When the War Is Over




When the War Is Over

 

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The waters will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

¤

“When the War Is Over” appeared in W.S. Merwin’s classic volume The Lice, in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. As the most recent anniversary (the 11th) of the beginning of the latest war in Iraq (a.k.a. Operation Iraqi Freedom) came and went, I thought about this poem. I remembered how, in the months leading up to the invasion, hundreds of thousands of people peaceably moved through the streets of the world’s cities, protesting the war, feeling helpless. The media and government were solemnly discussing what was clearly an act of insanity. And I was thinking about what it means that now, after more than 10 years, war at last is ending, or has ended, or has ended once again, even though at times it seems most certainly to be going on still, certainly for those who live there, even if we who were watching are mostly and cruelly on to other things.

The war in Merwin’s poem comes out of a specific historical context, the American war in Vietnam, and would have been read that way at the time. But the poem applies to all wars, in all times. When, finally, the war is over “We will be proud of course.” Everything will work even better than it did before. Isn’t that always the noble hope? No one ever wants to go to war, we are forced, for the betterment of the nation, the world, ourselves, our children, born and unborn. After the war, the air and the water will be “improved,” and not just the salmon but even “the silence of heaven” will “migrate more perfectly,” as if these things could ever be made more perfect.

“The dead will think the living are worth it.” How strange, that the poem asserts such knowledge. How is it possible to know what the dead will think? Is it political to insinuate that this is a dangerous fantasy? That we imagine the dead think we the living are “worth it,” in order to comfort ourselves, because we have done terrible things or have had them done in our names?

This poem is full of simple, direct language, and, like much great poetry, it is full of ideas. But if “When the War Is Over” is a great political poem, it is not primarily because of what it says (i.e., that our idealized hopes might be the very engine that drives us from one war to the next, or that we are all complicit in this collective fantasy). Nor is it great simply because of its irony, the way what it says is measured against what it implies. Those ideas can be just as powerfully expressed in prose, and they often are.

I doubt whether any poem, no matter how great, will make any real difference in our political life. No matter what a poem says, I do not think it will even for a moment stay the hand that is about to pull the trigger, push the button, or sign the law. I don’t think that’s what poems are for. Sometimes poems remind us of what we already know but might have forgotten. I suppose that’s good, but it does not seem like enough. I think we can expect more out of poetry than the mere reassertion of ideas with which prose has already acquainted us.

There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story about a conversation between the early 20th-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the painter Edgar Degas. Degas expressed his frustration with his inability to write poetry by complaining that he was too full of ideas, to which Mallarmé responded something like, “Poetry, my dear Degas, is not made of ideas, but out of words.” The greatness of “When the War Is Over,” or any poem, comes not from its ideas, but from what it does to the language, how it reactivates and liberates the words we use. Listening to “When the War Is Over” we start to feel the possibility that we can think freely in relation to these giant ideas, so casually expressed in the rhetoric that leads up to and comes after war. We start to get a glimmer of the actuality, the paradox, the complexity, and the uncertainty, that lie behind that rhetoric. Even the word “war” itself seems to loosen and break free for a moment, so we can experience it in a new way.

It is for this feeling, of language grasping mysteriously for what is just beyond what can be said and what we can truly know, and therefore becoming alive again, that I read and write poetry of any kind, political or otherwise. Politics does not enter into my poems because I want to change minds, or make things better, or because it is more important than other things. It enters into the poem because its language interests, compels, bothers, and excites me.

The language of politics, like that of technology or archeology (or astronomy or esoteric religions or philosophy or physics or sports), can sometimes present strange and beautiful textures. The language of politics in particular can be absurd and revealing, and therefore powerful, and therefore attractive for poetry. In following what is strange and beautiful and troubling in language, we get to a truth that is beyond our ability to articulate when we are attempting to “use” language to convey our ideas or stories. Unlike other forms of writing, poetry insists and depends on the troubled relation of the word to what it represents, above all other functions of language, and therefore reveals what nothing else can.

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It has been said that the poet’s task is to purify the language of the tribe. That doesn’t seem to be what we need right now. Our American language already goes through a daily and brutal process of purification. Certain terms are sanctified and repeated again and again and again until they permeate our consciousness. This mechanism is quite familiar to all of us: for a few days, or maybe a week or two, a certain word or phrase will take over the language of pundits and politicians and make its way out of our screens and listening devices and then pass through us like some kind of virus. Arab Street. Republican Brand. Public Option. Financial Crisis. Climate Change. Fiscal Cliff. Bailout. Surge. Sequester. Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Weapons of Mass Destruction. I am fascinated and horrified by this process, especially when I hear those dead metaphors and totally familiarized phrases start to emerge from my own obedient mouth.

Usually those phrases are ugly and stupid and without promise for poetry or anything else. A couple of years ago, however, I noticed a certain word was being used with frequency in our political speech. Plutocrat. I felt a great attraction to it. It seemed to come from an old and powerful place, and to carry within it the paradoxical essence of fear and longing and hatred and admiration and capitulation toward wealth and privilege and inequality so deeply embedded in our late capitalist minds. It has the name of an old god in it, the lord of death, as well as a demoted planet, and a kinship with the radioactive element plutonium.

The poem below comes from thinking about the word Plutocrat. I believe all my poetry, whether it is political or otherwise, emanates from an unreasoned and unpredictable attraction to something about language: a word, a phrase, even a syntax. And this word or phrase or syntax glows a little with luminous possibility. A token. Of what? Of a dangerous, exciting, paradoxical, mysterious awareness. Is that awareness “political,” for the poet or reader? I really don’t know. The surrealists thought it was, and they might have been right. Just to be in that state of liberation, to wake from the mundane half-life of dead language into the strange wonder of a new awareness. This is the promise of poetry. For me the need to speak in poems comes always from the same longing, to be in what Paul Valéry calls “the poetic state of mind,” the production of which is, in the end, the purpose of poetry.

¤

POEM FOR PLUTOCRATS

One mild day

the body walks

out of the lobby

made of glass

then past blue tents

and all the shouting

people he thinks

cannot or refuse

to see abstractions

like money and rights 

must be delicately

assembled into

great forces

no one can touch

so those forces

in turn will push

machinery that wants

nothing not even

to stay still

into building 

a factory or bridge

these people 

can work in or cross

he thinks

what they do not

understand

is whatever is

must exactly

be this way

no matter what

nothing will change

we will always

be selfish

and now it has

begun to rain

the body gets

a little warmer

soon it will

lie in bed

and the doctors

solemnly to

the bedside will rush

and do many things,

tiny silver

containers will be

placed inside

the body to hold 

terrible radiation 

next to whatever 

must be eradicated

but everyone 

will know it is 

the end some say 

is just another

country to be ruled

and maybe many

years from now

long after the body

has gone back

into the earth

where it belongs

young people 

through a door 

below his name

carved in gold 

will move into

a room to learn

gentle techniques

for bringing justice 

to others

and ourselves

discovered at last 

by people

all of us

alive today 

are much too old

to know

 

* This poem originally was published in an earlier form on the Occupy Writers website and appears in Sun Bear, Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

¤

Matthew Zapruder is an American poet, editor, and teacher. His collection, The Pajamaist, won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams prize in 2007.


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