As a participating writer in the NEA's Operation Homecoming, I read Eleanor Wilner's commentary with interest. As I understand it, Operation Homecoming seeks to encourage military service members and their families to avail themselves of the formal resources of literature in beginning to clarify, express, and come to terms with their recent experiences. The fruits of this effort are as yet unknown. It is hoped that, beyond merely therapeutic or documentary value, some of their attempts may coalesce into works of genuine artistic merit. If the past is prologue, it's worth noting that ten former armed service members have gone on to receive the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Eleanor Wilner seems to want to abort this admittedly experimental venture, and on specious grounds. She condescendingly maintains that these soldiers are too close to their experiences to gain the perspective required for serious art and that, still in uniform, they will necessarily be intimidated by virtue of their being subject to a command structure. It is noteworthy that perhaps the greatest war poet of the last century, Wilfred Owen, composed his work while in uniform during World War I, as did his comrades, the poets Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Guillaume Apollinaire. They had not the luxury of mediating their experience through the lens of temporal reflection, for their brief lives were extinguished by the war. Yet who today questions that they left behind valuable, stunning works of art? Lamentably, Wilner insults the character of Dana Gioia and the intelligence of the participant-writers when she suggests he tricked "poets, less canny than he, and lost in a doze at the shuttered windows of their ivory towers" into participating in this project. This is palpably ludicrous. She also states that Gioia's pledge to publish the best of the resulting work, regardless of its political stance, is "disingenuous." This is a further slander on Gioia's honesty. Wilner does her arguments grave disservice by stooping to ad hominem attacks. Further, her comments disparaging Richard Bausch's prose would be laughable if they weren't so plainly indicative of a desire to censure and censor a literary artist who fails to present a world more consonant with her own vision. I am unimpressed by Wilner's arguments. As a veteran and practicing poet, I will readily conduct writing workshops for younger veterans when asked, whether those aspiring writers are still in uniform or not.