A new tradition of war poetry exposes the hidden relationships between power and language.
Image of US soldiers sitting and reading on tanks in 1944.
“Let it matter what we call a thing”
Solmaz Sharif, “Look”

How do we distinguish between war and other forms of violence? Was the “war on poverty” really a war? What about the “war on drugs”? Or the “war on terror”? And who decides when conflict becomes war? Probably not poets, and yet there is a largely overlooked tradition of war poetry that redefines, or one might even say, undefines war, a poetry that pushes back against the authoritative definitions provided by governments, newspapers, and dictionaries.

“War,” Percy Shelley wrote in 1820, “is a kind of superstition; the pageantry of arms and badges corrupts the imagination of men.” If “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley famously declares in his “A Defense of Poetry,” then what is he trying to legislate by defining war as superstition? Shelley may have found inspiration to redefine war from Charles Pigott’s radical political dictionary, published posthumously in 1795. Pigott, an English pamphleteer imprisoned for sedition in the years of the French Revolution, defined faith as “credulity, superstition,” the church as the “refuge of …superstition,” and heresy as “an abjuration of nonsense and superstition.” He used the form of the dictionary as a constraint with which to ironically critique the “blessings of war.” Indeed, if most of Pigott’s definitions are just a sentence or two, his definition of “war” takes up more than four pages. It begins:

War—Of all things in this world, it seems to me most strange, that men, large parties of men, perfectly indifferent to, and ignorant of the merits of the dispute, should voluntarily enter into the service of a sanguinary tyrant, and, as far as in them lay, to massacre and destroy their fellow-creatures who are opposed to them, and who are as innocent and ignorant as they, of the whole subject and occasion of quarrel.

Whereas most of the definitions in the Political Dictionary expose the hypocrisy of a term through irony, the definition of war unravels into four pages of sincere questions and uncertainty: “I am bewildered how to account for this universal and brutal rage for massacre, which seems to have stagnated and palsied every human sentiment.” To say that war is superstition is not so much to redefine war, but to undefine it, to strip war of its legitimacy and put it on the same plane as any other kind of senseless violence. To define war as superstition is to call it irrational and bewildering, and to undermine its purported ideological motives.

Over the last half-century, in particular, poets have similarly unraveled traditional definitions and delineations of war to expose the often obscured relationship between power and language. None of these poets experienced war firsthand, nor is this the canon of “war poetry” associated with World War I soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, who represented the brutality and chaos of the battlefield only to insist that dying for one’s country is neither sweet nor honorable. Instead, following Shelley’s attempt to undercut war as superstition, this is a war poetry that evacuates the word war of its capacity to justify itself and overturns a term that legitimizes some kinds of violence while overlooking others. This is war poetry that looks not to battlefields or training camps but to dictionaries and newspapers to track how war invades the everyday life of people who remain, physically at least, far from the front lines.

Some contemporary poets challenge the definition of war by imagining a proximity and complicity so intense that it looks like superstition. In her 1968 poem “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers,” Margaret Atwood alludes to childhood superstition to evoke the horrors of life during wartime:

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.

In these first two stanzas, Atwood gestures to the ambiguities of war. The words “while” and “as” suggest a temporal connection that leaves the spatial one undefined: are the bulldozed corpses filling the hasty pits of the child’s sandbox, or, more likely, hasty pits far away? Is there any relationship, other than that of simultaneity, between her feet stepping on cracks in the cement and the detonation of bombs? And if the relation is one of simultaneity, why does the speaker understand the connection to be causal? By bringing up the childhood game of trying not to step on cracks in the cement (lest she break her mother’s back), Atwood invokes a superstitious logic that echoes the confusion of being a civilian during wartime: the moral uncertainty of simply walking down the street while violence engulfs your fellow citizens, even if half a world away. This concern about passivity and complicity during war becomes explicit in the following stanzas:

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.


Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,  
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

The doubleness in these lines points to the paradox of wartime and to the confusion of complicity. We hear in “I am the cause” both a superstitious and an exaggerated sense of responsibility (which might deflect actual complicity), as well as a political rhetoric that turns civilians into ideological “causes” in order to justify a war with or without their permission. Though the poem traces the speaker’s development into literacy and adulthood, it also marks the repetition and impasse of superstitious logic, from the violence of stepping on cracks in the sidewalk to that of hitting keys on a typewriter to make villages explode. In some ways, nothing has changed in her account of her own complicity. But if the reader is to assume that a child stepping on cracks doesn’t actually detonate bombs, the relation between writing about peaceful trees and another village exploding is less clear. When she writes of peaceful trees, as if everything is fine, her ignorance or avoidance might allow another village to explode. If Shelley suggests that war is superstition, Atwood’s poem shows how thinking through, while nonetheless avoiding, the violence and guilt of war puts civilians in superstitious—which is to say irrational and anxious—relationships to violence.

But the distinction between peace at home and war abroad gets even more muddled when poets consider violence at home. In “War and Memory,” June Jordan gives an account of her life framed by the wars she remembers, or remembers reading about. After describing her confusion when reading about concentration camps in the newspaper as a child, Jordan writes

My mother told me I should put away
the papers and not continue to upset myself
about these things I could not understand
and I remember
wondering if my family was a war
going on
and if
there would soon be blood
someplace in the house
and where
the blood of my family would come from

In a poem that moves from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s to the War on Poverty spearheaded by President Lyndon Johnson, it is the violence in her own childhood home that permeates Jordan’s understanding of war and its relief. “Peace never meant a thing to me,” she writes. Like Atwood, Jordan suggests that newspapers are dangerous, not just because they allow a glimpse of violence far away, but because they presume and determine a definition of war that obscures other kinds of violence.

Several recent poems have focused on, and made explicit, this tension between a standard definition of war and the other kinds of violence that remain unnamed, unnoticed, and unmourned. In “not an elegy for Mike Brown,” from 2014, Danez Smith writes

think: once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.

I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.

The difference between “& that’s the Trojan war” and “& that was Tuesday” reveals a "secret sympathy," as Shelley wrote, not only between power and destruction, but between power and the capacity to name violence war. It may be obvious, but only those in power get to define war. Smith’s emphasis on names and namelessness (“a white girl,” “the Trojan war,” “Troy,” “the dead boy,” “Mike Brown,” and “no matter what his name”) reminds readers that war is another name for violence, and that racial violence often goes unnamed and unnoticed.

A tool that contemporary poets use to undefine war is the constraint that Pigott found productive for critique: the dictionary. Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look(2016) uses a military dictionary to challenge the standard definitions of war:

According to most
definitions, I have never
been at war.

According to mine,
most of my life
spent there. Anthrax

in salt and pepper shakers,
patrol car windshields
with crosshairs painted over them,

some badge holding
my father’s pocket contents
up to him and asking

where the cash is from. The war in Iraq, I read,
is over now.

The enjambment of Sharif’s lines mimics the way war spreads beyond the borders and definitions provided by either dictionaries or newspapers: if “anthrax” can appear in everyday “salt and pepper shakers,” then war extends beyond its conventional contours. Indeed, the imagery of containers—salt and pepper shakers, pockets—underscores just how uncontained the speaker’s war is, overflowing into every corner of her experience, even if the newspaper wants to declare that war “is over now.” Peace doesn’t mean a thing.

Sharif uses the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, published by the United States Department of Defense, as both constraint and inspiration. In an epigraph, she writes that her book’s title, Look, comes from this dictionary’s definition, meaning: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.” And her poems track the movement through the military dictionary; its terms appear in small caps throughout the book and mark her movement from “safe house” to “short fall,” or from “deception story” to “drag.” In “Personal Effects,” she writes

Daily I sit
with the language
they’ve made,

of our language

like you.

