to a common contextual reality, a "leaping up" into "the life of the nation …, but as a psyche larger than the psyche of anyone living." Adrienne Rich in 1984, in "Blood, Bread, and Poetry," [Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1986] also has agreed with Berry that the implied contextual relevance of the poem is as important as its supposed autonomous status as an esthetic object.
In the recent war poem, self-reflexiveness offers to acknowledge the unsatisfactory nature, even the meaning-lessness, of war experience; meaning is deferred from the experience the poem embodies to the enframing context—a field of cultural and political relationships in flux, that evolves the poet's own imaginative and therapeutic need. This context is summoned to validate every war poem, much as every photograph of atrocity is validated by its context, factual or invented. In Vietnam War poems, meaning is characteristically formed in the poem as question, paradox, or challenge to interpretation rather than as the illustration of a paraphrasable maxim, as it would be in the philosophical poems preferred by critical defenders of the primacy of esthetic sensibility, such as Jonathan Holden in Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry (1986). War poems, after all, are not often about experiences esthetically pleasing in actuality, although some war poems are, as for instance this excerpt from John Balaban's "The Dragonfish":
Brown men shock the brown pools with nets.
Fishing for mudfish, carp and ca loc,
they step and stalk the banks; hurl;
stand, then squat heronlike in the
shadow-stretching, red evening dusk.
(Ehrhart, ed., Unaccustomed Mercy)
If the imagery captures a pastoral moment of revery as the mind's retreat from violence, the poem goes on to unmask the precariousness of the moment, as "guerrillas of the Front hide" among the "rain-eaten tombs" that stand "Far out in deserted paddies / more cratered than the moon." Even here, the scarred consciousness of the narrator shapes the poem's content out of raw experience to disclose the insecurity of a moment of esthetic remembrance.
Esthetic demands characteristically impose a kind of revisionism on the memory of actual experiences, as much by an interpretive selection of details as by the re-formative function of language, as Paul Fussell has pointed out about the poems and novels of two World Wars (The Great War and Modern Memory; Wartime). A desire to cultivate resistance to the revisionary force of esthetics may perhaps account for Vietnam Veteran poet W.D. Ehrhart's concern to distance himself from the demands of poetry as an art form, a concern which he shares with Wilfred Owen, among poets of World War I, but a concern which, fortunately for literature, Ehrhart sometimes fails to fulfill. But so radical is Ehrhart's concern about the revisionary force of esthetics that in a roughly grotesque poem, "The Heart of the Matter" (Just for Laughs) he graphically burlesques the writing of a poem as an atrocity cruel in itself, the cutting out of a human heart. Comparably, many if not most Vietnam War poems are consciously antiesthetic in recording or responding to experienced atrocities or acts of mass violence. Such experience as most Vietnam War poems offer is directed into dialogue with its context, a dialogue by implication engaged in the margins of the poem of war remembrance, where, in the poet's consciousness, the war is still being fought.
Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form noted that poetry as "virtual experience"—the equivalence of felt experience that is the meaning of the poem—differs from discursive uses of language to remember actual experience in that poetry most definitively illustrates Saussure's idea of meaning as linguistic coherence, rather than Peirce's sense of meaning as reference to things. Poetry is particularly designed, in fact, often by esthetic device, for establishing distance between virtual experience (the poem) and actual experience. Thus, poetry is inherently revisionistic of the experience that it purports to be about, or, as Plato insisted in The Republic, poetry "lies." Even allowing for referential meaning as a function of language in the poem, meaning still functions as coherent interpretation of linguistic structures, and always therefore entails, in the act of verbalization, revision of the experience to which it refers. Common sense shows further that where language records remembered experiences, memory itself revises, glorifies or diminishes, idealizes or suppresses experienced content. In consequence, poetry may paradoxically be the form of linguistic expression most allied with memory in being the closest thing to its own method, showing forth both the advantages and problems of linguistic constructions of remembered experience. Frank Kermode suggests this, in Poetry, Narrative, History, when he claims that a poem may be history, and history may be viewed as a poem.
