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Whether Thersites in Homer’s Iliad, Wilfred Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est,” or Allen Ginsberg in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” poets have long given solitary voice against the brutality of war. The hasty cancellation of the 2003 White House symposium “Poetry and the American Voice” in the face of protests by Sam Hamill and other invited guests against the coming “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq reminded us that poetry and poets still have the power to challenge the powerful.
Behind the Lines investigates American war resistance poetry from the Second World War through the Iraq wars. Rather than simply chronicling the genre, Philip Metres argues that this poetry gets to the heart of who is authorized to speak about war and how it can be represented. As such, he explores a largely neglected area of scholarship: the poet’s relationship to dissenting political movements and the nation.
In his elegant study, Metres examines the ways in which war resistance is registered not only in terms of its content but also at the level of the lyric. He proposes that protest poetry constitutes a subgenre that—by virtue of its preoccupation with politics, history, and trauma—probes the limits of American lyric poetry. Thus, war resistance poetry—and the role of what Shelley calls unacknowledged legislators—is a crucial, though largely unexamined, body of writing that stands at the center of dissident political movements.
[H]istory as a palimpsest of two durations-then and now, the earlier period that is overtly "under consideration," and the current period, uneasy about its potentially apocalyptic destiny but so far uncertain about its concluding date. -CARY NELSON, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 Poems move out into many futures, which are their own real futures as well, unknown to themselves. -JEROME MCGANN, "The Third World of Criticism"
In his biography of Robert Lowell, Ian Hamilton tells an anecdote that still adorns discussions of Lowell's poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke." During his arraignment on the charge of refusing to register for the draft, Lowell spent a few days in West Street Jail, where the infamous Louis "Czar Lepke" Buchalter awaited execution on death row. Lepke, a notorious mafia gangster who led a gang of professional killers known as "Murder Incorporated," had been arrested on narcotics charges and convicted of ordering the 1941 killing of candy store owner Jacob Rosen. According to Hamilton's 1980 conversation with Jim Peck, a longtime antiwar activist, "Lowell was in a cell next to Lepke, you know, Murder Incorporated, and Lepke says to him: 'I'm in for killing. What are you in for?' 'Oh, I'm in for refusing to kill'" (91). It's easy to imagine Lowell saying such a thing, acutely aware of the ironies and contradictions of state power. Every indication is that Lowell did meet Lepke; certainly "Memories of West Street and Lepke" recounts the profound impression of the poet's encounter with the head of Murder Incorporated. But this conversation probably never happened. Peck likely assumed that Hamilton was asking about Lowell Naeve, thus confusing Lowell for Naeve, a fellow war resister who like Lowell and Peck passed through West Street Jail to Danbury Prison and whose prison memoir, A Field of Broken Stones (1951), is one of the important documents of war resistance:
Somewhere in the conversation we got around to the fact that I was in jail because I refused to kill people. The Murder, Inc., boss, who was headed for the electric chair, said: "It don't seem to me to make much sense that they put a man in jail for that." We looked at each other. There we were, both sitting in the same prison. The law covered both ends-one in for killing, the other in for refusing to kill. (29)
In Hamilton's retelling, Lowell Naeve has been erased and replaced by Robert Lowell, whose memory of his "naïve" years in "Memories of West Street and Lepke" remains one of the few canonical poems to emerge from war resistance during the Second World War. The continued circulation of this story serves to illuminate some of the principal dynamics between war resistance and poetry.
First, the erasure of Naeve is symptomatic of the disappearance of the war resister from history. Despite the fact that Naeve himself was an artist and a writer, and the fact that some of his most courageous actions in prison involved continuing his art through subversive or underground means, he dropped out of literary-critical consciousness. Further, Naeve's replacement by Lowell suggests that literary celebrity and canonical status offer war resistance a way to achieve cultural legitimacy, wider publicity, and ultimately, a way to breach historical memory. Literature is produced and circulated both in the academy and in the marketplace at a scale exceeding the homespun social networks that support war resistance. Even if poetry remains one of the least popular of the literary arts, American poets still retain a symbolic significance-as laureates or as inaugural presenters, for example. In Robert Lowell's case, his poetry, family background, and cultural dissidence during a tumultuous period in the United States led to a unique celebrity that spanned a quarter century.
