"Whenever I become discouraged (which is on
alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my
spirits by remembering: the artists are on our side! I
mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians,
novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way
that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle
for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the
dullness of ordinary political discourse."
Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate
Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by
remembering: the artists are on our side! I mean those poets
and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights
who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault
because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is
unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.
The billionaire mandarins of our culture can
show us the horrors of war on a movie screen and pretend they
are making an important statement ("War is hell", says the
general as he orders his troops forward into no man’s land).
But the artists go beyond that, to resistance, defiance. I
think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her poem "Conscientious
I shall die,
but that is all
I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his
horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba:
Business in the Balkans;
Many calls to make this
But I will not hold he bridle while he cinches he
And he may mount by himself.
I will not give
him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which the way the fox ran.
his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him
Where the black
boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that
I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll….
e.e cummings, whose own experience with the
first World War had powerfully affected him (see his memoir
The Enormous Room) wrote in the same vein but in his own
ithink of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
but - though all kinds of officers
yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did
kick and curse….
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not
In that poem, the colonel and other
soldiers proceed to torture Olaf, and cummings wrote:
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and
wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
"I will not kiss your fucking flag."
Langston Hughes, observing the invasion of Ethiopia by
Mussolini, wrote simply:
The little fox is
The dogs of war have made their kill.
Hughes could make his point in a few words. Waiting for
his fellow writers to speak out on the outrageous framing of
the "Scottsboro Boys" in Alabama, he wrote:
Surely, I said,
will the poets sing.
they have raised no cry
In CATCH-22, Joseph Heller created
the absurd war resister, Yossarian, who at one point, on a
bombing run, asks his fellow crewmen: "Do you guys realize, we
are going to bomb a city that has no military targets, no
railroads, no industries, only people?" There is a touch, or
more, of the anarchist in writers, who (with some shameful
exceptions, those who rush to kiss the flag when the trumpets
blow) will not go along, even with "good" wars. Thus, Kurt
Vonnegut did not hesitate, in the midst of the
self-congratulation that accompanied victory in World War II,
to remind the nation of Dresden, our own counterpart, in
spades, to the Nazi bombing of civilians. His book
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE held us to the mirror of our ruthlessness
and that of all nations which pretend to moral superiority
while joining the enemy in the back and forth of atrocities.
Vonnegut never fails to quote
Eugene Debs (a fellow native of Indiana) when Debs, about to
go to prison for ten years for opposing World War I, declared
to the jury: "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While
there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul
in prison, I am not free."
Eugene O'Neill, six
months after Pearl Harbor (let's prepare ourselves for the
onslaught ofmartial spirit when the film PEARL HARBOR
appears), wrote to his son: "It is like acid always burning in
my brain that the stupid butchering of the last war taught men
nothing at all, that they sank back listlessly on the warm
manure pile of the dead and went to sleep, indifferently
bestowing custody of their future, their fate, into the hands
of State departments, whose members are trained to be
conspirators, card sharps, doublecrossers and secret betrayers
of their own people; into the hands of greedy capitalist
ruling classes so stupid they could not even see when their
own greed began devouring itself; in the hands of that most
debased type of pimp, the politician, and that most craven of
all lice and job-worshippers, the bureaucrats."
The barrage of film and books glorifying World War II (The
Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of our
Fathers, and more) comes at a time when it is necessary for
the Establishment to do what it must periodically too, try to
wipe out of the public mind the ugly stain of the war in
Vietnam, and now that the aura around the Gulf War has turned
sour, to forget that too. A justification is needed for the
enormous military budget, And so the good war, the best war,
is trundled out to give war a good name.
At such a time, our polemical prose is not enough. We need
the power of song, of poetry to remind us of truths deeper
than the political slogans of the day. The years of the war in
Vietnam brought forth such music, songs, lyrics that were more
symphonic than lyrical. I'm thinking of Bob Dylan, and his
Masters of War, with his unique, disturbing voice that cannot
be duplicated on a printed page, though the words themselves
Come you Masters of War, you that build
the big guns,
You that build the death planes, you that
build all the bombs.
You that hide behind walls, you that
hide behind desks,
I just want you to know I can see
through your masks….
You've thrown the worst
fear that can ever be hurled,
Fear to bring childen, into
For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed,
You ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins….
Let me ask you one question; Is your money that
Will it buy you forgiveness, do you think that it
I think you will find, when death takes its toll,
All the money you made will never buy back your soul….
The great writers could see through the fog of
what was called "patriotism", what was considered "loyalty".
Mark Twain, in his brilliant satire A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthor’s Court, puts it this way: "My kind of loyalty was
loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its
officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial
thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and
care for, andbe loyal to; its institutions are extraneous,
they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become
ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body
from winter, disease and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout
for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags - that is a loyalty
George Bernard Shaw, unsure,
perhaps, if the message of his plays was clear, stated his
philosophy boldly in his prefaces, as in this one from Major
Barbara: "I am and have always been, and shall now always be,
a revolutionary writer, because our laws make laws impossible
our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized
robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; …our power
wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honor false in all
its points. I am an enemy of the existing order."
The great writers of the world have almost always been on
the side of the poor , from Dickens to Tolstoy to Balzac to
John Steinbeck. Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose wife Mary was the
daughter of the anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary
Wollstonecraft), in his passionate poem The Mask of Anarchy,
wrote five powerful lines that later, in early 20th century
United States, would be read aloud to one another by garment
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had
fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.
Today we have the fierce revolutionary poetry of June
Jordan, Alice Walker, and Marge Piercy - all activists as well
as poets. And the "slam poetry" of Alix Olson and Aye de Leon.
We have the example of a poet in action, the gifted Adrienne
Rich, refusing to accept a prize from President Bill Clinton,
as her protest against the signing of the "welfare reform"
The social movements of our time have
been inspired by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, but also by the
anonymous voices of the Selma Freedom Chorus.
Arundhati Roy, author of THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, has
joined her energy as a citizen to her brilliance as a novelist
to join the struggle in India to save the land and the people
from the ravages of greedy corporations.
roster of artists with social consciences is endless. I point
to a few to represent so many, because their work, their
commitment, encourages me and I want it to encourage others.
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