Released from Guantánamo: a collection of poems?!?!

That’s right. An anthology of poetry was published this summer by the University of Iowa Press called Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. Dan Chiasson at The New York Times wrote this skeptical review (“Notes on Prison Camp“) in August of this year. Here’s an excerpt:

[R]eading “Poems From Guantánamo” is a bizarre experience. “The Detainees Speak” is this book’s subtitle: but putting aside the real question of whether lyric poets ever “speak” through their art […], in what sense could these poems, heavily vetted by official censors, translated by “linguists with secret-level security clearance” but no literary training, released by the Pentagon according to its own strict, but unarticulated, rationale — “speak”?

Given these constraints, a better subtitle might have been “The Detainees Do Not Speak” or perhaps “The Detainees Are Not Allowed to Speak.” But the best subtitle, I fear, would have been “The Pentagon Speaks.” To be sure, it’s hard to imagine a straightforward propagandistic use for the lines “America sucks, America chills, / While d’ blood of d’ Muslims is forever getting spilled”; but you can’t help suspecting that this entire production is some kind of public relations psych-out, “proof” that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo. (Does that sound paranoid? Can you think of another good reason the Pentagon would have selected these lines out of thousands for publication?)

So the battleground in the war for “hearts and minds” has been extended even into the world of poetry, too often a place of distance from and neutral avoidance of issues that are of immediate social concern. As a poet, this incursion bothers me almost as much as Blackwater’s recent construction of a training facility only an hour or so from my hometown in Northwestern Illinois. What I naively saw as safe, as far from the evil that has set so much of the rest the world on fire, has been invaded. Dan Chiasson had this response to the book’s overall effect:

The effect of this volume is therefore curiously to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract “literary” plane rather than in real life and real time. That’s too bad, since Falkoff and the other lawyers behind this project have acted in enormous good faith and some day will be recognized for their legal work as national heroes. But imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War. The government’s disingenuous resistance to this book’s publication aside (a wooden official statement denounces the book as “another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies”), the Pentagon ought to get an editor’s credit on “Poems From Guantánamo.”

It’s too bad that the “‘literary’ plane” is currently a place so separate from “real life and real time” that the military would see it so fit for these uses. After 9/11, many writers and commentators spoke of poetry as a place to find solace and comfort in times of trouble and tragedy. Though this is true, it also excludes the other ways poetry may be an art form relevant beyond the close-knit audience of ambitious, craft-aware writers seeking the formula to future publication. But now poetry’s role as a place distant from and above the problems of the day has been taken advantage of in the hopes of disguising illegal and unconscionable acts of torture and abuse. Poetry feels unclean to me now. I feel unclean.

More than 50 years ago, Kenneth Koch asked where the “poets of our time” were, and concluded that they were hiding out, making themselves cozy and irrelevant in institutions:

Where are the young poets in America, they are trembling in publishing houses and universities,

Above all they are trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their spit,

They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children,

[…]

Oh what worms they are! They wish to perfect their form.

[…]

The young poets from the universities are staring anxiously at the skies,

Oh they are remembering their days on the campus when they looked up to watch birds excrete,

They are remembering the days they spent making their elegant poems.)

(“Fresh Air,” sec. 2)

Koch can hardly be called a political poet, though it was not beyond him at times to be so. But his poetry was alive, was vibrantly present and aware. I am not arguing that all poetry must take on politics explicitly, I simply see no reason why it cannot become more involved with and critical of “real life” in “real time,” so that maybe the government might not use poetry for such purposes anymore. The Pentagon has taken advantage of poetry’s neutrality and complacency, and this deserves thoughtful consideration (and even a concerned reaction) from any poet who would prefer to not be associated with anything that defends such crimes against humanity.

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