The Poets of War

It's not often that I link to Nicholas Kristof, in part because it's futile unless you have Times Select (or access it, as I do, because I'm associated with a university), and in part because he doesn't generally interest me. But it just so happens that I'm trying to avoid grading papers that deal with war poetry, and war poetry is his subject today (or rather, he's posted the winners of his Iraq war poetry contest), and some of them are quite haunting. You can read them over at, along with some which didn't win, but that he was touched by.

Kristof concludes his column with this observation:

Throughout history, the most memorable accounts of war — from Homer to Wilfred Owen — haven’t been journalistic or historical, but poetic. For whatever reason, the ugliest of human pursuits generates some of the most beautiful human handiwork.

I'll give him memorable, but I question the use of beautiful to describe the most powerful war poetry available. It's the ugliness that a poet like Wilfred Owen lays bare that makes his work so powerful. It's hard to top the horror of lines like "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--"; never mind--those lines are beautiful because they are so horrific, and more importantly, because they are honest.

War is ugly, and we do ourselves no favors by pretending otherwise. That's the reason I found the whole "they'll greet us as liberators" line so unforgivable. It deliberately obscured the ugliness of war, the bodies destroyed by what Wendell Berry called "the exhaust of our progress falling / deadly on villages and fields / we do not see." Berry was talking about Vietnam, but my students found the poem quite appropriate this morning in terms of the Iraq War, especially the concluding lines.
We see the American freedom defended
with lies, and the lies defended
with blood, the vision of Jefferson
served by the agony of children,
women cowering in holes.

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