A version of the following was delivered by Paisley Rekdal as the Blaney Lecture, “Beyond Empathy, Beyond the Archive: Notes on Poetic Representation,” on February 23, 2022.
Last November, like many Americans, I sat before a screen, watching Kabul and the Afghan military fall to the Taliban. The swiftness of Kabul’s fall was nothing US intelligence services had predicted, but it was everything we’d feared from years of watching wars broadcast on our phones, reimagined in our films, and remembered by our veterans, something my father reminded me of when I called to check in on his health. “It’s Saigon again all over,” he told me, furious, as Fox News droned in the background. His comparison didn’t surprise me because both he and my uncle had taken part in the Vietnam War and my father in particular had been enraged by our country’s later treatment of Vietnamese refugees. My uncle, who is Chinese American, was conscripted into the Marines where he fought in the North; my father, who is white, was a non-combat volunteer in the Air Force. The image of Afghans falling from the wings of American planes returned my father to his own memories of Vietnam, just as it brought me back to the bodies falling from the Twin Towers, as well as to a night I spent during my sophomore year in college, watching the green missile flares of the first Gulf War light up my TV. That attack I witnessed was one my cousin was in part responsible for, as he was stationed on the very warship launching the missiles on Baghdad. This same cousin was also the first Chinese American to graduate in the top ten of his class at the Naval Academy in the mid-80’s. I remember how, when he stood on the graduation stage to my mixed-race family’s cheers, a white man behind me turned to his wife and said, “Look at that Oriental parading on stage.” This same cousin had also been working at the Pentagon on September 11th, and while he escaped being killed in the attack because he was stuck in traffic, he later attended more than 40 funerals for colleagues and friends.
All of this I experienced as a flood of memory while watching the news of Kabul scroll across my screen. I understood, of course, that these memories were mine, a way of rewriting and misperceiving the fall of Kabul, and yet I saw, too, that these memories and my family bore some responsibility to it. Though I personally suffer no consequences from our American wars, I do not stand outside them either. No one in America does. These wars, with their intertwining histories, are woven into the family memories of millions of Americans. We can feel this, but how do we represent it?
It’s become a truism—one, I believe, taken to be too true to be actually true—that certain events stand outside language, apart from our ability to articulate them. Some of these events we label traumatic, as that very inability to narrate these events keeps them from being assimilated into memory and self. What I saw that day on my screen was not a traumatic event for me even as I recognized the events as having traumatic consequences for others. What I experienced in my collision of personal memories around Kabul was not the gaping loss of language but the sudden rush of it. I didn’t lack a narrative, I had too many: I was, I realized, caught in a nexus of histories that called to and spoke against each other.
For the past few years, I’ve been writing about the poetry of war, and this question of memory, and how to reconcile the competing histories that comprise memory, keeps cropping up. The question behind the reconciliation of historical memory, of course, is finally one of representation. When it comes to imagining momentous personal or historic events—a pandemic, say, or a war—what are we trying to articulate when we turn to poetry versus other types of media, which surely can and have done better at capturing the facts of events, have in fact occasionally changed the course of events for other people in their sharing?
This question of representation and war dogs not only poets, of course. After watching our attacks on Baghdad in the first Gulf War, I became obsessed with the work of the military historian John Keegan, in which he often returned to important battles in history to forensically reproduce them. Did horses truly stampede at Waterloo? At Agincourt, did they really build barricades out of human corpses? Why did troops in WWI rush from the safety of their trenches straight into artillery fire? Keegan researched the ways horses react under extreme stress, he spoke with soldiers and pathologists, largely ignoring the decision-making of generals to focus on what soldiers themselves actually saw and did. Keegan’s research led to understanding that freshly dead bodies cannot be stacked because they’ll slide, that horses won’t gallop headlong into a line of archers and, most importantly, that ordinary soldiers don’t think of themselves as subordinates but equals on the battlefield: troops fight for each other, not institutions. In short, Keegan proved that our aesthetic accounts of war which we use to bolster our histories are often wrong. They teach us very little about the realities of battle and instead reveal how our mediations of war might lead to disastrous attitudes about war in the future.
At the time, I thought that was what good history should be: an attempt to reclaim the past from the fog of myth so we can see the clearer outlines of those who came before us. A more accurate, even archival account of the past, I believed, would produce more just treatments for people in future. But now I’m a poet, and though I know poetry is not history, I understand it may be treated as a form of history. Poetry, with its affective language, might even stand in opposition to history, which is meant to be objective, stripped of feeling and ego. If I care (and I do care) about facts—more so now that people are literally dying for want of them—how am I to reconcile my desire for accuracy with my desire to be moved?
