Despite having somehow written poetry about the destruction of Iraq by bomb and sanction since 1991, even US military intervention in Nicaragua, Bosnia, Kosovo, The Sudan & Afghanistan (and others), I find myself wordless when confronted with this astonishing atrocity every morning when my clock radio goes off: I can't quite consider any of it poetry material. Although the attack on Iraq is an apparent extension of policies that have been in place since World War II, if not longer, signs suggest we are moving over the edge of history into some new (but recognizable) and terrifying era. This is the new style of post cold war overt op: a premeditated, full scale assault on a defenseless country in cold blood.
Opposing the war is certainly necessary, but it is not a difficult decision nor a radical position. Wonderfully, the anti-war movement seems as organized as it has ever been. Yet, popular, personal, and international opposition to this war has not yet seemed to register among those whose war this is.
Drawing attention to the war is unnecessary: it is America's number one TV show. Exposing the fraudulence of the war's stated purpose is so effortless as to be barely worth wasting breath on. This morning on NPR, for example, I heard a military spokesman admit that "we have been searching for weapons of mass destruction and so far it is not to be found." (sic) The lies we are told are utterly unconvincing, which is disappointing and frightening: disappointing because the American people are not being given credit for our intelligence and compassion, and frightening because polls suggest that Americans believe the lies—for example, that some of the September 11th hijackers were from Iraq, although this is verifiably not the case.
Reinforcing the use of poetry as a means of protest is now also not necessary: there has been a recent surge of anti-war poetry from formerly apolitical poets, to the extent that the usual poetry hierarchies and concerns (more about poetry and poets than war) seem to be reasserting themselves in this new subject matter. May this be more than a passing fashion, but it is certainly different from ten or even four years ago. A functionally illiterate president has politicized the literati. Clinton, a more charming warmonger, was reportedly a voracious reader.
With no need to expose the war or to appropriate poetry for political ends, I am wondering what now is the purpose of my political poetry, and what techniques can serve that purpose? There is no longer any margin for a sense of humor, and optimism requires a sort of spiritual gymnastics I am not currently limber enough to pull off. The task of progressives seems to have shifted from improving the country to slowing its decline. A hope of positive social change in America—utopian thought—is asphyxiated: after all, even the most basic concession of our democratic political system—voting—has failed.
If it is too late to speak up, if it is time to act, what can we do?
1 April 2003
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