No 1 - 1973
The Poetry of Protest
IT IS DIFFICULT, and at times it seems impossible, to dream oneself back to the first days of the ‘sixties, when the Kennedys were in the White House and both the Vietnamese war and the American ghetto were holding to a low profile. Politics then seemed a festivity, and the government courted writers and artists with unprecedented favours. Robert Frost laid aside a notorious scepticism regarding the state and its intentions to celebrate the inauguration of the youngest President ever elected:
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
But of course the age, as it came to pass, was more Neronian than Augustan. Vietnam, civil disorder, multiple assassinations, the sudden visibility of the poor — all of these conspired to flatten the champagne. We began the ‘sixties with the Peace Corps and ended them with Mylai.
The emerging pattern of stupid brutality was discernible by the middle of the decade, when Lowell refused to read his poems at the White House. Soon enough poets in large numbers were reading what they had written against the White House. The marathon readings (or read-ins) probably hit their peak in 1967 or 1968, Johnson’s last years. The anthologies followed and only now appear to be tapering off. The market may be glutted. And yet poets will no doubt continue to confront the issues as long as the issues refuse to disappear.
People who care for poetry as deeply as they do for social justice are bound to be dispirited by collections of protest verse. More than for other sorts of poetry, the ways in which this sort can go wrong seem clearly defined and aggravatingly predictable. Everywhere we see egos asserted, truths debased, reason abandoned and craft ignored. If the following survey is largely negative it only witnesses to the maimed and fevered condition of most of these poems — as if they were themselves casualties of war. I shall centre my discussion around poems dealing with Vietnam, for these form the bulk of the decade’s engagé verse. The points I make will be largely applicable to any poems which seek to criticise public policies.
I: Diatribe and Documentary
One of the disturbing things about Vietnam poems is that they lend themselves so easily to classification. The various types may be found in any of several anthologies; a representative collection is Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond, edited by Walter Lowenfels. Two quotations from this book will serve to show the genre at its least accomplished. Here is one:
All your strength, America, is in your bombs!
What were your eagles are now carriers of death.
Strange loves twitch in your sermons.
What fear turns you to this terror? —
to drive people into the trenches and tunnels, to poison their land.
What fear makes you kill the children of Vietnam so savagely?
— pounding them to bits with your bombs.
What shame! — to crush down the weak, to force them under the
earth . . .
Here is another:
On Thursday a Vietcong flag was noticed flying
Above the village of Man Quang in South Vietnam.
Therefore Skyraider fighter-bombers were sent in,
Destroying the village school and other ‘structures’.
The bombing mission killed an estimated 84 schoolchildren,
And three adults.
From Man Quang survivors of the raid, not pacified,
Tried to carry the coffins into Da Nang as a protest;
But were held in security by Government forces,
Who made an indemnification over the children’s bodies;
And arrested the parents.
There is no information about lessons in progress
When the school died: perhaps civics, a foreign language,
Or the catechism; or ‘Practical Subjects’ — pottery,
Domestic science, woodwork, metalwork: in darkness
On Thursday a Vietcong flag was noticed flying.
The first poem is ‘Hecuba in Vietnam’, by Thanasis Maskaleris. (I have left Hecuba out of my quotation, but she does not really add much to the piece.) In style this is simple invective and not much about it can be said except that invective needs to be verbally distinguished before it is important as poetry. The attitude of the poem is of outrage, but the heavy and exclamatory style moves us more to annoyance with the poet than with the government. Blanket condemnations generally sound self-righteous, and self-righteousness is the basic flaw of many Vietnam poems.
The second poem, ‘Schoolday in Man Quang’, by Denis Knight, stands in direct contrast, tonally, to the Maskaleris diatribe. (I have quoted this poem in its entirety.) The thinking behind it may have been: We have had enough emotional outbursts in verse about Vietnam; let the facts speak for themselves. Knight stresses the factuality of his poem by supplying it with this footnote: ‘This incident was reported from Saigon on March 18 and March 25, 1965, by the Special Correspondent of the London Times.’ Poems like this, which hew closely to news accounts and sometimes quote them verbatim, have had great currency of late. They undoubtedly engage our attention more seriously than the heavy rhetoric of ‘All your strength, America, is in your bombs!’ But does a poem like Knight’s succeed poetically? What distinguishes it from the news report that was its source? Knight intervenes noticeably as a poet in a few places: by putting quotation marks around ‘structures’ he points up his parody of the neutral, dehumanised tone of officialese; by repeating his first line at the end he rounds the piece off with an implicit moral; he has made some attempts, but not very rigorous ones, to order his material in a rhythmic pattern. In the main, however, he merely hands us the facts.
