John Ashbery once wrote that “All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn’t poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program. Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest.”
Over at Capital Commentary, I take a look at the context of Ashbery’s remark and suggest that while he was wrong that poetry is always against war, he’s right that one of the key characteristics of protest and propaganda is a forcing of language.
Ashbery’s point was not that poetry is apolitical, but that poetry devoted to a single cause or program lacks the independence to deal with human experience in all its ambiguities and paradoxes…a poem is much less a poem to the extent that it forces its words to carry an idea further than the words themselves will allow.
Brett Beasley, in turn, offers a nice defense of war poetry via Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” over at The Curator, and shows that one can remember the fallen dead–and even inflate their heroism and sacrifice–without naively praising war itself:
Tennyson’s poem might misrepresent the facts, but, despite initial appearances, it by no means presents a simple or one-sided view of war or heroism. The soldiers of the Light Brigade face an absurd situation filled with mismanagement (“someone had blundered”) and hopelessness (“Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”) as well as defenselessness (they charge with minimal armor, wielding swords against cannons). In preserving the memory of the Light Brigade, Tennyson preserved the particular set of complexities and contradictions that characterized what many have called “the first modern war.”
Read the rest of Beasley’s essay here.