In some ways, of course, this problem doesn’t bother me at all. I write, and follow the trajectory of a poem’s thought, not necessarily the tangential histories the poem itself engages. Somewhere, Truth resides: It’s not up to me but the critic to sort out the details. I merely create an account whose power resides not in its aesthetic singularity, but in its relationship to other poems that offer similar and different accounts.
And yet, with regard to war, I can’t help being suspicious of the very reasons we turn to poetry at all. Is our desire one of representation, political change, or emotional catharsis? And is that political change meant to happen on the page, or off it? This may sound like a naïve question but consider how many institutions have treated veterans’ writing as a therapeutic and not aesthetic or political act: an inadvertent result of the GI Bill, perhaps, which paid for veterans’ educations and sparked a proliferation of writing workshops that capitalized on the influx of government subsidies and student enrollment numbers. The poetry of war may have its roots in resistance and the human need for self-expression, but for institutions it’s also become a question of cash.
But this criticism, too, is unfair. It ignores the fact that veterans have created powerful poems that have helped narratively reconcile, if not finally healed, the traumas they and other veterans experienced. Two things can be true at once: the poetry of war can be turned into capital, a form of state-sanctioned soft power bolstering the image of the United States. At the same time, it can also offer its authors the space to critique these values, pulling back the curtains of war to reveal the brutal realities that have dehumanized veterans and threatened their re-assimilation home.
But again, I return to my question about poetry and representation. All poems engage the problem of representation, of course, but war poetry raises the ethical stakes. Who represents, who is represented, and just what and why we should feel the way we do about the people depicted in war poems takes on an inevitable moral dimension when the same people who initiate or win wars determine the books that then document them. It’s not just about remembering war, then, it’s about making us feel something about ourselves as we look back on those wars. For some poets, it’s also finally about whether our representations could affect the course of future wars themselves. This, at least, was the prominent World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s argument in his poem “Strange Meeting.”
“Here is no cause to mourn,” Owen’s narrator begins this poem, trying to calm the soldier he’s startled awake from what will soon be an immortal sleep. The man Owen’s narrator addresses is a former combatant: “the enemy [he] killed,” who likely killed the narrator in turn. Both soldiers in “Strange Meeting” are young, both poets of a high romantic tradition, men who once went “hunting wild/ after the wildest beauty in the world.” Poetry for them represents immortality and objectivity; it’s a way to touch upon some core of real experience, what Owen’s nameless doppelgänger calls “the truth untold, /[t]he pity of war, the pity war distilled.” Owen, a devotee of Keats whose own letters often aped Keats’ diction, modeled “Strange Meeting” on “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Owen’s poem, too, wrestles with this question of art’s relationship to mortality. Does poetry possess the clarity, even the responsibility, not only to portray the costs of war, but to prevent further ones? If so, the death of these poet-soldiers means that nations will only retreat further into barbarism, modern war continue to rage on, bloody and unabated. Here is the dead soldier’s argument:
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Clearly, Owen saw poetry’s power as extending far beyond the descriptive. And yet if poetry can both encompass and stop the bloody “truth” of war, here’s a poem Owen offered us: one purportedly spoken by men killed in the very conflicts they would have cast into art. Owen’s argument is one of empathy: through our pity for soldiers, audiences will be moved to reject future wars. So why hasn’t it changed anything?
The answer is, obviously, it can’t. And maybe, frankly, it shouldn’t. If a single poem could stop a war, a single poem could also start one. Poems aren’t agents of human change so much as articulations of how humans might change. Owen’s poem seems both aware of this fact, and still—stubbornly—committed to its argument. “Strange Meeting” is an elegy not only for these dead young men then, but for a fantasy of art that claims to hold poetry central to our understanding of political reality, which is perhaps another reason the poem’s narrator breaks off mid-thought on an ellipsis that fractures the final heroic couplet. “[L]et us sleep now,” the soldier says, and the poem trails off, ending, rather than reaching formal or emotional resolution.
Did Owen really believe poetry could stop war? And if so, why should poetry—before all other forms of media, especially photography and film, which were prevalent in his day—have the capacity to achieve this? Owen provides no answer for this in “Strange Meeting,” but I’m struck by these lines the dead soldier utters about the poetry he imagines he would have written:
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
The dead soldier references what we’d call PTSD here. But these lines also suggest that the poet has the capacity to wash away any figurative stain of war from the “sweet wells” of imagination; that imagination itself “lies too deep” to be contaminated by violence. It’s creativity, not the experience of combat, that allows the poet to “pour [out his] spirit without stint.” The poem, then, presents us with a paradox: poetry can tell the truth about war, but it won’t do so through the real damage war inflicts.