Shouldn’t we expect more from a poet — a maker — than the assembling of verifiable, datable facts? When have such facts been sought for in poetry? Nobody wants to know what particular Grecian urn Keats was writing about. Knight’s footnote, and the method of his poem reflect a helplessness in the face of events, an abdication of the poet’s responsibility to impose form on raw experience. He does make some gesture toward meaningful form with his faint parody of official language. Most of these ‘documentary’ poets have such a parody among their intentions. But they are confusing ends with means. It is not ultimately effective to attack the enemy in his own language when to do that limits so stringently one’s freedom of expression. That the appalling details of slaughter fail to appal us as they ought to when we read them in the newspaper is something we all must acknowledge with shame. But we will not be roused from our indifference by seeing the same spiritless, bureaucratic language set down with a tired irony in verse. These oddly anonymous poets have nothing to tell us in their own right; they betray no more personality than the phantom sources whom journalists describe as ‘government spokesmen’. I cannot read poems which employ this strategy without remembering Blake’s line: ‘They become what they behold’.
Of course, the more thoughtful poets have appreciated the awful remoteness of the war from the consciousness of even the minority of Americans that reads poetry. Vietnam has been news for too long; just as listeners ‘tune out’ on radio reports, readers will pass by poems which merely record facts which are common property. Some of Lowell’s work of the ‘sixties suggests that a political poem may gain in interest if it has an autobiographical frame. For Lowell, the political theme is subordinate; Vietnam and the social turmoil it has aroused take up positions in the endless succession of crises which one suffers if one is Robert Lowell. Public events for him lose their public character, and sometimes become very good poetry. Can it be said, then, that autobiography is a promising strategy for poems of protest? Not in general. Consider the first section of Denise Levertov’s ‘From a Notebook: October ‘68 - May ‘69:
Revolution or death. Revolution or death.
Wheels would sing it
but railroads are obsolete,
we are among the clouds, gliding, the roar
a toneless constant.
Which side are you on?
Revolution, of course. Death is Mayor Daley.
This revolution has no blueprints, and
(‘What makes this night different
from all other nights?’)
is the first that laughter and pleasure aren’t shot down in.
wants to live. (Unlived life
of which one can die.)
I want the world to go on
unfolding. The brain
not gray except in death, the photo I saw
of prismatic radiance pulsing from live tissue.
I see Dennis Riordon and de Courcy Squire,
gentle David Worstell, intransigent Chuck Matthei
blowing angel horns at the imagined corners.
Jennie Orvino singing
beatitudes in the cold wind
outside a Milwaukee courthouse.
I want their world — in which they already live,
they’re not waiting for demolition and reconstruction.
Of course I choose
I do not think I will be alone in finding this passage painfully self-conscious and wasteful of Levertov’s talents. Her eye and ear, which have justly earned her a reputation as one of our finest lyric poets, here seem not to be operating. The images are fuzzy and the diction and rhythms are slack. Her romantic picture of the young activists, like most of the writing done by middle-aged liberals about the younger generation, comes across as unwittingly patronising. This in itself is embarrassing, but even more so is the histrionic posture of the poet, facing, as she asserts, a choice between life and death. If the choice is really so simple (revolution = life; Chicago’s Mayor Daley = death) what is the need of all this pretentious verbiage, of echoes of Donne and the Passover liturgy? Obviously Levertov is straining to draw together an inner and an outer world, and her usual clarity of vision and speech deserts her in the attempt. As one of her young activist friends might put it, she blows her cool.
Levertov’s piece points up dangers which many protestors have fallen prey to in the autobiographical mode. Even Lowell, who may be said to have the original patent on this method, has brought it off with entire success only a handful of times: in some of the Notebook poems, in ‘For the Union Dead’, in ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ and in perhaps a few others. In the ‘Waking Early’ poem Lowell depicts his own spiritual dereliction side by side with a vision of the godless militarism of Johnson’s America:
When will we see Him face to face?
Each day, He shines through darker glass.
In this small town where everything
is known, I see His vanishing
emblems, His white spire and flag-
pole sticking out above the fog,
like old white china doorknobs, sad,
slight useless things to calm the mad.
Hammering military splendor,
top-heavy Goliath in full armor —
little redemption in the mass
liquidations of their brass,
elephant and phalanx moving
with the times and still improving,
when that kingdom hit the crash:
a million foreskins stacked like trash . . .
