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At Guernica: Richard Falk on Poetry, War, and Wallace Stevens
During these days of continuing massacre in Gaza I have found it difficult to focus the mind elsewhere. I came across a short statement of about two hundred words by the great, enigmatic twentieth-century poet, Wallace Stevens, stuck between poems in his Selected Poems, page two hundred and seventy, with a characteristically unemotional title—‘A Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.’
Stevens seems to be telling us that true poetry is a peacetime activity generated by the imagination while poetic responses to war are products of our consciousness derived from the domain of fact. In his words, “consciousness takes the place of imagination.” It is, to be sure, a special kind of consciousness, imbued with what Stevens refers to as the ‘heroic,’ and I would add, the ‘tragic’ and ‘unimaginable.’ We witness horror visually and viscerally, and yet we still too often rely on statistics about killing and dying to shape our sense of the gravity of all that is happening.
Stevens also reminds us that the imagination is not without its own ambitions, seeking to impart a sense of reality that supersedes the facticity of what Stevens is calling consciousness. Ambitions of this sort, situated in the hidden recesses of mental activity, also reflect the strong pull of desire, which if it challenges the prevailing images of what we might call ‘heroic fact’ generates severe feelings of hostility. It is a war zone of its own. Stevens alludes to “the endless struggle with fact” whether in peacetime or during a war, and adds, almost as a cautionary warning, “[b]ut in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.” […]
Learn more at Guernica and consider using poetry as a lens to process and respond to the conflict in your own way. Need some pointers? Check out the “War and Conflict” subject area on our site for a few poems written by writers in response to historic and emotional conflicts around the world.