Brandywine Books has called attention to a review essay by the always illuminating Bruce Bawer in the current issue of The Hudson Review. The essay is only available as a PDF, directly accessible here. Bawer witheringly reviews the new anthology Poets Against the War, indicting it on critical rather than partisan grounds:
A staggering number of poems here follow a single trite formula, presenting the news of war as an unpleasant intrusion upon an (American) life lived in harmony with nature and characterized by a taken-for-granted feeling of safety and tranquility. Here, for example, is Virginia Adair’s “Casualty,” the book’s opening poem, in its entirety: “Fear arrived at my door / with the evening paper / Headlines of winter and war / It will be a long time to peace / And the green rains.” Adair’s poem is followed immediately by “Cranes in August,” in which Kim Addonizio describes her daughter making cranes out of paper while outside “gray doves” coo, and “Geese, October 2002,” in which Lucy Adkins, hearing geese flying above her “north to the nesting grounds,” reflects that while in Washington “our country’s leaders / are voting for war,” in Nebraska “the geese fly over / the old wisdom in their feathers.” This pattern is broken by poem #4 (Afzal-Khan’s “Osama” ode), but it is resumed in poem #5, wherein Kelli Russell Agodon describes her daughter picking up ants on the beach, trying “to help them / before the patterns of tides / reach their lives. . . . Here war is only newsprint.”
And that’s just the beginning of the A’s. Throughout these poems, the implicit argument is: Why can’t the whole world be as peaceable as my little corner of it is? The poets appear to believe that their serene lifestyles are somehow a reflection of their own wisdom and virtue; they seem to think they are in possession of some great yet elementary cosmic knowledge from which the rest of us can profit. What they evidently do not realize is that what they are celebrating in these poems is a security for which they have to thank (horrors) the U.S. military and a prosperity that they owe to (horrors again) American capitalism. Entirely absent from their facile scribblings, indeed, is any sign of awareness that this “blue planet” is a terribly dangerous place and that the affluence, safety, and liberty they enjoy, and that they write about with such vacuous self-congratulation, are not the natural, default state of humankind but are, rather, hard-won and terribly vulnerable achievements of civilization.
September 11 changed the world. But it seems not to have penetrated very deeply into the imaginations of many contemporary American poets, who, as this anthology amply demonstrates, continue to go through familiar motions, writing smug, trivial verses in which their principal goal is to proclaim their own sensitivity. This was never enough in the first place, and it is certainly not enough now. Confronted at last with a big theme, too many of our poets have only proven how feebly equipped they are to address questions of real substance and complexity. This is not to suggest that anyone is necessarily wrong to oppose a given war or disapprove of a given president (of whom the present critic, for what it’s worth, is no fan either). It is only to say that when civilization is in crisis, a serious poet owes it something more than glib, reflexive, one-dimensional posturing. It is to say that poets so transparently rich in self-regard might manage to muster a bit more respect for their art, their readers, and their civilization. And it is to say that an intelligent poetry of dissent ought to exhibit signs of independent thought, of mature moral reflection, of an understanding of the concept of social responsibility that extends somewhat beyond marching and button-wearing, of a solemn recognition that this is bigger than me. To turn from these vapid self-advertisements (in which the level of political thought and expression is on a par with that of your average boy band being asked in an interview on MTV Europe what they think of President Bush) to the war poems of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon or, say, Auden’s “September 1, 1939”–the most famous line of which, “We must love one another or die,” is actually misquoted in Hamill’s book–is to leap across a chasm whose breadth shames not only most of the poets collected here but, alas, the entire flimsy house of cards that is contemporary American poetry.
The essay extends Bawer’s critique of contemporary poetry in his book Prophets and Professors. As alternatives to poetry against the war, Bawer recommends recent books by Joseph Harrison, Timothy Murphy, Gerry Cambridge, and Deborah Warren.