Jeeves, My Jackboots – God of the Machine
May 062003

Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.

Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.

It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likely includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has “a message,” it is the kind that has none.

Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.

Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.

We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.

Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.

  5 Responses to “Jeeves, My Jackboots”

  1. Aaron, I was going to say that pro- and anti-war poetry often seem to have the same effect as something one might hear at a high-school pep-rally (Two bits/four bits/six bits a dollar/all for Iraquis/stand up and holler). Then I read your previous post on the subject of war poetry, and I think you said it best.

  2. Aaron, what do you think of Drum Taps? Although it’s not Whitman’s best work, many of those poems are quite good, don’t you think? And they aren’t antiwar poems, either, not in the sense in which most people mean it today, which is poems (or verse, or at east sort-of-verse) expressing an opinion against a particular war, which they want to stop or prevent. Whitman’s poems simply tell some truths about the Civil War. Any intelligent poem presenting honest perceptions of war (starting with the Iliad) is gong to be antiwar in the sense that they will reveal that war is a form of insanity, but that is not the same as saying that the particular war being written about is (in the context of available options) an insane thing to undertake. I would even argue that Whitman’s Civil War poems are prowar–in the sense of carrying the conviction that the Civil War needed to be fought, and won–to the extent that they are not merely neutral, which to a large degree they are.

    I suspect there is a lot of poetry–solid poetry–that falls into this category, technically prowar, but I cant think of any other examples right now.

    I don’t think poetry is the proper medium for expressing support for or opposition to a particular war, anyway. War is horrible: we know that, and poetry can remind us of the various ways in which it can be horrible (and the various ways in which warriors can maintain some semblance, or forfeit the last vestige, of their humanity while engaging in it). But we still sometimes decide to fight wars, because sometimes there is no better alternative, or none we have the wit to see. And that debate is one that needs to be argued about and thought out. You can put those arguments, pro or con, in verse, they it still wouldnt be poetry, and poetry is out of order in that debate anyway–except perhaps as a reality check for those who might be too thoughtlessly quick and eager to resort to war.

    Even Wilfred Owen’s poems, which are full of a compelling sense of the stupidity and futility of WWI, aren’t going to carry the day in any argument about the merits of that war, at least not with anyone (if such a person exists) who has strongly reasoned convictions in favor of it. I suppose the one practical political value of that kind of antiwar poetry is to to serve as a wake-up call that might reach and persuade readers who had gotten caught up in senseless prowar fervor and need to be slapped upside the head and brought back to their senses.

    The problem with most of the current antiwar poetry–at least that smattering of it which has gotten public attention–is that (like much of the antiwar movement, alas) it is based on simplistic, sentimental views of the world we live in. Its most likely effect is to convince people straddling the fence that there are no good reasons for opposing this war, that all the antiwar noise is just a tantrum being thrown by morally self-coddling liberals–who cant even write! Which is too bad.

  3. "The worste art is not the kind that has ‘a message,’ it is the kind that has none."


    Art needs to be only one thing. Not political, not shocking, not thought-provoking. Art needs to be beautiful. People who try to put messages in their art are no better than aesthetic highjackers. These telemarketers of the soul need to go into advertising if they want messages in their art. A piece of art only has value to me, the viewer, if I can find enjoyment in it, and I have never enjoyed being preached to or lectured at. Beauty simply needs to exist; any message it sends us it sends us through merely being, not by being forced in a certain direction or enslaved to a specific purpose.

  4. Casey,

    I take it then that you don’t enjoy Satire or Rhetoric, or consider either to be art, since both of those forms have points to them.

    I consider Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" to be art, despite the fact that it has a political point in it, and likewise I think Churchill’s "Fight them in the hedgerows" speech to also be a great work of art, despite the fact that it’s a wartime pep rally.

    Rather than saying that art must be beautiful, I’d say it needs to bring pleasure, even if, in service of this end, it promotes disgust, fear or horror.

    Messages? I’m mostly of the mind of Sam Goldwyn, who said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union" since didactic movies and other artwork tend to annoy everyone, but the flip side of the coin is that art is most powerful when it is informed by human emotion, and the most powerful human emotions tend to be tied to things like "It’s terrible to be the child of an alcoholic" or "It sucks to be a war widow." It’s a balancing act.

  5. Kevin,

    I suppose it depends on how you define Art. Your point is, however, well taken. I have, at times, enjoyed both satire and rhetoric. And as for the purpose of art being to bring pleasure, I agree with that also, because I believe that any beautiful object will bring pleasure to anyone who experiences it. I believe that I made a mistake in that I blurred the line between the subject matter and the art itself. I still strongly disagree with the passage I quoted. Art can exist, to paraphrase MGM, for its own sake. It does not need to be some courier.

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