By its nature, poetry is self-referential in a high degree, and often self-reflexive about its revisionistic approach to experience in the ways that it presents itself as language counter to ordinary discourse, beyond the usual function of words as referential signs. Poetry about the Vietnam War—by veterans or protestors—highlights the poem's self-reflexive distance by a wide range of devices including direct assaults on the tenability of any language about war experience. For instance, D.F. Brown's "Patrols" encapsulates the whole cycle of war experience as its consequence, an accounting for the bodies of casualties, urging: "This is where stacking pays off. / Invent numbers each time you need one. / Sunlight more than names, any name" (Unaccustomed Mercy). In this poem, the wordless identity, the "name" of each combatant fashioned by war experience, remains inarticulate, beyond the reach of language.
By far the most common self-reflexive device is the violation of the imagistic poem with confessional intrusions, as in Bruce Weigl's "Song of Napalm" (Unaccustomed Mercy). Such intrusions, "trying to say this straight: for once / I was sane enough," confess poetic speech about atrocities to be a guilty act—as an act that obscures memory ("So I can keep on living"), or as an act of erasure ("I try to imagine"), or as an act guilty in its resort to the medium of public language ("The lie works only as long as it takes to speak"), a medium defiled in that the seemingly ineradicable duplicity of public language was itself material cause for the string of wars of hidden atrocity in Southeast Asia. Cary Nelson in Our Last First Poets (1981) assesses such confessional acknowledgements to be the root of authenticity in the Vietnam War protest poem, as a valid record of experience. This judgement implies not only that a frustrated search for meaning is basic to the experience of modern war, but that the poem as a formal evocation of virtual experience is irremovably enclosed within a larger context of discursive public language that contributes to its meaning. To this language of context, the reader who values Vietnam War poems as acts of sensemaking, as critics like Philip D. Beidler clearly do, must have interpretive recourse.
Since, in addition to esthetic concerns, a multitude of interpretive needs—political or therapeutic ones, for instance—qualify historically valid memory within the poem, Vietnam War poems regularly incur revisionism by selection and focus, rather than by extending their scope to explore the range of existential potency within memory as in the classical poem of history as epic. Instead, individual works focus either on one subjective perceptual response, as in Ehrhart's "Our gravel-crunching boots tear great holes in the darkness" ("Night Patrol," Unaccustomed Mercy); or on one set of perceptual contradictions offered as irony, as in this excerpt from Komunyakaa's "Thanks" [in Unaccustomed Mercy]:
thanks for the dud
handgrenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I'm still
falling through its silence.
Sometimes Vietnam War poems offer a collage of conflicting perceptions offered as surrealism by the blurring of distinctions among perceiving subjects (as in Frank Stanford's long poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You). Vietnam War poems (and novels, films, and plays) offer a wide scope of experience only in the collective assessment of them. Thus the validity of the poem as memory, including its use for purposes like "teaching the Vietnam War," is afforded by its enclosure within a larger dialogue that necessarily includes not only other Vietnam War poems, but also fiction, personal narrative, and "objective" history. Poetry functions in this dialogue to constructively question all verbal (and thereby revisionist) representations of experience, as it constantly discloses to us the interpretive function of sense-making as a project. Like other literary forms, but more intensely than they, poetry reminds us of the centrality and the severe limits of personal perceptiveness and of memory in making sense of experience.
The particularly literary faculties of formative perception that poetry brings to the project of historical memory—its sensitivity to the inclusive resonances of words, its discovery of a value within detail that equals the scope of actual experience, and its property to form of these a virtual experience by balancing, as Wallace Stevens explains (in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," 1942), the imagination as a "violence" from within against the "pressure" of reality as a "violence" from without—these faculties invoke tensions between language and experience that are not unique to poetry, but are typical of all projects of linguistic sense-making. In the Vietnam War poem, these tensions are brought to a symptomatic crisis that includes the recognition of a traumatic exchange of functions between reality and imagination—sometimes as a mental escape that saves the speaker's sanity, as in Vietnam veteran poet Bruce Weigl's "Him, on the Bicycle" (Unaccustomed Mercy), an American soldier sees from a helicopter "four men running, carrying rifles, / one man on a bicycle." In revery, the bicycler "pulls me out of the ship; / … I'm on the back of the bike / holding his hips." When the bicycler's hat flies off, the rider catches and wears it, crying out, "I want to live forever!"
