Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors

Poets participate in a panel on war and peace poems.

Do you have to have lived through war in order to write poems about it? At a panel discussion in Chicago—featuring Brian Turner, Dunya Mikhail, Jorie Graham, Gary Snyder, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Philip Metres—Cliff Doerksen finds out.

Fairly or not, combat vets enjoy an enormous advantage of authority in the domain of war poetry. I was therefore initially inclined to sympathize with poet Jorie Graham, who felt obliged to apologize for her nonexistent service record at a 2006 panel entitled “Poems of Peace and War,” held under the aegis of the Chicago Humanities Festival (sponsored in part by the Poetry Foundation) in the auditorium of the Chicago History Museum. Graham was, after all, sharing the bill with two poets whose war poems are viscerally informed by firsthand experience: Yusef Komunyakaa, a decorated Vietnam vet, and Brian Turner, who served as a U.S. infantryman in both Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sympathy flew out the window, however, as Graham proceeded to read a long poem conflating the unthinkable human wastage of the D-Day invasion with the suffering of an AIDS-infected cat that she rescued from among the hedgerows near her home on the coast of Normandy, where that epic human sacrifice took place. Graham invested particular emotion in the image of the cognitively impaired animal scratching at her wooden floors in a futile attempt to bury a phantom turd. It was a performance well past parody but—mercifully—also an anomalous one in a set of readings that were generally interesting and often deeply affecting.

Turner, who was first to speak after moderator Philip Metres’s brief introductory remarks, electrified the hall with a harrowing but unforced reading of “2000 Pounds,” an austere cinematic breakdown of a suicide bomber’s detonation of an improvised explosive device in a public square in the city of Mosul. Each stanza of the poem is a freeze-frame of a different death, including that of a middle-aged taxi driver vaporized in midthought about a lost love, an American soldier who just has time to marvel at the disappearance of his hands before bleeding out, and a small boy lying limp in the arms of his heartsick grandmother. An ensuing, rather more ornate poem, “Last Night’s Dream,” which represented the Iraq war as a sexual encounter between the poet and the war goddess Ishtar, was harder to decipher on first bounce but contained some undeniably arresting imagery, including medevac helicopters that “fly in the deep cavern of our lungs,” turning the lovers’ excited breathing into “a deep rotorwash of pain and bandages.”

Next came the wry and self-effacing Dunya Mikhail, who was finished reading almost before she started. The Iraqi poet, who was forced to flee her homeland in the 1990s when authorities there became too interested in her satirical verses, read (in translation) a terse, mordant work called “The War Works Hard,” which personified war in order to sing its unacknowledged merits (e.g., “It produces the most questions / in the minds of children,” “achieves equality between killer and killed,” and “awards medals to generals / and themes to poets”).

Komunyakaa, whose sonorous voice arguably merited a little handicapping, began his moving recitation with a poem that tried to capture (or maybe exorcise) the sight of a girl’s death by napalm with a succession of similes (“She burns like a shot glass of vodka / She burns like a field of poppies”). An ensuing work, “Thanks,” vividly addressed the contingency of life and death under battle conditions with a litany of the fortuitous accidents that saved him from death by sniper, grenade, and booby trap. His final offering, “Facing It,” described a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; its quietly devastating final lines (“In the black mirror / a woman’s trying to erase names / No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair”) hung in the air for several solemn seconds before provoking a deluge of applause.

Beat poet Gary Snyder, the bearded eminence grise of the panel and the last participant to speak, gave a droll, almost impossibly discursive speech that touched on Buddhist eschatology, samurai ethics, Gandhian nonviolence, the history of the silk trade, the foreign policy of the Roman Empire, the influence of philosopher Leo Strauss on the Bush cabinet, the intellectual shortcomings of Christopher Hitchens, and the demolition of the ancient stone Buddhas at Bamiyan by the Taliban, whom Snyder mildly deprecated as “idolators of the Book.” It all seemed to add up to something at the time, and whatever it meant, it was definitely entertaining. Ce n’etait pas la guerre, mais c’etait magnifique.



Introduction by Philip Metres.

Panelist talks by Brian TurnerDunya MikhailGary Snyder, and Yusef Komunyakaa



Originally Published: January 10th, 2007

Cliff Doerksen is a film critic for Time Out Chicago magazine, has a Ph.D in history from Princeton University, and is the author of American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age, a cultural history of the origins of commercial broadcasting in the United States. He lives in Chicago...

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  1. January 26, 2007
     Russ Golata

    Where does it state you have to be a war veteran to write war poetry. As a citizen of the planet I have the right to abhor the brutal act of war.
    Did not Whitman charge, all poets of the future to be the voice of our conscience? As a poetic community, we look for a magic pill, to re-energize the machinery of poetry. Poetry that is alive and has meaning the people can believe in, is the answer.

  2. January 28, 2007
     Justin Dobbs

    By stating that you "sympathize" with Jorie Graham for being a poet, but not a veteran, it does not dilute your unsupported claim that someone who did serve in a war has an advantage over those who did not. What value does a particular life experience have in forming poetry when horrible diseases, dismemberments and other terrible maladies are the rule in life and not the exception?

    I don't think that we, as poets, should brutalize the reader with emotionalizing data, but on the contrary should allegorize reality in a way that makes it comprehensible, for example, a cat dying of AIDS and scratching stupidly at the floor is a *coded* call for help.

  3. February 9, 2007
     Alison Croggon

    A quote from Muriel Rukeyser's wonderful book The Life of Poetry seems apposite here:

    "All of our nature must be used. It is fatal now to hold back from it. The war that has been over the world was a war made in our imaginations; we saw it coming, and said so; and our imaginations must be strong enough to make a peace. First, to create an idea of peace, and then to bring it about.

    "Always we need the audacity to speak for more freedom, more imagination, more poetry with all its meanings. As we go deeper into conflict, we shall find ourselves more constrained, the repressive codes will turn to iron. More and more we shall need to be free in our beliefs..."

  4. May 6, 2007
     Charles Kesler

    As a Vietnam combat veteran with at least 4 and more traumatic events to deal with nearly every day in unkillable memory I give authority to anyone who has ever been traumatized by anything anytime in their life. Trauma is trauma, and I weep with the young girl raped, the survivor of a school shooting, the survivor of a major accident, the soldier who has only one traumatic event from war and wonders in guilt why he can't get his life together. I welcome the powers of imaginative writers who can get pretty damn close to describing how we feel and never actually got close to any of it. I say let all the poets and writers write what they want to write and let the readers decide the validity of it. I say if the readers cannot give their validation to the writings then let them weep for the poet or writer's attempt at it. The older I get the more I begin to hurt for all the hurts of this world. I do not want to be known as just another Vietnam War writer. I want to transcend that and have a style that is unrecognizably distant from that one aspect of my life. My first small book, THE BOOK OF WILLIE, is a comedy and though I lament the fact that I didn't get my "serious" stuff published first I realize that comedy saved my butt. So poets and writers, don't just write what you "know," but write out of your hurting imaginative heart. There will be those who will bless you and not really care if you were not "over there."

  5. April 14, 2009
     ali kazzaz

    I need explanation to some poems of Komunyakaa