You are what is referred to as

Sharif’s turn to the dictionary to confront the language of war recalls Harryette Mullen’s approach in Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002). By repeating and tweaking familiar words and phrases, Mullen reminds readers how language bends to power:

We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts.
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

Mullen tinkers with the rhetoric of authority to underscore the violence that language can at once obscure and legitimize, and to reassert the meaning of phrases—such as “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”—to which many people have become desensitized.

Mullen’s title, Sleeping with the Dictionary, evokes an intimacy with definition, but also the dreamy way that words and their definitions can seep into the unconscious. It would be an apt alternate title for Matthea Harvey’s series of poems “The Future of Terror” and “The Terror of Future,” included in her collection Modern Life (2007), which closely follows the rhythm of the dictionary to uncover the imprints of war on the unconscious. Harvey writes:

                      Each extra
day was a literal gift of habeas corpus.
We ignored inoculation instructions
and read Intimations of Immortality
to the invalids instead. We couldn’t curse
the goddamned chiefs of staff
except inwardly, but we could make kites
in case we ever saw the sky again.
We could listen for a knock at the door.

From habeas corpus to inoculation, from invalids to a knock at the door, Harvey uses the constraints of alphabetization to sketch out a world in which injury and protection are at the forefront. In an interview about the “Future of Terror” series, Harvey explains what prompted the poems:

Even though intellectually I knew that the word “terrorism” was a label designed to inspire fear, nevertheless I still felt heart-stoppingly afraid whenever I heard phrases like “the future of terror” on the radio (which I’ve listened to every morning since 9/11). One day I decided to write a poem that would turn this vague phrase into something more specific.

Harvey’s attempt to make the vague language of the radio more specific through poetry may seem at odds with poetry’s popular reputation as cryptic or opaque in comparison to other literary genres. Yet Harvey’s poems find a subliminal logic in the phrase “the future of terror” that the radio broadcasts obscured. Harvey explains her process of poetic discovery: she looked at all of the dictionary definitions that fall between “future” and “terror” and let only those words guide the poem. Although she didn’t set out to write political poems, she admits to having “unconsciously gravitated” toward some words that fall between “F” and “T” more than others. Of course, while the phrase “habeas corpus” appears in the dictionary, the title of Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality” does not (though the first word in the title might follow soon after the second), and the pairing of those two phrases reveals uncanny echoes between them: “habeas corpus,” from the Latin “you are to have the body,” refers to the writ that requires the body of an imprisoned person to be brought before a court, whereas Wordsworth’s ode metaphorizes the body itself as “the prison-house.” In the 10 years prior to writing the ode, habeas corpus was suspended intermittently in wartime Britain. Following the dictionary makes space for unexpected associations and, paradoxically, uncovers new definitions.

In “The Future of Terror/1,” Harvey moves again from “h” to “i,” this time choosing words other than “habeas corpus” and “Intimations of Immortality”:

We were tired of hard news—
it helped to turn down our hearing aids.
We could already all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there’s an intimacy to invasion.
That much was true.

The juxtaposition of the lines “it helped to turn down our hearing aids” and “there’s an intimacy to invasion” suggests the invasive force of sound as well as the vulnerability of bodies both in and around war. Hearing aids allow sound in, invasive yet intimate in the body, but they can also be adjusted to become barriers that keep out sound and language and injury. “There’s an intimacy to invasion” reminds us of the mechanical movement in the dictionary from the word intimacy to invasion but also of the intimate ways that war invades daily life, coloring our superstitions, our sandboxes, and our language. These are war poets who ask us to look not just at the violence of battles or to war’s physical losses and injuries. These poets guide us instead to follow the rhythms of the dictionary and to consider both what it makes possible and what it excludes.

Originally Published: November 12th, 2018

Lily Gurton-Wachter is an assistant professor of English at Smith College. She is the author of Watchwords: Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention (Stanford University Press, 2016). She is currently at work on a book about the poetics of complicity.