What constructive role can civilian authors play in creating a wartime literature? What might their mediated testimonies tell us more generally about what it means to write oneself into (or to be written to) lived social conflicts and large-scale human suffering? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Rachel Galvin. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Galvin’s News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945. Galvin has published two poetry collections, Pulleys & Locomotion and Elevated Threat Level (a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and for the Alice James Books’ Kinereth Gensler Award). Her translation of Raymond Queneau’s Hitting the Streets won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation. She has co-edited, with Bonnie Costello, Auden at Work, and has co-translated, with Harris Feinsod, Decals: Complete Early Poetry of Oliverio Girondo. Galvin is an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago.
ANDY FITCH: Could we start by addressing this book’s foundational concern with “an epistemology based in immediate bodily experience and the ethical, political, and aesthetic problems it generates for the civilians who would write of war”? Could we situate this early-20th-century predominance of embodied rhetorics (historically rooted in a Romantic subordination of reason to lived sensation-in-the-flesh, formally cultivated through 19th-century extensions of the lyric and its first-person address, then reinvigorated through a privileged vein of World War I testimonial poetics) as a critical starting point for poets prominent in News of War?
RACHEL GALVIN: You’ve just put your finger on this book’s central concern. Tensions related to an epistemology of bodily experience become the engine for poetic innovation for each writer I discuss. W.H. Auden, for instance, along with many contemporaries in the 1930s, was keenly aware that his father’s generation had gone to war, whereas he had no in-the-flesh combat experience. He and his group knew that they lacked the experience of the trench poets they admired, especially Wilfred Owen. Owen wrote out of an immediate experience of war. This gave his work an ethical standing that Auden idealized to the extent that he thought he couldn’t write anything meaningful about war without undergoing a similar experience. But this self-doubt regarding one’s ability to write poems about war without direct experience of it has very long roots, which I trace in part by drawing from studies in military history as well as poetics.
News of War departs from that specific set of ethical questions, exploring how an international set of civilian writers wrote about war. This can become a bit complex to untangle, especially when looking at poets such as Gertrude Stein. One might say that Stein had no combat experience, and therefore did not have firsthand knowledge of war. But she did live in a war zone, in occupied France, with German soldiers quartered in her home. So my book considers how having distinct angles of proximity to war ramifies for civilian poetry.
You also note that News of War’s central poets present a diversity of ideological positions and personal approaches to pressing social questions, from César Vallejo’s less troubled Marxist affiliations, to Raymond Queneau’s subsequent downplaying of his own wartime commitments, to Auden’s almost amnesiac retrospective recalibrations, to Stein’s most obviously problematic politics (even amid my personal-favorite poetics). Here could we contextualize that varied range of political engagements as not just speaking to one distant historical moment, but as speaking to ongoing, quite contemporary challenges poets and scholars still face trying to clarify, for instance, what even counts as a time of war: when reflections on this topic ought to include, say, recognitions of what Paul Saint-Amour refers to as a “perpetual interwar” enacted through colonial/postcolonial distributions of violence “across classes, populations, spaces of empire”; or what Rob Nixon refers to as a “slow violence” of unequal exposure to present-day environmental dangers and social stresses? Could we sketch any broader historical and/or ongoing self-questioning you yourself have experienced, or observed in early-21st-century poetics communities, which have helped to make this particular World War II span seem especially pertinent?
The book may concentrate on the period that spans the Spanish Civil War and World War II, but this study’s seeds were planted for me in the immediate post-9/11 moment. I lived in D.C. and was working for the National Endowment for the Humanities on September 11th. The problem of how to write about what I saw felt pressing. And now, this spring, various news outlets are celebrating the Iraq invasion’s 15th anniversary. John Bolton, whose obfuscations and manipulations concerning Iraq’s capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction contributed to the Iraq War’s ramp-up, has been named National Security Adviser. Our post-9/11 wars haven’t come back full circle — they just never ended.
Back in the early 2000s, as the U.S. embarked on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wanted to write about what was happening, but I also felt that it changed nothing whether I did so or not (W.H. Auden once wrote that “Language may be useless, for / No words men write can stop the war / Or measure up to the relief / Of its immeasurable grief”). It seemed frivolous to participate in D.C. benefits and protest readings, although many of us did. There was the Poets Against the War movement. At the same time, many friends and acquaintances, reporters and photojournalists and video journalists, got sent to cover these conflicts. Their work seemed to have a value that scribbling poems did not. So I went through a certain self-questioning concerning the public uses of art, and the ways I used language.