Lowell brings to his writing a New Englander’s historical imagination, a mind which endlessly juxtaposes past and present and marks its losses. Furthermore, he has over the years made of his own life a myth, presenting his personal sufferings as emblematic of the nation’s. Levertov’s uneasy jarring of focus in shifting from public to private concerns is reduced by long experience to a minimum in Lowell. Our conclusion might be that for poems with public concerns the autobiographical mode is eminently possible for Lowell, but perilous for those who lack his twenty years of practice. It takes time to develop one’s potentiality as an archetype.
III: Apocalyptic and Satire
Lowell’s isolated success with autobiography prompts us to look for some myth less private which poets who happen not to be Robert Lowell can use to voice their dissent. The myth which springs most readily to mind is that of the unholy city and its fall, the myth of the apocalypse. This was Ginsberg’s myth in Howl:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their
skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and
unattainable dollars I Children screaming under
the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men
weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the
loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the cross-
bone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows.
Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the
vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose
blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are
ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal
dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb! . . .
When this was first published in 1956 only a very exceptional reader would have read it as addressing a social issue. Not a concern for society but Ginsberg’s excursions into madness and despair, his perception of the hell within him, provoked this outcry. Now the events of the last decade have made this esoteric vision accessible to all; Ginsberg’s private nightmares are everyone’s daily reading. Hindsight acclaims Howl as prophetic.
Present and future are superimposed in the prophet’s words: to deliver his message whole he must use present facts as symbols; he must not allow himself to get bogged down in transient detail. His images must be specific without being ephemeral. Ginsberg packs a lot of the American scene, viewed from its underside, into Howl, lamenting ‘the best minds of my generation’
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting
the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square
weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los
Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and
the Staten Island ferry also wailed . . .
but he does not catalogue in his poem the names of cabinet officers in the Eisenhower administration. He avoids tying lead to the feet of his phantasmagoria.
We have poets writing now whose language can attain to the power of prophecy but whose vision cannot. The first lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Up Rising’ exemplify the problem:
Now Johnson would go up to join the great simulacra of men,
Hitler and Stalin, to work his fame
with planes roaring out from Guam over Asia,
all America become a sea of trifling men
stirring at his will, which would be a bloated thing,
drawing from the underbelly of the nation
such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche
out of its courses into an elemental thing
until his name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors
And men wake to see that they are used like things
spent in a great potlatch, this Texas barbecue
of Asia, Africa, and all the Americas . . .
‘Up Rising’ in its entirety reaches unusual rhetorical heights. And yet there is something off-putting about a poem which straightway insists on an equation of Johnson with Hitler. Many of us, while holding no brief for Johnson, may still not think of him as being quite in Hitler’s league. It is too bad that this should be one of Duncan’s major premises, for it means that the poem will fade as its occasions do; it is less likely to escape the mid-’sixties in the way that Howl does the mid-’fifties. I am aware that it is not the business of a prophet to make nice political distinctions. And yet his message ought to strike us as informed with the abiding clarity of revelation, not the myopia of a past moment of passion.
Another poet who has borrowed something of Ginsberg’s incantatory style is Robert Bly. It shows up especially in The Teeth-Mother Naked At Last, a sort of up-dated, outward-looking Howl, more midwestern, more lyrical. Here is one of the quieter passages:
Why are they dying? I have written this so many times.
They are dying because the President has opened a Bible again.
They are dying because gold deposits have been found among the
Because money follows intellect!
and intellect is like a fan opening in the wind —
The Marines think that unless they die the rivers will not move.
They are dying so that mountain shadows can fall north in the
so that the beetle can move along the ground near the fallen twigs.
In an apocalyptic patch Bly envisages the nation as finally polarised, young set against old, the peace movement against the increasingly authoritarian government (the ‘teeth-mother’):
Now the whole nation starts to whirl,
the end of the Republic breaks off,
Europe comes to take revenge,
the mad beast covered with European hair rushes through the mesa
bushes in Mendochino County,
pigs rush toward the cliff,
the waters underneath part, in one ocean luminous globes float up
(in them hairy and ecstatic rock musicians) -
in the other, the teeth-mother, naked at last.
This seems rather academic compared to Ginsberg’s vision of Moloch. Perhaps Bly is to be thought of as writing not apocalyptic but a sort of satire. The Teeth-Mother contains passages like this:
The Chief Executive enters; the Press Conference begins:
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian Mountains
Then he lies about the population of Chicago, then about the weight
of the adult eagle, next about the acreage of the Everglades . . .
He lies about the composition of the amniotic fluid, he insists that
Luther was never a German, and insists that only the Protestants
sold indulgences . . .
