War subjects and themes were the focus of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest celebration of poetry, held annually in Newark, New Jersey. The marquee event was a contemporary war poem extravaganza called Another Kind of Courage, about which more later. But sprinkled throughout the readings and panel discussions featuring big-time civilian names such as Gary Snyder and Robert Pinsky were poets familiar to readers of this blog such as Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jehanne Dubrow. The commingling of war-themed poems within the greater flow of versification rendered ample opportunity to think about how war has inflected poetry generally in the 21st century. It also allowed one to take stock of how a first-generation of contemporary war poets might be moving on to subjects and approaches more centered within the poetry mainstream.
Fenton, for example, appeared on a panel that featured among others Richard Blanco, a gay Hispanic-American poet who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, but America’s recent wars were barely mentioned by the participants. Fenton, the wife of a veteran, read only “After the Blast” from her acclaimed first work Clamor. Her other poems, from a current work-in-progress called “Sweet Insurgency,” had little to do with deployment, combat, or life on the homefront, though the title alone attests to the lingering persistence of things, words, and ideas military in Fenton’s apprehension of the world. Dubrow, for her part, read just three poems from her impressive work Stateside, to include one I love called “Nonessential Equipment,” on a panel that featured no other war poets. Her husband continues to serve in the Navy, but Dubrow has turned her attention to subjects other than the vexations of martial marital relations. Still, the interest in violence and trauma inherent in Stateside continues, or is even intensified, in the poems Dubrow read from a soon-to-be published work about her mother’s harrowing life growing up in El Salvador.
As for Turner, readings at Dodge and another one a week earlier in New York gave ample evidence that he has plenty of poetry to draw on that doesn’t explicitly touch on his service as an infantryman in Iraq. Many examples can be found in Phantom Noise, but others, some that predate his military service and others written after, look at family history, regional influence, and the complexities of modern life. In New York, at an event called Stage Meets Page, Turner traded turns reading with a performance poet named Rives, a winner of freestyle contests and a giver of TED talks. Rives is probably used to blowing poetic competition off the stage, but Turner more than held his own, riffing off Rives’ cues and dipping deep into a black notebook full of funny, startling, brilliant verse that had far more to do with life out of uniform than in. For an example of the same from Dodge, on a panel on masculinity and poetry that also featured the aforementioned Pinsky and Blanco, Turner read “Zippo” from Phantom Noise.
The Another Kind of Courage event brought Turner, Dubrow, and Fenton together with wise war-poet old hands Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson and a group of younger vet poets associated with a collective called Warrior Writers. Together, as organized by festival program director Martin Farawell, they recounted a narrative-in-verse about deployment through the multiple voices of a large and diverse body of poems read by their authors. The general arc of the story focused on psychological trauma and political outrage, which is understandable and dramatic, but by no means the be-all and end-all of what war poetry is and can be. Still, Another Kind of Courage inspired wonder about the possibilities of staging war poetry and showcased many fantastic individual performances. Warrior Writers’ Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren galvanized the audience with the Eminem-like “PTSD (P.lease T.ry S.omething D.ifferent)” and Jennifer Pacanowski’s “Parade,” read to the accompaniment of a simple guitar strum, did much the same in a softer key.
For all of the above, a highlight of Dodge for me was meeting Robert Pinsky for the first time since I took a class from him almost 30 years ago, when, fed up with graduate school, I asked him write a letter of recommendation for my application to Officer Candidate School. Pinsky, a former national poet laureate, published a volume of poetry called Gulf Music in 2007. Interested in knowing if it addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I purchased a copy and read it between acts at Dodge. I didn’t have to look long, for the very first poem, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” ruminates on torture in the name of politics as perpetrated by oppressive regimes around the world, the United States unfortunately not excepted. But Pinsky, it turns out, is ambivalent or confused about conflict and violence more than he is stridently opposed; many of the poems in Gulf Music document him trying to work out the exact relationship between the propensity to inflict harm and the inclination to create art. In “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” for example, he writes:
The [torturers] created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.
Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.
In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:
Forgive us, we don’t exactly believe or disbelieve
What the President tells us regarding the great issues
Of peace, justice, and war—skeptical, but distracted
By the swarm of things.
That seems about right, but in a poem (perhaps aptly) titled “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” the drift of Pinsky’s thought turns more sinister and daring. He begins by describing himself as an “Insomniac monkey-mind,” an image that sets up a series of stanzas that consider the proposition that art depends on the dark energy of conflict:
We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between
Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.
Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy:
Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.
Pinsky’s not wrong, I feel, and he’s way too hard on himself. But these are hard things to say or prove, and must be couched in terms of irony, possibility, and humor, if not self-deprecation and laceration. For certain though, Pinsky the poet is tied up with the life course that took me to the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan: the letter of recommendation I still have is the material proof.
Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.