EP&M Online Guest Essay
“In a Pattern Called a War”
“Do unto others as
you would have them do unto you” is the Christian version of that admonition
at the heart of every significant world religion. In times of war,
it is also the moral imperative nations and individuals must set aside in
order to engage in the evil of killing. Perhaps it is not so much “set
aside” as hold while committing evil—“necessary evil,” I believe it’s called.
I, who do not believe in killing my fellow humans, also believe in killing
my fellow humans.
Here we have entered into the realm of paradox,
which is the realm of much poetry, for poets rejoice in and suffer from paradoxical
awareness, the inability to be completely swayed by anything.
In times of peace, poets may feel freer than in
times of war to devote their paradoxical words to love, or western winds,
or fog, or even Emily Dickinson’s clothes. In a time of war the full
extent of their awareness is called into play as they respond to their nations’
natural great heightening of emotion. This heightening, paradoxically,
may require of the poet a diminution of effect. When everyone else
is shouting, the poet may remind us (in a whisper) to whisper. When
we are focused on the horror of how our enemy attacks, the poet may remind
us how each day we may also experience the beauty of what Richard Wilbur
calls “the beautiful changes.” Or we may remember Elizabeth Bishop’s
“Somebody loves us all.” When, in order to blind or drug ourselves
enough to kill, we engage in the great simplifications of absolute wrong
and absolute right, the poet will tell us, as Frost did, there are only “roughly
Paradoxically, again, when all about us may be counseling
restraint and compromise, it may be the poet who reaches back into the stirring
rhythms of language to recall things worth dying for. She may
sing that among these are freedoms, especially of speech and belief.
He may tell us we must protect innocent people from those who would slaughter
them. At the same time, if poets neglect the central paradoxical absurdity
and hypocrisy of doing evil to defend or create the good, and do not suggest
how we may best live despite this terrible contradiction at the heart of
our mystery, the poems will be diminished things.
The greatest new dilemma for the poet in our second
millennium lies in facing a task different from that faced in preceding decades
of the Cold War. Then, the efforts of many writers were devoted to preventing
the third world war that would surely destroy Earth. Now, the task
is how simultaneously to support and defend against the continual small wars
that seem destined to forever be our lot—and these include ecological wars.
To put it another way: a time of war increases the sense of dread,
of something imminent about to destroy our days. How do we manage to
find necessary joy in a time of necessary evil?
In a haiku of Basho, I think. The butterfly
When “passion / Wars against the stiff brocade”
during Amy Lowell’s “Patterns.”
And in how “God has pity on kindergarten children,” as
Yehuda Amachi wrote, who did not die in battle but might have.
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