A poet’s greatest fear is that she will flinch.
Whether addressing suffering or love, failure or success, life or death, war or peace: a poet wants—merely, only, absolutely—to be courageous in the face existence. And yet on the issue of war and peace the question is often asked: can poetry matter?
Well-known poets have been known to try to impact political events. Robert Lowell twice defied a US president. First with FDR, when Lowell declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II, becoming the first male in the Lowell family not to serve in the armed forces since the Revolution. Later, to protest Vietnam, Lowell refused an invitation from LBJ to speak at the White House.
Another example of a poet’s political protest is that of Adrienne Rich. Outraged over the chronic racial and economic injustices in this country, Rich publicly refused to accept the 1997 National Medal of Arts from the Clinton administration.
The post-9/11 war in Iraq also provoked defiance from poets. Prior to the invasion, the Port Townsend editor and poet Sam Hamill gathered thousands of poems and delivered them to the White House to protest the imminent assault. To denounce the ongoing fighting in Iraq, Sharon Olds publicly challenged an American president when she refused an invitation to attend a White House lunch.
But what of it? The violence and the injustices were not stopped by a poet’s protest. A government can betray its own soldiers in war, and yet I’m certain, as well, that poetry can do nothing about it. Ernest Hemingway was right when he said that it was once thought to be “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You die like a dog for no good reason.”
For a poet, getting it right about war—inside the workings of a single poem, I mean—means finding a form and music that are necessary and insistent to the cause. It means facing war’s dark ambiguities: that war is humanity’s greatest crime (what Homer calls the “butchery of men”), that the soldier’s honorable wish is to be honorable, and that a country may be conquering and wrong at the same time.
In the final analysis an enduring poem goes beyond politics and headlines.
When a poet writes a poem—about war or anything else—she writes as one voice singing for the human tribe. That voice must always be, as Marianne Moore says, “unfalsifying.”
Marianne Moore’s “Keeping Their World Large” is a response to a 1944 Times article the day after D-Day that read, “All too literally, their flesh and their spirit are our shield.”
The poem begins:
I should like to see that country’s tiles, bedrooms, stone patios and ancient wells: Rinaldo Caramonica’s the cobbler’s, Frank Sblendorio’s and Dominick Angelastro’s country— the grocer’s, the iceman’s, the dancer’s—the beautiful Miss Damiano’s; wisdom’s and all angels’ Italy, this Christmas Day this Christmas Year, A noiseless piano, an innocent war, the heart that can act against itself. Here, each unlike and all alike, could so many—stumbling, falling, multiplied till bodies lay as ground to walk on— “If Christ and the apostles died in vain, I’ll die in vain with them” against this way of victory. That forest of white crosses! My eyes won’t close to it. All laid aside like animals for sacrifice— like Isaac on the mount, were their own sacrifice.
My speculation is that the word “shield” took Moore by surprise, and she entered the writing of her poem to see what “shield” might mean when put against the reality of the day’s “sick scene.”
Here’s the conclusion:
Marching to death, marching to life? “Keeping their world large,” whose spirits and whose bodies all too literally were our shield, are still our shield. They fought the enemy, we fight fat living and self-pity. Shine, o shine, unfalsifying sun, on this sick scene.
These lines are an example of an unflinching strike against political and poetic complacency: “They fought the enemy,/we fight fat living.” And, too, they invoke something patriotic that—without the low-hanging fruit of overused and overly symbolic language—a voice speaking for others must strive for in a poem.
It’s hard now to call America’s early twenty-first-century experience in Iraq a war in the traditional sense when compared with the army-on-army combat and carnage that was World War II. But call it what you will—invasion, street fight, struggle, war—it’s hard to read Marianne Moore’s poem and especially the last stanza about our country’s “fat living” and not feel war’s cruelties.
Since her death in 1972 in New York City at the age of eighty-four, Marianne Moore has been stuffed into a strange caricature—the baseball-loving poet, the spinster poet, the raconteur poet who was called on during the fifties by the Ford Motor Company to name one of their new cars. Her suggestions—“The Utopian Turtletop,” “The Mongoose Civique”—are brilliant and crazy but ended up losing out to the “Edsel,” which itself went bust.
A poem like “Keeping Their World Large” shows Moore seriously wrestling with poetry’s highest ideals and pressures. To revere and to condemn, as well as to see what is, what will be, and what has been before. And to be certain that our “eyes won’t close to it.”
David Biespiel was born in 1964 in Oklahoma and grew up in Harris County, Texas, in Houston. He is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry, and a book on creativity, Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces. He is the editor of the Everyman's Library edition of Poems of the American South and Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets, which received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. He writes the Poetry Wire column for The Rumpus and is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. Among his honors are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and a Lannan Fellowship. Since 1999 he has been president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in Portland with his family.