One other clear motivation for this book relates to the circulation of Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” across assorted email list-servs. It was the most circulated poem at the time. Since then, it has been read on NPR on many anniversaries of 9/11. The poem really has a second life as not only a World War II poem, but also a 9/11 poem. That led me to think about this poem’s staying power, its continued relevance, and to search for other historical precedents, to search out writers, beginning with Auden, who had dealt with similar questions and political frustrations. I wanted to see what other writers did to resolve those problems through their poetics. For example, News of War focuses on the poetic processes of self-interruption I’m calling meta-rhetoric — a foregrounded self-impugning of one’s positionality and one’s ability to speak. Like the poets of the 1930s and 1940s, many contemporary poets have devised ways to signal their relative distance from military conflicts and operations, in poems that think about war. My book’s epilogue gives a few contemporary examples, touching on the work of Mónica de la Torre, Ben Lerner, Philip Metres, Claudia Rankine, Juliana Spahr, and C. D. Wright, but there are many more.
Here as precursor to particular pressing questions that World War II will pose to various writers you address, could we consider Vallejo’s reconceptualization of a somatic imaginary amid his Spanish Civil War-era collection España, aparta de mí este cáliz? News of War examines España’s treatment of the body as a textual field imprinted by war and related historical forces, and Vallejo’s simultaneous treatment of the text itself as an embodied field (though departing from humanist idealizations and elegant modernist symmetries). Here Vallejo, best known during his lifetime as a journalist, pursues a self-declared “destructive-constructive” poetics, with its literary inflections stretching from classical epic to lyric to contemporaneous news forms. Vallejo, no soldier himself, and writing prior to worldwide exposure of Stalin’s own murderous purges, still can articulate a desire for language to “explode” in the proletariat’s viscera, still can find redemptive value in the poetic vision that “books will arise from the bodies of fallen soldiers.” And then perhaps with some equivalent spirit of solidarity, Vallejo posthumously gets framed (misread, your book might argue) as an unmediated poetic spokesperson on war, its combatants, its victims and injustices. On a biographical timeline, Vallejo gets commended for abandoning his “hermetic” early style for subsequent, and supposedly more mature, transparent, socially responsible modes of address. By tracing some of these contradictions playing out through the legacy of Vallejo’s slim but extremely influential corpus, could you start to sketch some of the major rhetorical tensions that World War II will raise for civilian poets?
Vallejo’s somatic imaginary offers a vivid exploration of what it means to write literature born from the experience of war. At the center of España is a striking poem titled “Pequeño responso a un héroe de la República,” which imagines a fallen militiaman from whose dead body sprouts book after book. That visceral image stayed with me throughout the entire process of writing News of War. It crystallizes the problem of translating lived experience into literature — and depicts the episteme of embodied experience as an authentic source for poetry about war. Auden, for example, in a sonnet included in his 1939 book on the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War, thinks about the connections between poetic feet and the gangrenous foot of a soldier treated in a Chinese hospital. Other poets writing about World War II, such as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Stein, and Queneau, also write about the complicated transformation of corporal experience into poetic composition, even as they think about how print journalism mediates the transmission of war information to civilians. For that reason, I see Vallejo’s poem, with its piercing questions, as hovering over the rest of my book.
Vallejo wrote this poetic sequence to encourage Spanish Republicans in their struggle. The book was printed at a covert printing press at the Montserrat monastery, the same place where Pablo Neruda’s poetry, as well as other pamphlets and books, were printed for distribution to the soldiers. So in addition to its formal properties and political stance, its publication history indicates that España was clearly intended as an exhortation. Yet, surprisingly, instead of a confident, flag-waving sequence, Vallejo wrote poems that continually criticize their own ability to say anything of use about the conflict. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it’s actually a canny rhetorical move.