But if poems are able to curtail our tendencies toward violence how so if not through the depiction of what soldiers and civilians suffer? If “Strange Meeting” is a study in empathy, as well as an anti-war critique, wouldn’t that critique be found most powerfully in the wounded body that suffers? Or does identifying with the wounded subject only make the representational poem focus even more on soldiers’ pain, turning anti-war critiques into spectacle that, for authenticity’s sake, must center male veterans’ experiences in the most gruesome ways?
In the end, what language both accurately and ethically represents war? It seems to me that, when it comes to war poetry, subject matter and aesthetics collapse and, at times, pull apart in ways designed to make us uncomfortable. If the reality of war repels us, should we make our poems ugly in response? If war, as it stands outside rational comprehension, compels its subjects to inhabit ambivalent responses—terror, repulsion, attraction, awe—do we then accept that war approaches our critical definition of the sublime? Is war sublime? And if we empathize with the suffering subjects in a war poem, does that mean we’ve seen or just codified their pain?
And really, what’s wrong with being moved? If empathy risks spectating on or appropriating someone else’s life, empathy also allows me to see how the meaning of someone else’s experience might relate to me personally, and thus change my mind. Feeling helps me knit together past events and the cultural conditions of my current moment. As a reader, I bridge past and present, self and other: readers are the ones who finally animate the poem’s meaning.
The complexity of the questions “Strange Meeting” raises about war poems has led some literary critics to focus on the question of accuracy; like Keegan, we should trust what we can prove. But this collapses representation with reality in ways any poet knows doesn’t happen. Poems, when they succeed, escape conscious knowledge to achieve a larger sense of scale than the author’s immediate experience. Poems reside in metaphor, which uses physical action or material objects to reach towards a broader and often imagined story. A poem that insists only on action and object sinks to the level of journalism.
Of course, some of our most familiar war poems have been peppered with journalistic detail, and perhaps it’s why some poets—like Owen himself—have been dismissed by literary critics. These criticisms focus on the ways that detail threatens to overtake metaphor, so we cannot see the larger story for the spectacular nature of the material itself. And therein lies a final paradox that Owen’s poem implicitly raises: the representational poem needs details to move to a higher state of understanding and perception, and it’s these same details which threaten to deflate the poem.
If, like Keegan, we insist first on accuracy, we limit the aesthetic and narrative possibilities of a poem. When it comes to writing poems about war, only warriors’ or journalists’ accounts could be taken seriously, and to a certain extent, our anthologies’ heavy focus on white male soldiers’ voices have suggested this. But war is an experience shared across racial, gender, and generational lines, even across human and natural divides. If a single poem can’t express war’s totality, the mosaic of war poetry altogether approaches it. War poetry tests and expands our loyalties and self-definitions, wresting the question away from what we do in war to how we have been socially defined by it.
All this said, I think the problems I’m raising here about representation and poetry reflect the finally mistaken belief that there is a language for war. But when it comes to poetry, there is no one language for anything. Sir Geoffrey Hill, in his lecture, “Poetry and Value,” noted that German resistors to Nazism used “language adequate to their particular witness.” Theodore Adorno famously wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I think both critics were suggesting something similar. The point is not that we stop writing poems after war, or that poems of war themselves are inherently unethical, only that there is no ideal form of language with which to write about war, and no specific forms of poetry we must return to. We are each witnesses to war to varying degrees, thus each of us must invent the language and forms of poetry “adequate” to our position.
I thought of Hill’s argument when reading the young American poet Tarfia Faizullah’s poem, “100 Bells,” based on oral histories Faizullah undertook with rape victims from the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. In Faizullah’s poem, these testimonies provide the frame for a fragmented account of rape’s memory, a painful legacy shared across the Bangladeshi diaspora, here told by a series of unnamed narrators.
Throughout “100 Bells,” time, story and voice are constantly disrupted; one woman’s testimony splices another, just as Bangladesh’s post-war past erupts into present-day Texas. Sentences are not linked according to narrator, but by their relationship to traumatic memory itself. An image of dancing recalls a rape or a girl falling to the floor, while a woman’s post-pregnancy belly recalls the “ugly” face of a crying child. Fragments paratactically call and respond as the poem unfolds, so that one image of singing in the poem will later be answered by the image of doorknobs falling silent. Faizullah’s biography suggests that the mention of West Texas may refer to Faizullah’s own childhood, thus some part of her story may here be interwoven with the unnamed rape survivors’ testimony, complicating the poem’s sense of place and its number of narrators. For some readers, it may raise the question of whether Faizullah herself is trying to equate her experiences with those of others and, if so, whether elevating her own position as spectator to the level of victim is ethically earned. But perhaps, having heard these stories, the poet finally can’t absent herself from the testimony she transmits; she, too, becomes one of the bells ringing—and falling silent—in the poem.