Alternatively, the violent displacement of imagination by the need for attentiveness to mortal realities, and the corresponding displacement of reality by imagination may imply war consciousness as a form of life-sustaining insanity, as in David Mura's artful "Lan Nguyen: The Uniform of Death (1971)":
In the river, my face
is twisted, mottled green,
a mango rotted eight days in the jungle's oven.
I think we should fight underwater,
crawling at the river bottom,
moving heavily, flies caught in honey.
(After We Lost Our Way)
A therapeutic recollection of war consciousness as saving madness, but reshaped, like Mura's fantastic musing, into an esthetic revery, redistancing itself from madness as a mutual displacement between imagination and reality, as it recovers the same exchange in the revisionary form of a lyric poem, is offered in this excerpt from Bruce Weigl's "Monkey":
my Vietnamese monkey …
he's my little brown monkey
he came here from heaven
to give me his spirit imagine
my monkey my beautiful
monkey he saved me lifted
me above the punji
sticks above the mines
above the ground burning
above the dead above
the living above the
wounded dying the wounded
The recovered interchange between imagination and reality here implies also a partial displacement of cultural identity through emulation of the Vietnamese out of the need to survive. In all these excerpts, the crisis of tension between imagination and reality in the poem reveals the underlying tensions among conflicting needs of sense-making: therapeutic, esthetic, political, and historical. Call these needs "agendas," and number them as potentially infinite as the reach of human imagination. As agendas multiply within Vietnam War poems, exploring tensions among these agendas should raise more perceptive questions about the nature of these tensions, as conflicts potentially revelatory about the perennial, psychologically self-propagating phenomenon of modern war.
Much Vietnam poetry, particularly poems in early anthologies like Winning Hearts and Minds, 1972, is therapeutic in the original motive (Ehrhart, "Soldier Poets"). These poems use inscription in the poem to assuage the unheeded anguish of veterans and to overcome symptoms like the long-term traumatic amnesia characteristic of many cases of Vietnam PTSD, and perhaps most importantly, to come to terms with guilt—either "survivor guilt" or the guilt incurred by deeds of violence, culpable or not as acts of war, as both Robert Jay Lifton (Home From the War) and Hendin and Haas (Wounds of War) observe. The shock of self-recognition in such therapeutic poems, when published, may incur a parallel self-recognition from its readership as unacknowledged psychological victims and as active or passive contributors to the War in Vietnam. This use of the poem gestures toward what Kali Tal has termed "cultural therapy."
Still, as Paul Jay has pointed out about autobiography in Being in the Text, all therapeutic stories are partly fictional retellings, and thus are essentially acts of mnemonic revision. As a result, therapeutic assessments of the War in Vietnam inevitably conflict with each other, as, for example, the post-traumatic therapeutic needs of veterans and disaffected citizens conflict, at least in immediate ends, with Richard M. Nixon's postulation (No More Vietnams) of "Vietnam syndrome" as an alleged national pathological weakness of will following the American withdrawal from Indochina. All such therapeutic agendas potentially threaten the need for a history that goes beyond political motives for historical revisionism—specifically to cover mistakes and protect reputations. Consequently, John Carlos Rowe's and Rick Berg's charge, in The Vietnam War and American Culture, that "therapeutic" agendas towards remembering Vietnam are abetting historical revisionism, should not surprise us. It is a liability of any valid history that, while sharpening factual content, it can never remove the influence of reshaping reassessments on its final product. Even those historical accounts that Robert A. Divine, in "Historiography: Vietnam Reconsidered," [The Vietnam Reader, edited by Walter Capps, 1991] has called "postrevisionist histories" are only superior in that they are more acutely discerning of our needs for history in adjudicating among revisionary recastings of our collective story as history.
Vietnam War poems intended as therapeutic assessments reveal still unmet needs for a valid history of the conflict, and offer at times penetrating, concise insights into the problems of historical revisionism. Specifically, many poems as examples of acknowledged post-traumatic recovery reinterpret a persistence of remorse not as "Vietnam syndrome" but as potentially a new maturity of reflection toward the problem of modern war, in lines like Gerald McCarthy's "the war still follows me / Never in anything have I found / a way to throw off the dead" (Unaccustomed Mercy); or in C.K. Williams's:
There is a world that uses its soldiers and widows for
flour, its orphans for building stones, its legs for pens.
… When we come home, we are half way.