The poems are riddled with the poetic speaker’s expressions of self-doubt. The poet figure doesn’t know what to do when faced with the physical sacrifices of volunteers who have come to join the Republican militia. The first poem, “Hymn to the Volunteers,” opens memorably, with the poetic speaker saying, “I cry, watch, destroy, they extinguish, I tell / my chest to stop, tell goodness to come, / and then want to disgrace myself.” The speaker confesses that he feels ashamed because of the tremendous physical sacrifice made by others while he remains on the sidelines. We might expect a much more confident promise to soldiers that if they put themselves on the line, they will triumph — that the cause is destined to succeed. The poetic speaker in España certainly does urge the soldiers onward, but at the same time, his own self-doubts are woven into the weft of the text.
This expression of doubt is quite remarkable, especially in comparison with the work of other Latin American poets who published pro-Republican texts at the same time. In 1937, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda published Spain in My Heart, and the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz both published related work. All three attended the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Madrid and Barcelona, and had exchanges with Spanish writers and intellectuals. But Neruda, Guillén, and Paz wrote poems expressing much less doubt than we find in Vallejo. Their poems, couched in a rhetoric of kinship, declare an affiliation and identification with the Republicans through their shared Spanish roots — which raises interesting questions about how these poets imagine the colonial relationship to Spain. Each offers full-throated support for the soldiers and the justice of their struggle, and a sequence of prophetic promises. We just don’t find that in Vallejo.
And as you suggested, the other reason Vallejo’s work prefigures some main lines of inquiry throughout my book is that he was a journalist. He eked out a living writing for 38 publications in Europe and Latin America. He is the one writer I discuss who we could consider a working journalist (although almost all the other poets did carry press cards). But whereas Vallejo’s work presents a clear divide between the kinds of thinking and expression in his journalistic articles and crónicas, and the explorations of doubt and uncertainty in his poetry, Auden, Stevens, Moore, Stein, and Queneau borrow formal procedures or imagery from print journalism as they attempt to devise a complex way of writing about war as civilians — even as their texts express reservations or outright criticism of journalism and its declared values of objectivity, public accountability, and fact-based reporting. I found it catalyzing to discover that although many, many poets have earned a living as journalists, not much has been written about poetry’s relationship to journalism.
Here also News of War situates its mid-20th-century focus amid broader scholarly efforts to reconceive the canon of wartime literature, with “wartime engagements” redefined beyond the exclusive role of conscripted combatants, to include victims of violence and coercion, prisoners of concentration camps and subjects of propaganda campaigns, much wider arrays of industrial workers and affective laborers. News of War helps to reposition such ostensibly distanced relations to combat as, in fact, direct immersions in 20th-century war, with its manifold possibilities for social/economic/political/technological mediation. So could we here start to place civilian reflections within the category of wartime literature, perhaps by considering a few poems still rarely classified as such? Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with its compositional simultaneities and juxtapositions probing civilians’ relations to others’ pain, comes to mind. Or Stevens’s “Esthétique du mal,” with its exquisite attunement to internalized experiences of affect, self-reflection, sonic echo, could seem to confirm Stevens’s 20th-century reputation as a hermetic snob in an era of radical collective politics, yet also might serve to exemplify this poet’s public wartime position that “We are close together in every way. We lie in bed and listen to a broadcast from Cairo…. We are intimate with people we have never seen and, unhappily they are intimate with us.” Or Moore’s wartime poetry elicits Randall Jarrell’s scathing condemnation of its “poor private-spirited citizen,” even as Moore’s self-reflective grappling with constrictive patriarchal parameters and relative geographical remoteness helps to make “In Distrust of Merits,” in your own estimation, “the key World War II poem penned by an American woman.” So, still speaking relatively broadly, how might any of these poems contribute to a repositioning of the civilian poet as active (if always mediated) participant in 20th-century war?
I do build on and hope to contribute to scholarly efforts considering civilian wartime writing as war literature — rather than imposing a categorical separation between combatants and noncombatants. 20th-century war can make it hard to draw clear distinctions between them. Civilians become targets in new ways, such as with the Condor Legion’s bombing campaign in Guernica, when hundreds of people were gunned down in a German dress rehearsal for World War II. In the subsequent genocide that took place during World War II, millions of people were placed in camps and slaughtered, and hundreds of thousands of deaths were caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And of course we can think of many other horrifying instances of violence around the world. So while it is important to distinguish between the artistic making undertaken by soldiers who have seen combat, and by others who experience war, we must consider works of noncombatants as part of the larger story.
