P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.31 - December 2018
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2018 December No. 31
William Stafford’s No! In Thunder
William Stafford’s No! In Thunder
It’s not news that in the U.S. we are enduring a time of highly polarized politics. We’re not only polarized, but notably angry about it: it seems you can’t open your social media feeds or turn on the news without soon finding someone yelling at you, denouncing opponents, spouting hyperbole, and generally employing a highly charged rhetoric. My Facebook Timeline fills up daily with commentary, links, and memes of rage and finger-pointing. Some of it directed by friends against me, some of it aimed by certain of my friends against other friends, and a lot of it just preaching to the choir. Some of it, I’m afraid, I write myself. While I’m not sure our politics in this country are any more vicious than at some periods in the past, we do seem to live in a particularly voluble time, aided and abetted by modern communication technologies.
And what about us poets? In general I think we are doing what most citizens are doing: trying to make our own voices heard amid the chaotic din of social media, nonstop news, partisan squabbles, and political protest. Quite often the volume level is high.
For the record, I am all in favor of free speech (if not fake news), and fully support various movements of protest sparked by women and others who have historically not had their voices welcomed or heeded. At the same time, amid the bickering, I sometimes wonder if anger is replacing more productive emotions. And among other things, I wonder what it means in our fraught time to call yourself a patriotic American. Surely people of my political persuasion (left-liberal, Democratic) should not allow those on the other side of the partisan barricades to claim sole possession of patriotic ideals and symbols. At the same time, I have decreasing faith in the rhetoric of partisanship; rage may be necessary and useful in getting people mobilized, but it’s hardly an end-game for either side of the political divide.
Turning to poetry specifically, I applaud the energy and honesty of a great many of the poems I am seeing these days that aim to articulate various kinds of justifiable outrage and horror. I appreciate protest poetry, some of which is very potent indeed, both politically and poetically. More on that, perhaps, in future columns. As far as I’m concerned it’s good to see more poets join our national conversation, not fewer. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Of course politically charged poetry is nothing new to our nation. I think of Whitman’s acidic 1860 poem, “To the States,” which surveys the sad politics of his day and describes elected officials as “ bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol,” and compares the whole situation to “scum floating atop of the waters.” And I remember an often-quoted passage from a letter Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. In it, he praised Hawthorne by summarizing the one “grand truth” about him: “He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie . . . .”
This passage has been much analyzed and debated. I suppose when I first encountered it I concluded that Melville saw in his friend not just an unwillingness to lie, but an ability to express himself with a Melvillean rhetorical extravagance, to “thunder,” in other words. But when I read more deeply in Hawthorne, it was hard to make this interpretation jibe with his elegant and suave writing style. Eventually I encountered critics who argued that what Melville meant was not a thunderous style, but quite the reverse: Hawthorne’s ability to express his truths steadfastly and precisely even in the midst of a metaphoric storm. People who can remain calm during thunder are rare.
Which brings me to William Stafford, one of my essential poets for more than forty years and someone I have found myself re-reading often, especially since the 2016 Presidential election. Without denigrating other, more high-temperature voices, I want to speak up for poems that are patriotic in another sense than topical protest. I believe poems like Stafford’s quiet, understated lyrics are also needed, perhaps now more than ever.
Every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and other national holiday we hear much praise for the self-sacrifice and patriotism of those in our armed services. In my life, a lot of this sentiment comes from friends who are further to the right of me on the political spectrum. I have no argument with them. It’s right to honor those who serve our country, in uniform and out, and who believe in ideas larger than themselves. I would simply add that it’s also right to honor people like William Stafford, a lifelong pacifist who wrote many beautiful and profoundly patriotic poems that quietly protest the status quo and say No to the usual thunderous platitudes and simplistic flag-waving. Furthermore, honoring the war dead does not make me feel very celebratory. Frankly, it can sometimes seem that mourning gets overshadowed by the picnics, parades, and holiday sales. At such times especially I turn to Stafford, who demonstrates one honorable way to move beyond disgust, anger, and score-settling.
As I say, Stafford was an unwavering pacifist. During WWII he did alternative service as a CO, and wrote a fascinating book about his experiences titled Down in My Heart. I highly recommend it. He then opposed every war that followed, both cold ones and hot ones. Stafford died in 1993, two years after the first Gulf War. In 2003, when America’s war in Afghanistan was only two years old, his son edited a book of his prose and poetry on peace and war, including an excerpt from Down in My Heart. It bears the striking title, Every War Has Two Losers. That sentence, lifted from Stafford’s journals, highlights his knack for simple language that widens and deepens upon reflection—which is one of the gifts his poems provide. In 2018, while America’s longest war approaches the end of its second decade, Stafford’s work seems more relevant than ever.
I often remember one poem in particular whenever I’m urged to support our troops, thank them for their service, and reflect on their heroism (worthy sentiments, but in my view not sufficient). Stafford’s poem usefully complicates the assumptions behind such exhortations, and frankly reminds me more keenly than many conventionally patriotic utterances of the sadness inherent in praising our soldiers’ self-sacrifices. Here is the poem:
At The Un-National Monument Along The Canadian Border
This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
[Stories That Could Be True: New & Collected Poems. Harper & Row, 1977.]
This is a poem grounded in a simple imaginative reversal, the sort of deep vision that in the right hands can arise just from asking what-if. Stafford poses an obvious but profound question, almost childlike in tone. What if all our national patriotic energies were not arrayed around military force and pride, but focused instead on celebrating peace? What if there were no need to build monuments to the Unknown Soldiers killed in various wars? What if, instead of the equestrian statues and memorials to the fallen that have been erected around the nation to commemorate wartime triumphs, courage, and losses, we put up a monument to peace? Where would such a thing be located? Perhaps in some deserted stretch along the long, unguarded U.S.-Canadian border. What should the monument consist of? Maybe just a forgettable field where no battle ever occurred. Just grass growing and birds criss-crossing the natural space with, of course, no awareness of national boundaries.
The poem's premise is simple, and announced clearly in the title. Perhaps one could consider the idea naïve, and it certainly is idealistic. Stafford's little thought experiment has the understated efficiency, though, of a well-made tool. The logic is inescapable, and ultimately sad, as we realize that such places already do exist, along the Canadian border and elsewhere, but we have "forgotten [their names]." We "hallow" the idea of peace by neglect, tragically and persistently, despite our best rhetoric.
Stafford's own rhetoric is plain but effective, employing common vocabulary and universal imagery, and a series of offhand but careful rhymes to give the poem a songlike lilt. Like a song, the poem's "argument" is thus more a matter of emotional penetration rather than argumentation. What if the "only heroic thing" were the sky? Is that so hard a thing to imagine? Would that really be too "tame" a thing to celebrate?
I have heard Stafford called naïve, and I’ve no doubt that a war “hawk” would apply some such term to this poem. But when I remember that we were promised that the second war in Iraq would be brief and relatively painless, and when I consider that the war in Afghanistan has been going on for seventeen years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, I want to turn the question back on the questioners: who’s being naïve, really? Isn’t Stafford simply right in pointing out, as long as he had breath, that every war has two losers?
©2018 David Graham
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