However, even though literary celebrity may lend cultural capital to war resistance, literary representations can also succumb to the distortions of dissent endemic to mass media and journalistic history. Lowell's most famous prison poem, "Memories of West Street and Lepke," offers an intriguing but problematic representation of war resistance during the Second World War. Written over ten years after his time in jail, Lowell's poem tells the story from the point of view of a presumably wiser, but more ineffectual, speaker. Lowell's poem has an almost photographic accuracy regarding the physical particulars of his early arraignment, yet his depiction of pacifists uses distortions typical of mainstream media to demean war resistance as ineffectual, immature, disloyal, or crazy. If literary representations invariably tend, over time, to reify the way those experiences get remembered, then paying attention to the particular circumstances that produce these representations might enable a more accurate-or at least, more rigorous-accounting of the economics of poetry and war resistance. However, a simplistic accounting of social conditions will not yield a satisfactory analysis of literary texts. As Mikhail Bakhtin and Pavel Medvedev warn, literary criticism often mistakenly limits literature to a mere reflection of ideology, takes literary representations as direct representations of life, or turns ideas reflected in the work into grand ideological theses (18-19). Since the contents of literature, to use Bakhtin and Medvedev's formulation, "signify, reflect, and refract reality" (10) and "the reflections and refractions of other ideological spheres (ethics, epistemology, political doctrines, etc.)" (16-17), literary criticism must balance between the generalizing claims of ideology and the particularizing insistences of the genres themselves. This critical balancing between history and literature becomes even more difficult when the literary work presents itself as a kind of documentary realism, as in Lowell's mature confessional poems.
Because critics have delegitimized Lowell's politics as mentally imbalanced ("manic"), I first reconstruct the original contexts of the poet's refusal to serve in the Second World War, outlined in his letter to President Roosevelt and reflected in his early apocalyptic verse. In the second section, reading of "Memories of West Street and Lepke," I argue that Lowell encouraged the critical commonplace that his refusal was manic because the poem itself revises his resistance to the war. Lowell's self-revision, while clearly a strategy of his mature poetics, also speaks to the larger cultural context of the 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee bullied intellectuals and artists and demonized dissent. I read "Memories" therefore as a containment text, one that displaces the 1950s onto 1943, demonstrating broader connections between containment culture and confessional poetry. Finally, in the third section, using fellow war resisters Lowell Naeve's and Jim Peck's memoirs as foils, I explain how and why his poetic representation of his war refusal and stay in prison in "Memories" fails to provide anything but a containment vision of war resistance. Lowell's overidentification with power (both a characteristic of containment culture and his personal worldview) may help explain why he represents war resistance in prison as the strivings of othered pacifists-the insane, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses. In particular, Lowell's failure to participate in, and his silence about, the conscientious objectors' 135-day strike to desegregate the Danbury Prison mess hall-an originary moment in American nonviolent direct action and radical pacifism-forces us to ask new questions about the relationship between his poetry (and Cold War American poetry in general) and political power.
Lowell's Catholic Phase Lowell once called his refusal to participate in the Second World War "the most decisive thing I ever did, just as a writer" (qtd. in Hamilton 86). Yet, despite two exhaustive biographies and countless critical works on the poet, Lowell's conscientious objection to the war gets downplayed amid accounts of mental breakdowns, unconscionable treatment of wives and lovers, and disturbingly confessional poetry. Lowell criticism has occasionally veered into infotainment; Ian Hamilton's biography, in particular, directly conflates Lowell's objection to the war with his manic-depression; by contrast, Paul Mariani's framing of the objection within the poet's Catholic period, and Saskia Hamilton's recent editing of Lowell's letters, aid in recovering the contexts that illuminate the poet's refusal.
Lowell's 1943 letter to President Roosevelt, as the poet wrote, "refus[ing] the opportunity" of military service, and the attached "Declaration of Personal Responsibility," communicate his grounds for refusal in the Catholic tradition of Just War Theory and allude to his family's tradition of patriotic service to the country. For Lowell, once the Allied forces committed to total war against Germany and Japan in 1943, they lost their moral authority and, as he told Roosevelt, "demonstrate[d] to the world our Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations" (Collected Prose 370). He was outraged by the news that, "in a world still nominally Christian," there were "staggering civilian casualties that had resulted from the mining of the Ruhr Dams ... [and the] razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 noncombatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air-raids" (369). The final two paragraphs of the letter demonstrate Lowell's reasoned shift from conditional support of the war to outright objection:
In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty. With the greatest reluctance, with every wish that I may be proved in error, and after long deliberation on my responsibilities to myself, my country, and my ancestors who played responsible parts in its making, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot honorably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country. (italics his 370)
Lowell's letter, in its classical rhetorical flourishes-such as parallelism and anaphora-demonstrates the poet as painstakingly reasonable in his assertion of conscience, though it is hard not to notice its failure to mention the concentration camps. Lowell may well have not known of the horrors that faced Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany, but with our historical hindsight-however unfair-it is difficult not to see his omission as a glaring oversight. Despite its epistemological limits, Lowell's letter demonstrates an articulate critique of the conduct of the war, shared by antifascist Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day and historian Howard Zinn, a Second World War veteran of bombing missions in Pilsen and Royan.
