On the first day Vladimir Putin sent troops to invade Ukraine, actress AnnaLynne McCord burst onto the internet scene by reciting a poem she wrote addressed to the Russian President. With singsong rhymes, random capitals and phrases like “loyalty” and “Imbue Ascription,” she expressed her melancholic sadness at not having been Putin’s mother: “Born too late…I would have loved you so much.” If only she could cuddle him into a better person.
Way to blame a war started by a man on the mothers. Perhaps she had read Freud.
Around the same time, Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” went viral. Likewise, in the wake of mass shootings and other tragedies in 2016, a poem titled “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith went, as she put it, “legitimately viral on Twitter.” Although the response to McCord’s poem Putin was swift and nearly universal condemnation, combined with confusion, the circulation of Kaminsky’s poem, the first verse of his 2019 book “Deaf Republic,” which won the National Book Award , generated a more mixed response.
Some internet commentators seemed to completely (perhaps deliberately) misinterpret the Ukrainian-born poet’s work as somehow pro-war. Others have misinterpreted Kaminsky as a woman. The poets, in the only way poets can, expressed their displeasure at seeing the poem so many times on their timeline.
What about poems that lend themselves to war? Why does a celebrity think they can write them – and everyone thinks they can know one better than the writer himself? And why do we turn to poems now?
Related: Dear Hollywood: In times of international crisis, silence is always better than stupidity
One of my degrees is in poetry. I don’t always admit it, because of the response it gets. I stopped writing poems, partly because no one read their. But partly because everyone apparently wrote poetry or thought they could.
The poems are short. Not all of them, of course. But as art forms evolve, you can spend far less time on a poem than, say, a novel, and come away with an A in creative writing. (I think some of the people I went to school with chose poetry specifically for its brevity.)
Short doesn’t mean easy, though. Poetry’s long history includes a myriad of complicated forms, not to mention essential and often genre-specific conventions such as musical language, imagery, and line breaks. The war is part of this history. Poets from Wilfred Owen to Robert Burns have served and written about it. Stephen Crane was a war correspondent, as was Yusef Komunyakaa.
We write about what we know. Not only what we know, but experience always nuances the art. You don’t have to fight a war to feel its impact, which lingers for generations. And many of the casualties of war are continually through time women and children.
As Polish-born Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska wrote in 1923: “After every war / someone has to clean up.” The poet Eavan Boland lived through the Troubles in Ireland and wrote about them. Shara Lessley wrote about witnessing the Arab Spring in her book “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”: “I don’t know / where the dead go, only that / you promise to come home.”
Poetry is a form of testimony. It’s observational but it’s also emotional, expressing the unsaid. War is senseless. So some might say, it’s poetry.
But he captures a feeling that is hard to explain. Poetry tries to make the incomprehensible, tangible believable through metaphor, comparison and history. A simple story, simple music for a violence that is rarely simple at all. Thus, Jane Kenyon ends her poem “Three Small Oranges” with a brief and brutal description of a bombed market in Baghdad:
where yesterday an old man
carried in his basket a piece of fish
wrapped in paper and tied with string,
and three small hard green oranges.
As a longtime teacher (and once professor) of creative writing, I tell my students: the more specific you are, the more universal your words are. Students, perhaps especially beginning writers (perhaps McCord?), want to reach the world. But the way to do that is to show your little corner as precisely and unflinchingly as possible. People will see it.
Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
The narrator of Kenyon’s poem listens only to the radio, which carries the news of the war far and wide – but the speaker of Kaminsky’s poem experienced the conflict first-hand, expressing war-weariness and regret for his inaction and his impotence: “I took a chair outside and looked at the sun.” As the “On Being” poetry podcast interprets, the speaker “doesn’t get involved. Instead, they stayed outside and soaked up the sun. They lived happily ever after during the war and now say (forgive -we).”
Does poetry inspire people to help? I hope so. William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult to get news from poems” – but it is possible to get at least a fragment of experience and a lot of feelings.
“To be good is to be greater than war,” Amanda Gorman, America’s first-ever Poet Laureate for Youth, wrote in an article in her “Call Us What We Wear” collection.
Does poetry inspire people to change?
On the one hand, anyone thinks they can write it. But on the other hand: poetry is the popular art form. Lots of people do. Or, try. And there is beauty in trying, in persevering. There is hope. Poetry is proof that we sing.
More stories like this