By Micah Mattix
April 11, 2014
The poet John Ashbery once wrote that “All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn’t poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program. Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest.”
The context here is important. In “Frank O’Hara’s Question” (1966) Ashbery had praised O’Hara for not tying his poetry to a political agenda. “It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society,” Ashbery wrote,
it does not speak out against the war in Viet Nam or in favor of civil rights…it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of an annoyance for partisans of every stripe.
Whether or not O’Hara’s poetry annoyed, Ashbery’s comment did. As James Longenbach notes, Louis Simpson took exception in a Nation article later that year, accusing Ashbery of “sneering” at anti-war poets. Hence Ashbery’s above response.
Ashbery’s point was not that poetry is apolitical, but that poetry devoted to a single cause or program lacks the independence to deal with human experience in all its ambiguities and paradoxes. In short, a poem that only protests is not a poem.
Fifty years earlier, the question was not the status of poems protesting war but of those praising it. In September 1914, the British Propaganda Bureau called together many of Britain’s most famous writers and asked them to create work to support the war effort against Germany. Yeats refused, others accepted, and still others wrote patriotic verse spontaneously.
In one of the most famous poems of the war—“1914”—Rupert Brooke thanked God for the cleansing of battle and the glorious “immortality” it offered to dead soldiers. “Blow out, you bugles,” Brooke writes, “over the rich Dead! / There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old, / But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.”
While Siegfried Sassoon would become a pacifist in 1917, he professed his “trust” in “Brother Lead and Sister Steel” in his early poem “The Kiss.” Brother Lead, Sassoon writes, “splits a skull to win my praise,” and Sister Steel delivers a body where the poet “sets his heel.”
The image of the soldier as a figure of Christ (in Sassoon’s poem, the poet crushing his enemy under his heel) was not uncommon. In his long prose poem, Notturno, the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio recalls the “glorious head” of his dead co-pilot during a bombing raid, out of which “blood sprayed and blessed my comrades.” The plane itself becomes a “bloody cross” that will redeem Italy:
I think of the instruments of the Passion, hung from wood no longer bearing the weight of the tortured body…Four essences of wood made up the cross of the sacrifice: cedar, cypress, palm, and olive. Should we not, in our Western world, replace the palm and cedar with the ash and poplar of the heroic wing?
It is easy and right to point out the naïveté of Brooke’s glorious, immortal dead and the ugly bloodthirstiness of d’Annunzio’s nationalism. At the same time, these poems also touch on our innate desire to live for something greater than ourselves—Glory, Britain, Italy—however misplaced.
Ashbery, of course, was wrong that all poetry is against war; nor is the line between poetry and protest or poetry and propaganda as clear as he suggests.
But he’s right that a poem is much less a poem to the extent that it forces its words to carry an idea further than the words themselves will allow.
Poetry never just records experience. It always shapes it to give it meaning. And while the conscious or unconscious ideas of the poet exercise considerable power over its shape, so do words themselves.
- Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.