[lit-ideas] Pentagon Poetry

  • From: Eric Yost <NYCEric@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 18 Oct 2004 15:14:43 -0400



Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance?

By Eleanor Wilner

On April 20 of this year Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment 
for the Arts, in tandem with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, 
announced Operation Homecoming: Writing the War Experience. The program 
is described as “an NEA project to help soldiers write about their 
experiences in war,” and it plans to bring writers to military bases to 
conduct workshops for soldiers returning from combat. It will also 
publish an anthology which, according to their website, will be “open to 
active US military personnel and their immediate families” and will be a 
“nationally promoted anthology of wartime writing that will be sold in 
bookstores and will be distributed free by the Arts Endowment to 
military installations, schools, and libraries.”

The project is being carried out in cooperation with the Armed Forces 
and Defense Department and the Southern Arts Federation, and has been 
funded ($250,000 of its $300,000 cost) by the Boeing Company, one of the 
US’s leading defense contractors, and therefore a major recipient of our 
tax dollars and a corporation that profits from war.

A handsome red, white, and blue booklet—whose cover bears a moving photo 
of a helmet holding flag-stamped letters to a GI—contains the photos, 
bios, and book covers of thirteen well-published authors of fiction and 
poetry (some veterans of earlier wars, some from military families, many 
whose writing is principally about war) who will lead the workshops, and 
another smaller group of well-known writers who read excerpts from 
war-related texts or tips on writing on a promotional CD.

What we have here is a program that seems designed to be proof against 
all criticism, as if to raise any questions about it is to seem to 
target those deserving soldiers and the writers who have signed on. But 
what if we look behind these unassailable shields? Are these returning 
troops once again being used as a shield against the scrutiny of the 
very policy which put them in harm’s way in the first place? Will 
Operation Homecoming serve them? Will it serve poetry? Or is it designed 
to serve quite another purpose? “The Defense Department,” said the 
Washington Post (April 20, 2004), “believes the writing will reflect 
positively on military life. ‘I don’t have any concerns,’ says Principle 
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Charles S. 
Abell. ‘We tend to remember those things which are good.’”

As a thirty-year veteran of the teaching of poetry, and an observer of 
the current chasm between public rhetoric and the language of 
experience, as well as the growing carnage, I read all this with 
incredulity and dismay. The sponsors, the context, the timing—how could 
it be more wrong? A military base? Soldiers still on active duty and 
under orders? Just returned from the violence and trauma of combat? 
Asked to write about those still raw experiences? Was this a context or 
a circumstance in which deep disclosure, or even reportage, could—or 
should—be invited? Are these writers qualified to pry open the doors to 
what may be scenes of inner desolation?

Bruce Weigl, a Bronze Star veteran of the Vietnam war, author of seven 
books of poetry, and former director of the MFA Program at Penn State, 
shares these concerns:

To expect young men and women who are just returned from a combat 
mission where they have seen and done and had done to them unspeakable 
things is to ask far too much of them. . . . As returning veterans, they 
are far too close to the war to trust their own immediate responses; 
they all need to come to terms with what they’ve been through and what 
they’ve seen, and then they’ll be ready to tell the stories that no one 
wants to hear.


I have pulled from my shelf a slim volume of poems edited by Jan Barry, 
Larry Rottmann, and Basil T. Parquet in 1972, which was for me a 
touchstone in those war years, a way inside Vietnam’s reality, as it was 
for many: Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. It 
was a grassroots veterans volume, put together on Barry’s kitchen table, 
dedicated to the children of Indochina, and published by 1st Casualty 
Press, named from the famous quote by Aeschylus in the fifth century 
b.c.: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

“[O]ne wonders at the shape of this generation’s returning war 
narratives,” says Kevin Bowen, also a poet and Vietnam veteran, and 
Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social 
Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, which has offered 
writing workshops to veterans since 1987. “Will this war have its own 
Winning Hearts and Minds? Perhaps not, if Washington has its say.” In 
his protest against Operation Homecoming (which, by the way, borrows its 
name from the repatriation of American POWs at the end of the Vietnam 
war), he writes in the veterans online magazine Intervention: “Beyond 
the language of self-help and ‘therapeutic’ aspects of writing, beyond 
the back-patting, it is not difficult to see in the project an effort to 
establish an official canon of writing from the century’s first wars, 
neatly packaged, ready for mass distribution and classroom use.”