And I thought of Hill again when reading Diana Khoi Nguyen’s collection, Ghost Of, which includes ten visual poems titled either “Triptych” or “Gyotaku” that combine family photos with poetic text Nguyen has inserted in place of her brother’s image, snipped out from the photos by her brother during a period of depression. Nguyen’s brother, Oliver, who suffered from mental illness, committed suicide and has, in Ghost of, become one of the most obvious ghosts haunting Nguyen’s family. Nguyen’s written text attempts to locate a reason for her brother’s suicide, which the photos cannot do on their own. As the photo was taken at a single moment in time, it acts as evidence only of what was once materially present. And yet photos “mean” something to us because we know the stories behind them. Looking at our own family photos, we know whether the subjects are now dead or alive, once happy or in pain. Photos are always a hash of textual and visual evidence, our ephemeral thoughts attached to physical images.
Nguyen’s collage poems reproduce this combination of material reality and personal memory while also visually representing the way wartime wounds themselves function, which elude or evade easy categories of “past” or “present” when memory resurfaces. The world is, as Nguyen writes, “subjec/t to assembly,” a stream of incoherent noise that finds its mirror in Nguyen’s run-on sentences which, because they are visually cut off at random points, make it difficult to determine where the reader starts or finishes a thought.
For me, Nguyen’s poetry implicitly addresses that question dogging Owen’s work: Why turn to poetry when we have other media? The answer is that poetry offers its audience a different experience of time. If pain is momentary and subjective, Nguyen’s poems take the intimacy of suffering and gives it a historical referent through the photo. But this photographic referent is then challenged by the time signature the written poem produces, which moves further back than the brother’s story to the parents’ wartime and refugee memories. Textual time thus extends visual time, the collage poems attaching Oliver’s suicide to the Vietnam war which finally “frames” the family. As Nguyen writes in “The Exodus,” even “if you bypassed a war, a war/wouldn’t bypass you.” (34)
Questions of visuality and chronology also shape the avant-garde work of Myung Mi Kim, in particular her “[accumulation of land],” a poem which demonstrates, through its accretion of fragmented phrases arranged in columns, war’s dehumanizing effects on families:
accumulation of land maintain household bear labor of house child
cooking reserve line belonging to elaborate isolation
familias implements enemies captured in war bearing child rearing
Emotionally and visually disorienting, Kim’s poem forces me to choose how to read: vertically or horizontally? In columns or as a single sentence? Likewise, several words equally work as verbs, nouns and adjectives, such as “elaborate,” “feeling” and “crude;” only spoken emphasis might clarify intention. Regardless of where I start and how I categorize parts of speech, however, the poem’s repetitiveness suggests a restrictive logic. Each word or phrase in the poem appears at least twice except “maintain,” “germ,” “enemies,” and “war,” though the sense of these echoes throughout, as children and women are transfigured into captives, domestic products bound by legal, not emotional ties.
It’s a bleak view of family life to say the least, and Kim’s use of predominantly Latinate words to describe domesticity—cooking, for instance, becomes something done on “a reserve line”—highlights the contractual nature of families while also making English newly strange to a reader who may or may not herself be a native speaker.
Perhaps it’s debatable that I characterize “[accumulation of land]” as a war poem, and my decision to do this is partly based on Kim’s biography. Born in South Korea four years after the armistice that put a halt to the Korean War, Kim immigrated with her mother to the United States at age nine to join her father and eldest siblings who’d already fled. But South Korea is also the site of multiple invasions, most notably the 1910 Japanese annexation of the Korean Empire, and the 1945 division of the peninsula into U.S.- and Soviet-protected territories which eventually led to the Korean War. Kim’s “[accumulation of land]” does not explicitly reference either the Korean War or Japanese Occupation: “enemies captured in war” is nationally non-specific and outside any clearly delineated sense of time. Because of this, the poem speaks to transhistorical, transcultural patterns of war and colonialism. Phrases such as “isolated,” “counting herds possessions,” and even “accumulation of land” could equally refer to the work of occupying a nation or to the running of a household. In that, the domestic both reflects and perhaps is shaped by the occupying force’s practice of taking hostages and property. As with Nguyen’s poems, war and family life become inseparable.