And with somewhat more compression Bly has written poems which could be called satirical lyrics, like ‘Asian Peace Offers Rejected without Being Heard’, in which Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s assistants
Talking of Teilhard de Chardin,
Longing to get back to their offices
So they can cling to the underside of the steel wings
shuddering faintly in the high altitudes . . .
Bly is probably the best of the poets whose protests veer into satire. In reading him (and even more in reading poets of lesser abilities) we are reminded of how drastically the last two centuries have limited the expressive possibilities of satire in verse. The present age seems particularly to have lost the knack for it. This may seem a queer thing to have come about in the period which, we are told, rediscovered the uses of irony in poetry. But the stylistic problems are obvious. We cannot write a mock-heroic poem because, unlike the Augustans, we have no viable conception of what true heroic style is or ought to be. As for parodies of low style, of bureaucratic language, I have already noted that they emulate the dullness they attack. It is not only in style but in matter that current satire lacks depth. Among all the personal attacks on public officials written in the last decade one looks in vain for a satiric portrait as vivid as Dryden’s Achitophel, or the characters of Atticus or Sporus in Pope. One may be tempted to say that our officials are too colourless to inspire brilliant satires. But the satirist’s function is precisely to make insipid or negative qualities compelling as subjects (consider the Dunciad). And it is not the case that our leaders have been completely lacking in colour. Lyndon Johnson — what would Dryden or Pope have made of him?
The lack of a settled society, of unified codes of manners, of standards of stylistic decorum — all of these may be said to make satire difficult for us. But there is a further problem, discernible in the current crude and lifeless lampoons of public figures, and this problem may make satire impossible. The trouble is that we have lost the conception of man as a being responsible for his actions. To the Augustan satirists man still appeared as a rational creature capable of good while frequently choosing evil or folly. It is this notion of moral choice which gives humanity to characters like Corah and Achitophel in Dryden, who otherwise, in spite of the dazzling texture of the verse, would seem merely monstrous. It is this notion which provides any personal satire with its very grounds for censure. Nowadays we do not hold a man accountable for his actions. If a person behaves badly we do not blame him but (and here everyone has a favoured scapegoat) the family background, the peer group, the System, the id, the schools, or the movements of the stars. Small wonder, when the atmosphere reeks of determinism, that poets should depict men as virtual puppets. But even if our government officials may at times behave like pawns of the historical process, even if some of them may sincerely believe themselves to be indestructible machines, it is the satirist’s duty to remember that they are after all flesh and spirit, willing, doing and suffering, like the rest of us. Just as poets need not take their style from government communiqués, they need not base their conception of man on the behaviouristic model held by the technocrats. The redemption not only of poetry but civilisation hinges upon our resisting this tide of dehumanisation. The following lines are Robert Bly’s:
These suggestions by Asians are not taken seriously.
We know Rusk smiles as he passes them to someone.
Men like Rusk are not men:
They are bombs waiting to be loaded in a darkened hangar . . .
‘Men like Rusk are not men.’ Even allowing for rhetorical licence, isn’t the attitude disturbingly close to that of Calley? When Calley was charged with murdering upwards of a hundred Vietnamese, men, women and children, he had his defence ready: he was conditioned to regard these people as not human.
America’s poets are by and large unable to come to terms with the forces which are pulling the country apart. In its latest extreme form the American Nightmare seems as inhibiting to serious poetry as the American Dream at its rosiest ever was. The recent poems which have most impressively treated political subjects are those in which poets have confessed their feeling of impotence before disaster. I have mentioned some of Lowell’s work; I might mention also some of the poems of Adrienne Rich — for instance, ‘Implosions’:
only wild and wavering
I wanted to choose words that even you
would have to be changed by
Take the word
of my pulse, loving and ordinary
Send out your signals, hoist
your dark scribbled flags
All wars are useless to the dead
My hands are knotted in the rope
and I cannot sound the bell
My hands are frozen to the switch
and I cannot throw it
The foot is in the wheel
When it’s finished and we’re lying
in a stubble of blistered flowers
eyes gaping, mouths staring
dusted with crushed arterial blues
I’ll have done nothing
even for you?
There is much craft here, and, just as unusual, much humility. Here the poet is telling us how she feels, not instructing us in how we ought to feel. She commands our assent all the more by refusing to court it. Our first impression when we read this is not likely to be, ‘Aha, protest poetry’; we will be thinking of things which resist categorisation. Good poems, poems like this one, always fight free of labelling. Such individuality cannot be copied, but we can only hope that it can be emulated. The age is dominated by faceless collectivities, and in such a milieu the poet’s most cogent protest lies not merely in what he has to say but in his finding an inimitable voice in which to say it.
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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