Ignoring the rigor of Lowell's argument, Hamilton systematically assaults the intentionality and validity of the poet's refusal. Hamilton's narrative insinuates that Lowell's refusal was merely an extension of the poet's troubled personal relationships and lifelong struggle with manic-depression. First, Hamilton sandwiches the "Declaration" between accounts of Lowell's previous intent to serve and Lowell's mother calling his refusal "a question of poetic temperament." Second, Hamilton treats Lowell's conversion as a symptom of his mania, connecting Lowell's "follow[ing] his conscience and trust[ing] in God" (91), to a kind of mental instability, being "more Catholic than the church" (96). Third, Hamilton's insinuation that Lowell's objection may have occurred under the influence of the poet's bipolar dysfunction finally becomes, in his discussion of "Memories of West Street and Lepke," an outright allegation: "He knows too that when he was a 'fire-breathing Catholic C.O.' and refused military service, he may well have been in the grip of energies that must now, if he is to live any sort of 'normal life,' be 'tranquillized' ... But then what are 'ideals' worth if they can only be pursued in mania?" (264). Hamilton here cedes to a simplistic notion of confessional texts-that they read simply as literal and true confessions-rather than as performative masks. Hamilton's fallacy recalls M. L. Rosenthal's coining of "confessionalism," in a review of Life Studies, "Poetry as Confession" (1959). Rosenthal argued that in Life Studies, "Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself" (109). To be fair, Hamilton's conflation may actually emerge from Lowell's own poetic self-representation of his CO experience in "Memories of West Street and Lepke," which invites the reader to associate the poet's jail term with his terms in mental asylums.
Paul Mariani's Lost Puritan recontextualizes the poet's refusal to serve within a chapter aptly titled "Catholics: 1940-1943," noting the poet's "immersion in Catholic apologetics" (98) and apocalyptic antiwar poems. Indeed, just before his letter to Roosevelt, in a letter to his parents, he wrote of the need to build a Christian society, quoting Blake (Selected Letters 35-36), and wrote a letter to Richard Eberhart that ends, "by the way I am not a pacifist but a Catholic" (Selected Letters 43). The antiwar poems in Land of Unlikeness, including "On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 1942," "The Bomber," "Concord," "Napoleon Crosses the Berezina," "Christmas Eve in Time of War," and "Cistercians in Germany" condemn the war in religious and apocalyptic terms. Later poems, such as "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "At the Bible House," wrestle with the longings for pacifism in a violent world, a violence that Lowell enacts on the level of language and syntax.
Despite the balanced secularity of his letter to Roosevelt, Lowell's war resistance poetry foregrounds the influence of his recent conversion to Catholicism. An early draft of the poem later entitled "Cistercians in Germany" echoes Wilfred Owen's famous antiwar poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est," and foreshadows Lowell's self-characterization in "Memories of West Street and Lepke":
... now the dragon's Litter buckles on steel-scales and puffs Derision like confetti from ten thousand Scrap-heaps, munition pools and bee-hive camps: "Pleasant and gracious it is to die for America." (qtd. in Mariani 102) Underlying Lowell's metaphor of the hoarding dragon is the connection between modern warfare and capitalist profiteering; in fact, his early poems consistently critique the excesses of capitalism, if from a Christian and aristocratic point of view. In addition, Lowell introduces the disjunction between Christian pacifism and warfare, a point he underscores in his letter to Roosevelt; the Second World War, in Lowell's early mythical poems, becomes the repetition of Jesus's crucifixion, in the deaths of all the "holy innocents."
The thematic conflict between a nonviolent Christ and a violent world, so clear in this poem, repeats itself-albeit in an ironic form-in the later "Memories of West Street and Lepke." In the earlier poem, the dragon America has given birth to an army of weaponry which condemns people to "beehive camps." In the later poem, Lowell himself becomes the dragon, the "fire-breathing Catholic C.O." This self-critical shift underscores the fundamental changes in Lowell's politics and poetics from his early to his middle period. Alan Williamson theorizes a break between Lowell's early political poetry and his mature work; Lowell's early poems are shot through with a radical vehemence and a consciousness of evil, while the later poems tend to turn this critical gaze upon the speaker himself (84).
The poems of Lowell's early period-though occasionally imbued with the dynamic tension between his newfound Catholic belief in a nonviolent Christ and his Puritan ancestral heritage of genocidal colonialism (in particular, "Concord," "At the Indian Killer's Grave," and "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue")-often rely on an accusatory, self-righteous stance. Still, Helen Vendler's Oedipal reading of early Lowell replicates the analytic of which she accuses the poet, without adequately acknowledging his radical historical revisionism. Calling Lowell "politically correct" for naming his ancestor an "Indian killer," Vendler is content to argue that the early poems largely narrate "the disaffiliated son rebuking with grim triumph his rotting ancestors" (5). On the contrary, despite their weaknesses, Lowell's letter and early poems often demonstrate an acute awareness of his vexed relationship to the history and politics of the United States, not simply reducible to his family heritage.
Excerpted from BEHIND THE LINES by PHILIP METRES Copyright © 2007 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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