The poems of Faizullah, Kim, and Nguyen are not the kinds of poems we’ve conventionally imagined as war poems, but I’d argue they are each an extension of “Strange Meeting”’s paradoxes, as each poem challenges the ways we’ve formerly represented war as forms of protest. They are also, notably, written by female descendants and refugees of war; it is not just their formal innovations then, but their perspectives that make a profound difference to the tradition. Like Owen, the poets I’ve been talking about have been also shaped by changing technologies—not just photography and film, but the internet and social media. I can’t prove that Faizullah and Kim are formally responding to the internet’s influence on our syntax and reading, of course, but I can’t help but feel the jittery, abrupt connections in their work that playing on the internet tends to produce: the poems rely heavily on association and readerly self-selection, creating strange “hyperlinks” of meaning between scattered images. Whether it’s through fragment or visuality then, these poems engage the limitations of both poetry and other media, showing the intertextual play that can occur between different representational styles.
It strikes me, too, that these poems aren’t expressing the direct but the inherited experience of violence, which is why these representations focus more on patterns and mediation. In effect, they aren’t telling us what it’s like to experience war, but how we continue to encounter it. Since the time signature within which they write is naturally different from that of the soldier’s, these descendants inevitably expand the war poem’s aesthetic possibilities, since their language must take into consideration this difference of position and chronology. I think the increased recognition of such voices in our war poetry tradition offers a final benefit, too, which is that it may broaden the aesthetic innovations available to all writers of war. For if we expect only soldiers to report back on their direct and personal experiences of combat, we limit what we’re willing to hear from and about them as well.
But what most forcefully strikes me about these poems I’ve discussed is how they each flirt with and finally refuse our identification with any one subject, war or event. These are poems that resist spectating on the wounding of a single body in favor of seeing how that body is shaped by evolving crises. In that, these poems are finally not about inhabiting those unlike us, nor are they attempts to archive historical information. They are, finally, about experiencing war’s time itself, its great and constant unfolding, in which we are both witnesses to and participants in its evolution.
What is the reader’s role when confronted by such work? I believe it is to pick up the fragments these authors have given us and, along with the authors, to participate in the narrative reconstruction of their testimonies. Poems offer us the opportunity to discover what, of the past, we do not merely have to endure, but might also commemorate. Because poems speak to at least two different moments of time through their figurative language—the thing we perceive now, and the history this perception recalls—poems make us aware that past and present are in continual conversation. Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” too, recognizes this, as his poem presents us with an impossible ending: when his two soldiers meet, they do so in the afterlife, an imagined future in which these men are frozen perpetually between identities: both soldiers and poets, dead bodies and living memories, enemies and alter egos. Owen’s poem, like those of the other writers I’ve discussed here, presents us with a challenge: knowing what we know of war, how do we choose to remember? In that, war poems also offer us the opportunity to determine what continuing definitions of humanity we choose, ultimately, to bind us.
My argument, of course, shares something with the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s understanding of modernity and the importance of narrative, which allows for temporary action to be both contextualized and remembered with the understanding that we select the values of the past we wish to carry forward. Poetry, then, does not fail to achieve meaning, it creates it. It is the formation of shared historical values, even as poetry itself is not, nor is it expected to be, an accurate history.
Poetry is not where we get the facts, it is where we come to understand the effects of facts. If we believe that a war is only about specific acts of violence, we limit our accounts to gore and statistics. But war is more than violence: it is the story of being human. In that, poetry’s ambiguity, its ability to reside within and triangulate multiple periods of time and meaning make it a profoundly relevant medium to respond to war’s complexity. For poetry offers something other media like film and photography resist by their very nature: the lack of absolute clarity and material evidence, which may be, in its way, more productive than declaring that we know what history finally is. Some narratives may never find resolution. The expressive aesthetics of poetry and the unimaginable brutality of war then do not counteract each other—a war’s meaning exists in memory partly because of literature, which charges language finally not with the production of authentic and cathartic accounts, but with the recreation of war’s ever-expanding impact and community, that same nexus of connection I myself felt when watching Kabul fall on my screen. Acknowledging what we do not know about war may liberate both the reader then and the elegiac subjects of our poems, allowing something of them to evade our platitudes and self-regard, even as they come to symbolize our past. Here, I want to end with the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Dedication”:
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
What can poetry save through its representations? I would answer with Milosz’s poem. We write to find the humanity we wish to preserve, and to unburden and release our dead. In that, poetry saves some part of us all.