The failure of language to genuinely (re)capture an experience has always been a fascination for me. Always: a disconnect between what actually happens in the world and what, consequently, we create. After all, they’re just words. The sculptor is standing with his hands in wet clay and the cellist wraps her arms around all that string and wood. After all.
Do we genuinely attempt to write poems about love/death/fear/jealousy/suffering/awe? Yes. Are they often knee-buckling, emotionally wrought poems? Oh, yes. Can they come close to the actual experience? I think so. But can they equal it? No.
Doesn’t that drive you a little crazy sometimes?
Maybe that’s why war poetry fascinates me as it does. There’s no better example of that disconnect. What other experience is a seemingly unending, unflinching 360-degree view of shit and suffering? How can it possibly be conveyed through language with adequacy and accuracy? How does someone wade through bodies one afternoon and then hunker in the bad light to write about it? No, no – not how does someone, because there are many therapeutic and artistic reasons why someone would turn to language for that exorcism. It’s not a question of whether to write a war poem; it’s a question of whether it is even possible to make art a semblance of the catastrophic.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
For most of us, the front line happens elsewhere. Wilfred Owen, the English language’s most popular World War I poet, set out to “agitate” Europe’s sleepy-headed view of war. In poem after poem, like “Dulce et Decorum Est,” he attempts to look war in the face. And he does, he does: “the white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin.” My god. But at the same time – to my desensitized, 21st century ear – there is such music , such an orderly form to his grisly scenes. I confess I can’t help but love words like “sludge” and “blood-shod” and “guttering.” So I hum right over his attempt to show me war.
Jarrell, hosing the gunner out of the ball turret, comes damn close.
I think about this because a sequence in Bird in the Machine edges up to the label “war poetry.” It takes the form of letters, sent by a soldier from an unidentified front. I played with the literal, assuming stains and tears and other damage to the text. I let the language fail as I imagined it would/should. These were deliberate decisions, yet my strongest impression of those poems now is that I couldn’t/can’t look at the horror of war straight on. I took it in pieces, in manageable fragments of narrative, in my peripheral vision. It feels like a flinch. My own failure? Language’s?
So maybe the philosophical question is whether it is poetry’s (or any art’s) responsibility to equate to the experience or feeling in question. Is it a silly question? We attempt, over and over. There are incredible war poems out there. Yusef Komyankaa’s “Thanks.” Yehuda Amichai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb.” Brian Turner’s “Here, Bullet.”
Czeslaw Milosz says in Road Side Dog:
An atheist should accept the world as it is. But then whence comes our protest, our scream: “No!” Precisely, this excludes us from Nature, determines our incomprehensible oddity, makes us a lonely species. Here, in a moral protest against the order of the world, in our asking ourselves where this scream of horror comes from, the defense of the peculiar place of man begins.
The peculiar place of man. Not just to kill each other in cold blood, but to attempt, generation after generation, to make sense of that tendency. Not just to make it survivable, but to make it beautiful. What loneliness, and what luxury.
Those are not my poems. Those are my attempts. I tell you, I am not a camera, but sometimes I want to be one. Look. I want to know you know. I want to know I know. Look. I just have these words. I want to harm you.
Owen saw a man guttering like a candle. He heard the shells’ “demented choir” and perhaps he scattered sonnets for the doomed like small flags. This is what we seem to do, trying to write up against the unspeakable – we let the thing go inside its cage. Still, there’s a cage.
Is that the point?
Eve Jones’s poetry has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Hotel Amerika, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, and Poet Lore, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she teaches writing and humanities and lives with her family in St. Louis, and soon Colorado Springs. Her first book, Bird in the Machine, was published this year by Turning Point Press