Saturday, May 23, 2009

Poets Imagine Peace

The anthology Come Together: Imagine Peace edited by Phillip Metres, Ann Smith, and Larry Smith was published in 2008 is produced after United States has been in wars for six years. The anthology brilliantly shows U.S. poets in the past and present write compelling peace poetry. The anthology is a companion volume to Metres brilliant book of literary criticism Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront.

In Behind the Lines Metres has an excellent discussion of 20th century American peace poetry while in "Section one: Some Precedents" in Come Together the editors have a wonderful selection of poets whom Metres discussed in his criticism. The editors begin with a lovely Sappho lyric, share a short Whitman poem, have Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector,” include Lowell on fear of nuclear war in 1961, and share Muriel Rukeyser’s wonderful “Poem” where she confessed “I lived in the first century of world wars/Most mornings I would be more or less insane.”

The editors have three eloquent but quiet poems by William Stafford as well as Denise Levertov’s poem “Making Peace” where she says “A voice from the dark called out, ‘the poets must give us imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar/imagination of disaster' … Grammar of justice,/syntax of mutual aid.” Levertov to me is central both to 20th century peace poetry and to 20th century poetry in English.

The editors include Ginsberg’s amazing poem ”Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which is one of the great anti-war poems of American literature. Ginsberg first calls on all the gods to help him and then says “I hereby declare the end of war.”The first section of the anthology then goes on to include important poems by Audre Lorde, June Jordan etc. The first section of great poems is absolutely wonderful and reason enough to buy this book.

The editors have heeded Levertov’s advise to include poets who imagine peace which is a splendid way to organize an anthology. Section Two are Poems of “Witness and Elegy” including Karen Kovacik’s marvelous poem “Requiem for Buddhas of Bamiyan,” lamenting the great sculptures the Taliban blew up: ‘for fourteen centuries you stood fast/still as Siddhartha/on the night of his enlightenment/as much a part of this valley as the wind.”

Section three “Call and Answer: Poems of Exhortation & Action” include such wonderful works by Bly, Rich, Heyen, Espada and Ferlinghetti along with new poets. Other sections of the book dealing with “Poems of Reconciliation” in section four, “Poems of Shared Humanity” in section five, “Poems of ritual & Vigil” in Section Seven, and “Poems of Meditation & Prayer” in Section Eight. So the many poems included are imagining peace through elegy, witness, exhortation, ritual, vigil, meditation, and prayer.

Another excellent feature of this book is to include poems about Palestine/Israel including Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S poets in a rich dialogue. There are marvelous poems by Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali as well as Israeli poets Yehuda Amachai and Aharon Shabtai. The anthology also includes Arab-American poets such as Elmaz Abinader and Angele Ellis as well as Jewish-American like Karl Shapiro and Enid Shomer.

Further, the editors wonderfully include both U.S. poet Steve Wilson and Palestinian poet Deema Shehabi writing ghazals, a poetry form going back to 6th century Arabic verse using rhyming couplets. When a book of peace poetry includes both Whitman and ghazals, the poets at least are beginning to imagine a peaceful meeting in literature. Hopefully in future anthologies U.S. poets will continue to learn from the long tradition of Sumerian, Arabic and Persian poetry.


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