In Defense of War Poetry

Crimea. When the name appeared in the news last month, I suspect that it sounded exotic but vaguely familiar to modern, Western ears. At first, it might have sounded as if Russia was attempting to annex a part of Narnia or Middle-earth. We began to ask, What is Crimea?, Who owns Crimea?, Where, after all, is Crimea?—and is it “Crimea” or “the Crimea”? So, many of us turned to the source we expect to settle our most niggling questions: the internet.

But did “Crimea” Googlers and Bingers find what they were after? Were they satisfied to discover, to quote Wikipedia, that “the Crimean Peninsula, also known simply as Crimea, and historically as the Tauric peninsula, is a major land mass on the northern coast of the Black Sea”? Facts like these were powerless to answer our most pressing questions as the 2014 Crimean Conflict unfolded. They couldn’t tell us what Crimea meant—for the East, for the West, for Empires, or for various brands of Nationalists. Suddenly, with petabytes of data at our disposal, we were stuck looking for something that couldn’t be so easily Googled. Reputable news outlets started using words like “symbol” and “imagination”—that is, the language of poetry.

Strange. Or was it?

In the Crimean War, just 160 years ago, poetry still played an important public role, perhaps even more central than the role of news outlets. In fact, William Howard Russell, who relayed his eyewitness accounts of battles to the Times of London by telegraph, was England’s first ever war correspondent. But even as Britons developed an appetite for new stories from the front, many still saw poetry as the main way to shape public ideas and sentiments about the war.

Here’s an illustration: on the morning of November 14, 1854, England’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, picked up the Times. The article he read reported that 600 British cavalrymen had obeyed an order to charge headlong at Russian cannons. Less than one in five survived. Tennyson felt compelled to compose a ballad that began

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

He titled the ballad, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It was published a few weeks later, to much public acclaim, and for more than a century was memorized by British schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, Tennyson’s poem contains a crucial misrepresentation of the facts. Tennyson wrote the poem believing that 120 of the 600 charging soldiers had survived. But later reports clarified that only 120 soldiers died. It was a dangerous mission, to be sure, but nothing like the near-suicide Tennyson’s poem suggested. Still, even after learning of the error, Tennyson refused to change the poem. And so, it was his inaccurate account that informed public sentiment and preserved the memory of the Charge of the Light Brigade for posterity.

Of course, as a poet, Tennyson was not attempting to objectively record events, but to commemorate them. As Poet Laureate, he was taking part in a tradition that dates back to the bards of the Middle Ages. By setting tales of heroic deeds in verse, bards functioned as an important communication technology. They not only preserved memories for posterity but also communicated events from town to town, like an oral, versified newspaper. Writing in this tradition, the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto described poets as sacred swans that rescued names from the waters of oblivion and placed them on the mountaintop of immortality. In other words, facts are good, and good facts are better, but facts don’t tell or remember themselves. (This also meant great job security for poets, by the way.)

But by the time Tennyson wrote his famous poem, a crack in this tradition was beginning to form that would soon split the goals of poetry off from those of public information. The wars of the 20th century, especially, taught us to be deeply suspicious of any attempt to glorify war or aestheticize violence—and for good reason: during the century totalitarian regimes on both sides of the political spectrum used poetry as a vehicle to spread their hateful ideologies and mask countless atrocities.

Thus, for many great poets, the only genuine, sensitive response was to stay clear of the public arena altogether. For example, William Butler Yeats, in “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” wrote that in wartime a poet should “keep his mouth shut,” because he has “no gift to set a statesman right.” Instead, the poet should aim simply to please a “young girl in the indolence of her youth, or an old man upon a winter’s night.” In other words, poetry’s task was to be a private one, directed at particular individuals, not at the public.

Still, we shouldn’t allow the 20th century to convince us that public poems are always complicit in bad politics. Tennyson’s poem might misrepresent the facts, but, despite initial appearances, it by no means presents a simple or one-sided view of war or heroism. The soldiers of the Light Brigade face an absurd situation filled with mismanagement (“someone had blundered”) and hopelessness (“Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”) as well as defenselessness (they charge with minimal armor, wielding swords against cannons). In preserving the memory of the Light Brigade, Tennyson preserved the particular set of complexities and contradictions that characterized what many have called “the first modern war.”

So, I would suggest that as long as there are wars, there should be war poetry, poetry that introduces complex responses into the public debate about the significance of war. This kind of war poetry could even, in principle, be written by a pacifist. Take these lines by Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American pacifist, written shortly after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and revised several times during the Iraq War:

People saying, this was bound to happen. Let’s not forget U.S. transgressions.

Hold up I live here. These are my friends and fam, in those buildings, and we’re not bad people. Do not support America’s bullying. Can I just have a half second to feel bad?

Thank you, woman who saw me brinking cool and blinking tears. She opened her arms before she asked “do you want a hug?”

Big white woman, and her embrace only people with flesh can offer.

“My brother’s in the Navy,” I said. “And we’re Arabs.”

“Wow, you got double trouble.” Word.

Hammad’s poem is bold enough to tackle very recent, hotly contested events, and to connect the personal to the public sphere. And, what is more, it is bold enough to avoid spreading hatred and polarizing the debate.

This is exactly what our current public discourse, especially from the news media, can’t seem to do. We’ve grown accustomed to blaming this problem on the news outlets themselves for failing to give us good, objective information. But perhaps we should also blame ourselves for only looking for objective information.

Of course, poetry can’t write policy. It might not help us agree on a solution any more than information will. And it can’t tell us for sure whether we were right to let Russia annex Crimea last month. The poems we need today might not have the clamorous, dancing rhythms of Tennyson’s ballad, and they might not commemorate heroic deeds. But when we find them, we’ll know, because like Tennyson’s poem, they will challenge us to abide with the contradictions, at least for a moment, before we make a decision. By providing a complex response to a complex situation, they will help us think together better, and that is surely the first step toward living together more abundantly.


Photo: A grief stricken American infantryman whose friend has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army) U.S. Army Korea Media Center official Korean War online video archive

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