Is there something poetic about the United Nations? Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary general of the UN, apparently felt so. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hammarskjöld strove energetically to help free Ezra Pound from St. Elizabeths Hospital. The poet had been committed since 1945 when his lawyers claimed insanity on his behalf, effectively guarding him against persecution for treason. Though for the most part Hammarskjöld kept his efforts on Pound’s behalf hidden from public view, he regularly assisted Archibald MacLeish in garnering support for the release of Pound. Hammarskjöld felt that poetry, like the UN, operated in a space above or beyond national interests. Apparently this also applied to anti-Semitic poets who showed little contrition for their support for Hitler and European fascism. In 1958, when Pound’s release was secured and the poet sailed back to Italy (throwing up fascist salutes as he departed), Hammarskjöld sent this telegram to MacLeish, celebrating a victory for poetry.
The man and women facing off on the homepage are Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan: poets, activists, and friends whose relationship was eventually strained to the max by the politics of the Vietnam War. Over at the Poetry Foundation, Ange Mlinko has a fine article on the terms of their falling out. Duncan felt strongly that poets and poetry had no place on the frontlines of the anti-war movement. Mobilizing poetic language in such a way threatened to shade into complicity with militarization, robbing it of its powers of description and opposition. In raising these concerns, Duncan echoed a number of mid-twentieth century poets, from W.H Auden to the New Critics, who felt that the responsibility of poetry was to safeguard language against its reduction to inert political matter. In 1939, six years before they became a legal category, Auden spoke of his and poetry’s responsibility to guard against “crimes against humanity:” “People have different functions,” Auden wrote, “Mine is not to fight; so far as I know what mine is, I think it is to see clearly, to warn of excesses and crimes against humanity whoever commits them.” Despite their apparent loftiness, Auden spoke these words in the spirit of moderation; they came at a moment when Auden, having left Europe, was stepping back from his overtly political work of the 1930s. Guarding against “crimes against humanity” meant primarily guarding against the instrumentalization of language by political projects geared towards violence and dehumanization. The rigor and complexity of poetry was one such safeguard. Duncan concurred. In one of many densely argued letters penned to Levertov during the early 1970s, Duncan adapted the words of Ezra Pound to lay out his theory of poetic responsibility: “I am certain…language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree is our responsibility if we be language workers.” This called for the care and restraint of good poetry – two qualities that Duncan accused Levertov of abandoning in works such as “Advent 1966,” which I quote here in part:
Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe is
the flesh on fire
not Christ’s, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,
but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing, as his vision but lingering.
cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;
because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poets sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
Levertov is fully cognizant of the loss of poetic detachment. Indeed, this loss might be as much the crux of the poem as the scenes of violence that she can’t help but continue “multiplying.” There’s no evidence that Levertov is trying to advance a new political project for “poetry,” at least not in the way that Duncan, by contrast, might feel himself to be fending off such a project. Levertov is plainly stating that the special faculty of the poet – her “clear caressive sight” – has failed her. She had no compunction about continuing to write poetry without it. Whether you agree with Duncan’s criticisms or not, it’s impossible to deny that Levertov was a powerful critic of American empire. Her anti-war poetry and activism spanned numerous conflicts and causes. By the late 1970s, her focus was on Latin America, and particularly El Salvador. As she explained in a 1981 interview: “El Salvador was – is – very much in my mind and in anyone else’s mind who think at all politically.” In 1979 she started work on a libretto about the civil war. Pitched violence once again took center stage, but even more amplified and unmediated:
“Chorus (words of terror and violence) Blood Rape Kill Mutilate Death-Squad Massacre Torture Acid Order Natioanl Guard Thirst Pain Crying Screaming Bloated Naked Helicopter Slaughter Shoot Machine-gunned Beaten Vomit Slash Burning Slit Bullhorns Sprayed Blinded Bullets Machete Wounds Smash”
El Salvador was truly on the mind of those who thought politically, and even those who traditionally did not, at least on the left. In the late 1970s, Joan Didion, a Goldwater conservative in 1964, also started writing about the ongoing military conflict in El Salvador, where death squads – trained and supplied by the Americans – are reported to have claimed the lives of over 75, 000 people over 12 years. In her novel A Book of Common Prayer (1977), and later in the non-fiction volume Salvador (1983), Didion shone a light on the imperial meddling of the American military and American corporations in Latin America. But in characteristically sober fashion she also dramatized the ideological incoherence and ineptitude of the Latin American left. Like her best non-fiction writing from 1960s and 1970s, A Book of Common Prayer reflects Didion’s signature cultivation of a glassy, authorial disinterest. It’s as much a novel about the ethical craft of authorship as it is about the ethics of tacit military intervention. This makes Didion an interesting counterpoint to Levertov.
The narrator of The Book of Common Prayer, Grace Strasser-Mendana, is an American expatriate who trained with Claude Levi-Strauss in Brazil. Her acumen as a scientific observer of human beings is a key to the novel’s style, and it might also be read as Didion’s characterization of a morally uncompromised approach to dramatizing political violence. Grace’s cold scientific gaze repeatedly pierces through the fog of insurgency and counterinsurgency.
“The guerrilleros would stage their ‘expropriations’ and leave their communiqués about the ‘Peoples Revolution’ and everyone would know who was financing the guerrilleros but for a while no one would know for whose benefit the guerrilleros were being financed. In the end the guerrilleros would all be shot and the true players would be revealed. Mirabile dictum.”
As an analogue, Didion’s repeated thematization of the crystalline light in Central America functions as a kind of objective correlative to Grace’s powers of observation. Without explanation the light appears to “cast no shadows.” Everything is bathed in white; everything is transparent. Such perspicuity in Didion produces a cool detachment, but in Levertov it tends to overload and over stimulate. The bright light of of political violence distorts the faculties of Levertov, while sharpening those of Didion. Or so she appears to claim.