Our screams heal the torn silence. We are the scars
or W.D. Ehrhart's:
We are the ones you sent to fight a war
you did not know a thing about …
When you awake,
we will still be here
… all of us
looking for a reason.
We never found one. Presidents
come and go away like snowdrifts;
Oh, we're still haggling over pieces
of the lives sticking out
beyond the margins of our latest
history books—but no one haggles
with the authors;
or Howard Nemerov's ironic apology for the failure of Americans to "learn from history" because we can periodically reinvent ourselves:
… we are not the same people as them
That fed our sons and honor to Vietnam
And history will not blame us if once again
The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.
(Nemerov [War Stories, 1987])
A few Vietnam poems offer qualitative prescriptions for the reform of historical processes, like Wendell Berry's call in "The Morning's News" for a "deathlier knowledge" (Collected Poems).
Even more illuminating, perhaps, are the questions raised by Vietnam War poetry about the allegedly irreconcilable conflict between political and poetic uses of language. Against recent critical attempts to see poetry as felicitously in retreat from the unbearable horrors of politics (Terrence Des Pres in Praises and Dispraises), M.L. Rosenthal in 1971 ("'The Unconsenting Spirit'" [Our Life in Poetry, 1991]) found poetry's involvement with political questions to be one of its most valuable, permanent contributions in the modern era. Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich both acknowledge William Butler Yeats as their poetic ancestor, in his political engagement as well as in esthetic concerns. Moreover, that political language and poetic language function in much the same way has been argued most forcefully by Wallace Stevens ("The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" [in The Necessary Angel, 1951]), who in suggesting that both move their audience to a virtual experience that acquires collective validity, adds the qualifying observation that "social obligation" represents "a phase of the pressure of reality which a poet … is bound to resist or evade today." The poet, Stevens concludes, "fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives." Stevens's desire is to see poetry and politics as separate, potentially complementary domains.
But the conditions of poetry and politics in the contemporary world repeatedly put them at odds as agendas for finding meaning. Poetry demands an inclusive sensitivity to resonances of meaning in the selection of words, and typically draws poetic meaning out of cohering resonances among the words selected, modulated by recognizable form, whether conventional genres, patterns of repetition, or the suggestion of an analogue. In contrast, George Orwell noted as early as 1946 ("Politics and the English Language") the fragmenting and meaning-evacuating influence that mass politics and its propaganda discourse exerted on words as vessels of sense pertinent to experience. Added to this, Daniel Boorstin noted in 1961, in The Image, a discrepancy arises between television images as political terms and the realities that mass audiences take them to accurately present—with the consequent diminishment of the role of the political leader from statesman to custodian of a public image. Walter J. Ong in 1967, in The Presence of the Word, confirmed Boorstin's analysis, suggesting a discrepancy between television images perceived as spontaneous and their rehearsed and preplanned actual format. Modern and contemporary poems are presumed to discover their form spontaneously in the act of constituting them, and often rely, as poetry traditionally has relied, on the transformation of a creditably real descriptive image into figurative sense—based on a confidence in language that political uses of television have tended to discredit. By 1969, Thomas Merton, in "War and the Crisis of Language" [in Thomas Merton on Peace, 1971] noted a wide discrepancy between the intense language of need arising in the experience of personal lives, manifest in poetry as the antiformal, antilinguistic confessional mode, and the false language of self-fulfillment as verbal autonomy offered by televised political speeches and advertising.
As an alternative to the formlessness of the confessional mode, with its tendency to slide into sentimentality and self-pity, Vietnam War poems have preferred the ironic application of dysfunctional political language. Galway Kinnell, in "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible," bequeaths a new poetic legacy:
goes to the Secretary of the Dead
to tell the corpses, "I'm sorry, fellows,
the killing was just one of those things
difficult to pre-visualize."
And continuing the black comedy, Michael Casey, in "Road Hazard" literalizes concrete circumstances behind the mask of political euphemism, as "the Nuoc Mau / Citizens standing around this scene / Holding their noses" (Unaccustomed Mercy). Kinnell's and Casey's words sharply focus as dissonance the contrast between human experience and dysfunctional political language, and at the same time are analogously ironic acknowledgements of the poet's own crisis of language in failing to find terms that offer redeeming sense to the memory of horrors. The real conflict here is not between the linguistic methods of sense making used by the poet and by the politician, but between their recognized sense-making needs. As an act of language, poetic sense-making parallels political sense-making in these instances, revealingly, as instances of linguistic failure. Paradoxically, the poems succeed through their failure to make sense of the senseless.
