A Poem’s Power

For February 12, 2003, First Lady Laura Bush had planned a White House Symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice.” The symposium was to highlight the unique contributions of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, and Mrs. Bush invited poets and other literary figures from around the country to attend. One of the invitees, a poet named Sam Hamill, decided in response to put out a call for poems opposing George W. Bush’s imminent invasion of Iraq, and when Mrs. Bush found out about the protest, she postponed, then cancelled, the symposium.

Mr. Hamill’s call for poems, meanwhile, led to a flood of submissions – over 11,000 in all – some from well-known poets like Robert Bly, Rita Dove, Carolyn Kizer, and W.S. Merwin, and many from lesser-known poets as well. All the poems were archived on the web by Hamill and his associates, and out of that vast archive they assembled a collection that they published under the title, Poets Against the War. In his introduction, Hamill explained that, “there are things learned from poetry that can be learned no other way. Poetry is a source of revolution from within. It leads us to question, to meditation.”

It was in this reflective spirit that I turned to this book over the past few weeks, particularly after the fifth and final Republican presidential debate. (This was the debate in which Donald Trump spoke about killing the families of terrorists, and Gov. Chris Christie talked of shooting Russian planes down over Syria).

Hamill’s thoughts on poetry as a form of questioning and as a stimulus to meditation seemed particularly salient to me, a retired English educator, amidst the cacophonous politics of fear. I felt that after the fifth debate, I needed some way to recover a measure of equanimity and perspective, some way to regain my bearings.

One poem in particular stood out in my reading: Maxine Kumin’s “New Hampshire: February 7, 2003.” Kumin began her poem by telling about a great snowstorm that winter day in 2003. She remarked on newscasters showing reruns of “the blizzard of ’78,” and she devoted the first stanza to images of that meteorological memory. In the second stanza, however, she switched to a very different kind of memory:

Nowhere reruns
of the bombings in Vietnam
2 million civilians blown
apart, most of them children
under 16…

In that second stanza, she juxtaposed images of two different scenes: one of American children playing in snow because school is cancelled, the other of Vietnamese children beneath the “tonnage [that] bursts from a blind sky.” The American children rejoice in the sledding inspired by their “benign blizzard.” “But,” she asked, as she concluded her poem,

remembers the blizzard
that burst on those other children?
Back then we called it
collateral damage
and will again.

Calling Us All Out

The poem jarred me. Kumin not only calls out the violence in our language, our use of political euphemism to mask atrocity, but also the forgetfulness that has blinded us to our history and to our culpability. She does not end her poem by saying, “back then they called it collateral damage,” but rather by saying, “we called it.” We are all, indeed, responsible for our inaction, our silences, our refusals to resist.

Kumin’s poem, like the other 11,000 written those 13 years ago, did not stop the bombs from falling on Baghdad. Nor will it necessarily stop the bombs from falling today. But it – and other great poems of witness – can wake us up to genuine remembrance, and in that remembrance may we find the clarity and strength to continue to resist.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.