What’s the rush here? Why doesn’t the NEA help send discharged veterans 
to colleges and bona fide writing programs, investing public arts money 
to support their writing in educational settings, where, as Bowen says, 
“it will be fostered over time and not immediately co-opted.” And give 
them the chance to develop some historical insight, and to contextualize 
experience in more than the blinding exigencies of the moment?

Indeed, this project appears to be an attempt to preempt the immediate 
(and even archival) record of this war by its combatants. It is well to 
remember here that the NEA is an arm of the government, its chairman and 
board political appointments by the administration. In the Guardian 
(April 20, 2004), Dana Gioia was quoted as saying: “I have noticed a lot 
of similarities between the military world and the literary world. Both 
are highly specialized and highly professionalized. And when that 
happens, you tend not to see a lot outside your immediate world.” 
Perhaps Gioia was counting on this, thinking that other poets, less 
canny than he, and lost in a doze at the shuttered windows of their 
ivory towers, wouldn’t notice the political ramifications of this 
project. And though he mentions in his eerily cheerful introduction 
every great epic of war from the Iliad to War and Peace (works written 
long after the events), we might question whether it is literature that 
can be produced or even encouraged under such circumstances.


Once again we are at war; in the words of Yeats, “the nightmare / Rides 
upon sleep.” We stand at what has been called by Lionel Trilling “the 
dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet,” not by 
choice—but by circumstance. As poets, we do not choose our subjects; the 
imagination is a force which can be invited, but it cannot be commanded. 
In fact, in those moments when we are poets (and we live many more when 
we are not), we must live, like Cicero in a poem by Gibbons Ruark, “in 
that singular province that was never Caesar’s.”

Returning at last to the first great war epic of the Western tradition, 
the Iliad, I remind us all that it is written from both sides, that the 
eye of the poet moves back and forth between the Greek camp and the city 
of Troy. There is no enemy: simply the ambition of Agamemnon, the lust 
of Paris, the wrath of Achilles, the laughter of the gods, the tragedy 
of war in which are “hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades 
strong souls / of heroes.” The city of Troy is put to the torch, its 
women and children enslaved, and the epic ends, as all wars end, with a 
funeral pyre and a handful of bones.

It should be clear from what has been said that it is not the 
conjunction of poetry and soldiers which is problematic. On the 
contrary, sustained exposure to poetry might serve as one antidote to 
the violence and divisive language of war, and become the lifeline it 
has been for a number of Vietnam combat veterans who survived the 
postwar years, and whose words helped others to do the same. This 
project sadly mars this year’s generous NEA literature grants, essential 
to so many small presses and writer’s support groups. For this 
particular project arouses suspicion about its ultimate purpose—doubts 
fed by its feel-good rhetoric, its slick packaging, its inimical 
setting, its timing, its cozy insularity, the vested interests of its 
sponsors: the Pentagon and Boeing, and its disingenuous disclaimers that 
none of this will affect the selection of materials for the anthology 
which the NEA plans to widely disseminate.

“Most alarming to many of us,” writes Kevin Bowen, “Operation Homecoming 
threatens to move the NEA into the business of supporting the generation 
of propaganda, a wartime exercise that is not part of its mission, and 
does writers, veterans, and the public a great disservice.” To which I 
say Amen.

ELEANOR WILNER's most recent book is  The Girl With Bees in Her Hair 
(Copper Canyon, 2004). She is currently Writer-in-Residence at Smith 

To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts:

  • » [lit-ideas] Pentagon Poetry