It may be that in contrast to our experience of fragmented political language in the twentieth century, we usually assume poetic language to be all constitutive, after Benedet to Croce, and word-creative, as urged by Stéphane Mallarmé. But the high modernists, who took Croce and Mallarmé most seriously, produced almost universally an esthetic of fragmentation, since acts of poetry are based on a particularly irremediable linguistic tension. The distance which constitutes "virtual experience" out of actual experience generates a special status for the language of the poem, which, when it reaches a level of conventionality, we call "poetic diction." But since Wordsworth, poetry as a constitutive function of language has been held in tension with its avowed need to approximate the language of spoken use, a task historically incurred by the awkwardness of sense created by artificial poetic dictions, but also, as some recent poets have argued, by the recognition that words cannot be wholly removed from their normal multiple and fragmenting discursive functions by incorporating them into a "special" vocabulary as components of an esthetic object. If the poem is an act of sense-making, it must make sense by transformations that rely on vocabularies in use in its context.
David Jones, a veteran of World War I, felt poems set words apart for a mystical, sacramental function that he called "anathemata," from the Greek meaning "outcasts." Jones textured unusual terms from dialects ancient and modern, blending them with soldiers' argot, and thus collected words like wounded, cast-off soldiers, to give them, in war poems like In Parenthesis, new meaning and new wholeness within the poem. But Jones, like Eliot, Pound, and other high modernists, achieves wholeness by shifting the fractures within languages and within words to more esthetic alignments. David Jones self-consciously acknowledges the persistence of linguistic fragmentation better than most high modernist poets, and also succeeds better than most in conceding the irremediable distance generated between the poem's virtual experience and the actual experience it "images" or the "history" it claims to "contain," as Pound claimed for The Cantos.
Vietnam War poetry, like David Jones's war poems, applies the contextual realignment of fragmented language, but plays off complex self-reflexive ironies against this poetics of fragmentation in its postmodern search to revitalize the community-constitutive functions of song and story in the poem. How can Eliot's "falling towers" help but be recalled in a poem made out of refunctioned fragments of linguistic dysfunction and cultural disintegration, as in a passage from Yusef Komunyakaa's "After the Fall"?
Dzung leaves the Continental Hotel
in a newspaper dress.
Hoping for a hard rain,
she moves through broken colors
flung to the ground,
mixing up the words to Trinh's
"Mad Girl's Love Song"
& "Stars Fell on Alabama,"
trying to bite off her tongue.
Call this a jazz oratorio. Poetry and politics are playing in concert here, ringing changes off of the same fragmentation, blending snatches of a Vietnamese love song with an African-American lament, laying down the same dissonances, and absconding into the same revealed wordlessness—the melting of the newspaper clothing and the biting off of the singer's tongue.
Political terms—and here cultural terms are political terms—are ruptured and recollected, are reconstituted with dynamic force into an anti-language, a set of self-consciously euphemistic analogies for torn psyches and wounded lives. Wholeness, implied by negation, is invoked as an absence. The absence is redemptive as laughter is, or the blues—the door out of the absurd, conjecturing the possibility of other actual worlds, and more satisfying virtual experiences (poems) as well.
The escape from the conventionally esthetic demands of poesis is simultaneously an escape from corrupt and corrupting politics. Characteristic of the compatibility of poetics and politics in this capacity are W.D. Ehrhart's complementary pronouncements: about poesis, that he is not interested in mere poetry; about politics, that he will never trust our government again. Consider this a special case of negative capability. This double-absconding from poetry and politics, in the processes of writing political poetry and establishing a poetic reputation, offers not so much a condemnation of poetry or politics, but a repudiation of corrupting or distorting circumstances within both.
The escape from conventional meaning suggested within the "virtual experience" offered by the Vietnam War poem is an escape into dialogue, into the larger discursive context in which the poem is situated, where it offers its challenge to other sense-making agendas. A recent poem by W.D. Ehrhart, "Not Your Problem," offers a new ironic use of dissonance in that, while about El Salvador, the setting is never identified, and (but for the detail of "ink" that brands "voters," an ironic analogue for the poem) could as well have been Vietnam:
Not Your Problem
Avoid this place.
