War Poetry?

Two “Comments” by poets appearing in a 1945 “anthology of the war poetry of the 20th century”: Wallace Stevens and Muriel Rukeyser (“civilian poets”). While Stevens seems to be staying on a kind of broad epistemic level (consciousness, imagination, fact, real, heroic) and makes a distinct claim for kinds of poetry (of war, of imagination), Rukeyser gets her hands dirty, so to speak; she says poetry is poetry and is made of anything that can find its way into our imaginations and establish relation. And she names the beast that continues to stalk the planet, fascism. Stevens is perhaps suggesting that war poetry cannot be imaginative because it seeks to assert a particular fact, while imagination struggles against those particularities.

Wallace Stevens:

“The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality fo war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. and consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of fact. If that is true, it follows that the poetry of war as a consciousness of the victories and defeats of nations, is a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one’s thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.

“It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.

“Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.”

Poems in the anthology: “How Red the Rose That Is the Soldier’s Wound,” “Repetitions of a Young Captain”

From “Repetitions of Young Captain” (very representative of Stevens) – “Green is the orator/of our passionate height. He wears a tufted green,/And tosses green for those for whom green speaks.”

If these were only words that I am speaking
Indifferent sounds and not the heraldic-ho
Of the clear sovereign that is reality,

Of the clearest reality that is sovereign,
How should I repeat them, keep repeating them,
As if they were desperate with a know-and-know,

Central responses to a central fear,
The abode of the angels? Constantly,
At the railway station, a soldier steps away,

Sees a familiar building drenched in a cloud
And goes to an external world, having
Nothing of place. There is no change of place

Nor of time. The departing soldier is as he is,
Yet in that form will not return. But does
He find another? The giant of sense remains

A giant without a body. If, as giant,
He shares a gigantic life, it is because
The gigantic has a reality of its own.


Muriel Rukeyser

“The subject of poetry cannot be restricted. There is no way to speak of war as a subject for poetry. War enters all our lives, but even that horror is only a beginning. The war is in our poetry only so far as it is in our imaginations, as meaning, as relationship, or simply as a fact. It has not been in much of our poetry because the meanings of this war have been lost; and through this the fashion in writing is aversion, wit, or easy mysticism and easy despair. We have been told by our governments–we have allowed our governments to tell us–to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterwards. This policy breeds more war, and nothing else.

“For myself, war has been in my writing since I began. The first public day that I remember was the False Armistice of 1918. And now the terms ‘soft peace,’ ‘hard peace,’ that are being passed as currency seem to me only other words for war, and war seems to me the after-image of many failures to react to truth at the time that truth first happens

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. We confess by this war that we did not react to fascism as it arrived. But now the fact that it might be a war against fascist ideas has slipped away. So that the war for those concerned with life, the truth which is open to all is still ahead. It is a struggle in which poetry also lives and fights.

“A poet said to me, ‘You bring the world in too much. Poems should not be written about the war. Are you not afraid of guessing wrong?’ I deny all of this. Again, I do not believe in any rule about the subject of poetry. If you do not love the world you become the slave of the world. As for guessing wrong, I am not afraid of that. The war I think of is the common fight that is going on, the old same war, the struggle that gives these wars a touch of life–a fight which expresses itself in many ways among the people, always to make more freedom accessible to all. Peace, it seems to me, is not the lack of fighting. I want an end to false armistice. Peace, I think, is the force that works for creation and freedom, that fights war. I want that. I want peace which is a way in which peoples can work together for a wide creative life. I believe hat poetry is a pat of that, of the means which is peace, and of the living changing goal.”

Poems in the anthology: “Letter to the Front”

From “Letter to the Front”

Home thoughts from home: we read you every day,
Soldiers of distances. You wish most to be here.
In the strange lands of war, I woke and thought of home.
Remembering how war came, I wake and think of you,
In the city of water and stone where I was born,
My home of complex light. What we were fighting for,
In the beginning, in Spain, was not to be defined.
More human than abstract, more direction than end.
Terror arrived intact, lit with the tragic fire
Of hope before its time, tore us from lover and friend.
We came to the violent act with all that we had learned.
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