Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poetry, War, Remembrance

Since the end of the first World War, November 11 has become established in many countries as the day to memorialize and remember the sacrifice of armed services personnel in defence of their country or common ideals of peace and freedom. Many of the services held on this day will include poetry of some sort, especially but not exclusively John McCrea's "In Flanders Fields." I agree with the use of poetry to focus collective emotion in public ceremonies, but poets have a responsibility to do more than tell about the horrors and sacrifices of wars past and present.

There is a need in our society to try to change that mindset that conflict can solve problems. As long as we have existed, conflict has been part of our life. For poets, the first great and lasting poems were the heroic epics that came out of wars and struggles, poems that created heroes and memorialized war. Only seldom was the ugliness and destruction held up to view. If there were poets writing or speaking against war, they have not been remembered.

Especially today poets have an obligation to make their voices part of the social fabric. They can not stand aside and claim that war, violence, crime, and other "ugly" topics should not be considered as subjects for poetry, for poetic expression. War especially is such a transforming and spiritually crippling matter that to ignore it is dishonest. And a poet's duty first of all is to express truth honestly.
The problem remains that war and struggle have been pigeonholed; we do not let it become part of our daily life until the reality is all around us and can not be ignored. Poets worth the name must step out of a comfortable existence and become the voices of those who can not or are not allowed to speak.
The existence of organizations like Poets Against the War, Poets For Peace, and others are only a small means to spread the words and ideas. We need poets to write, to speak, to shout from the rooftops and in the halls of legislatures. Tucking words into books and pulling them out at memorial services is not enough. Even if we can stop no conflict ours is the duty to speak out.

We must do more than remember.

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