Here time travels in tiny circles
like the hands of a clock.
Here dust rises like smoke
until it rains;
then we lie down in mud
and dream of dust.
Here our children will never learn
to read or write; their teeth
will rot from their heads;
they will join the army, or die
like us beneath foreign bombs.
Here men with guns at night
make sleeping people in houses
Here voters are branded with ink,
and those unmarked are found
days later in trash dumps.
Here being poor is a crime
unless we are also quiet;
almost everyone is poor,
and we can hear a bullet
being chambered a mile away.
We will change all this.
You won't want to be here
when we do.
(Just for Laughs reprinted by permission of the author)
A convergence between observation and memory drives this poem, as in the images of enforced conscription and heedless bombing of civilians—"children" who "will join the army or die / like us beneath foreign bombs"—which suggests in its strong parallel to the Vietnam War, the pro-generation of violence, the parenting of one war by another. In an ironic psychological displacement of motive, the civilians' hearing is sharpened so that they "can hear a bullet / being chambered a mile away"—sharpened not by natural fear but by guilt over the "crime" of "poverty," as though they had uncannily acquired the Vietnam veteran observer's own survivor guilt. Paradoxically, the desire to see things change for succeeding generations emerges as a need to escape being an active agent of the change; survival creates, in conflict with its actual demands, a felt need to escape from even the politics of war's trauma.
Absence, escape, is the sense-making gesture of this poem—escape at once from the untenability of making pleasurable esthetic experiences out of intolerable human experience, and escape from the corrupting influence of political dishonesty. Critically, the margins of the poem, and the conflicts of guilt there sustained, emerge as primary interpretant of its virtual experience. Further, the context of an evolving politics of Vietnam veterans concerned with questioning the strategy, legality, wisdom, or morality of the conduct of the Vietnam War; with appropriate acknowledgement of veterans' sacrifices; with the accommodation of veterans' health needs, not only from physical wounds but from PTSD and Agent Orange Syndrome; with some accountability for POW's thought to be missing; and with a re-examination of American government policy toward future limited foreign military engagements (or "dirty little wars") renders the concluding lines more than a simple gut yearning to be elsewhere. "You won't want to be here" is a complex accusation, not urging noninvolvement, but convicting the speaker and possibly the reader of the wrong forms of destructive, paradoxical involvement/noninvolvement.
Intermittent American television voyeurism, punctuating a years-long scarcity of informed coverage by the American press of the now cooled conflict in El Salvador, is a further implied irony drawn from the poem's discursive context to enrich the image of absence. The "poor" don't need television if they "can hear a bullet / being chambered a mile away." It is the wealthy North Americans who need television as a spur to humane accountability. The poem offers an escape from guilty paralysis into political dialogue. The poem's "virtual experience" might best be characterized as despair. But the meaning of the poem is escape from despair in the recognition of it, and in the asking "must it be so?" Language in the poem, in Wendell Berry's terms ("Unspecializing Poetry" [in Standing By Words, 1983]), "is the vector that carries vision into and (since no action fully enacts vision) out of action."
In "A Poem of Difficult Hope" (1990), a celebratory critique of Hayden Carruth's poem "On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam," Wendell Berry argues:
A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope—and thus has hope, even if only a little … the poem preserves the poet's wholeness of heart in the face of his despair. And it shows us how to do so as well.
(What Are People For?)
And earlier he acknowledges:
Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope … of preserving qualities in ones own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
Wendell Berry thinks of the poem, as expression of conscience, as an action, not just the constituting of a verbal artifact to preserve a "virtual experience." It must be more than an esthetically valuable act of making, because our consciences are more than esthetic, and had best be more than just invented. Expressing one's conscience, moreover, is an action with political implications; in this case, it encourages the reader to persevere.
How can one be plainly political in the poem without taking on the dishonesty of political-linguistic processes? Moreover, what does the quest for linguistic acuity in converting actual into virtual experience as poetry sets forth, in Eliot's words, "to purify the dialect of the tribe," serve in terms of the practice of politics in an age of holocausts? By redirecting the poem towards its discursive context, Vietnam War poems find new ways of making political and poetic agendas come together in the poem. But rather than answering the most important political questions, poems can only propose new ways of asking them.
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