Several writers I examine have a reputation for being hermetic and living at a privileged remove. Take Stevens and Queneau, certainly not known for their political engagement the way some of their contemporaries are. Many of their poems read as abstract, although in others we do find positions taken and statements made about the wars these writers live through. In Stevens’s “Esthétique du Mal” appears the figure of a man writing letters home while Vesuvius erupts and the Allied forces make their way to Naples, which is a self-conscious statement about the writer’s sedentary occupation in wartime. And Queneau writes repeatedly about the 1938 Munich Agreement’s appeasement of Hitler, which in hindsight seems a turning point such that the disasters of World War II could be blamed on this attempt at conciliation. From the late 30s through the ’60s, Queneau writes poems that dramatize someone receiving news of the Munich Agreement, always via some sort of mediation — for example, one poem features the figure of a poet ensconced in the national library, learning of the Agreement via the newspapers.
It’s also true that Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” is not often read as a war poem. He wrote it in 1938 and published it the following year in Another Time, at the outset of World War II. But already it juxtaposes one person’s experience of suffering with “someone else…. eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The poem suggests that you go about your business while someone dies by accident and someone else is being tortured — just as the ploughman carries on ploughing while Icarus crashes into the water in Bruegel’s painting. This model of juxtaposition (itself a key formal characteristic of the newspaper) becomes pervasive in Auden’s subsequent wartime poetry. In both his poetry and prose, he places news items on topics that range from war to scientific advances in combination with very personal, intimate questions about his own life, his relationships, or his decision to move to New York as England went off to war (for which he was strongly criticized).
And in the process of writing News of War, I thought often of Moore’s 1943 poem “In Distrust of Merits,” which speaks of occluded vision. The lines “O / quiet form upon the dust, I cannot / look and yet I must,” are both resonant and hesitant, interrupted by Moore’s idiosyncratic enjambment. The rhyme makes these lines memorable. She wrote “In Distrust of Merits” in response to a newspaper photo of a dead soldier. Like Auden, Moore articulates the urgent feeling of responsibility to confront violence and the complicity in which one participates as the citizen of a country at war. The lines I just mentioned conjure a host of overlapping meanings. They evoke the process of the civilian encountering images of war in the newspaper, as well the venerable trope of the blind poet or prophet capable of perceiving more than those who are sighted — and on a self-reflexive level, they indicate the difficulty for the poem to represent war. The speaker of the poem literally cannot see suffering and yet strives to speak of it regardless. This is the problem of the person who observes from a distance.
Auden, by the way, defended Moore after Jarrell wrote that review bitterly criticizing her for writing about war without having firsthand experience. Auden called “In Distrust of Merits” one of the best war poems of the time, primarily because it doesn’t engage in what he called “hectic and fake emotions about fox-holes.”
Even within this always boundaried (always gendered, for instance) homefront context, could we also start spreading out geographically, as your book does, to look at, say, how Vallejo’s status within Spanish-language and Latin American cultural contexts (with their long-standing recognition of authors, journalists specifically, as prominent political agents) might parallel and/or depart from Auden’s fraught self-perceptions as first a popular politicized voice in the U.K. and then a supposedly more private poet in the U.S., or Queneau’s bemused ambivalence towards a discredited French popular press perhaps more likely to provide perverse ironized pleasures for its readers than informed objective accounts of current wartime crises? And could you begin to describe the methodological and argumentative importance that such cross-cultural study takes on in your book?
It is fascinating to consider differences between the status of journalism and journalists in the French or Latin American context in contrast with the U.S. or the U.K. Vallejo regularly wrote crónicas, or newspaper chronicles that blur the line between belles-lettres and journalism. There’s no precise equivalent in Anglo-American contexts. In France and Latin America, there was a different expectation concerning journalistic objectivity, as well as a dynamic tradition of writers running for office and having a voice in public affairs. This certainly differs from our country, where we are more likely to elect an actor, professional wrestler, or reality TV star than a journalist.
To answer your question about News of War’s cross-cultural approach and comparative poetics: I am arguing that a nexus of ethical concerns, shared across national boundaries, ultimately produces a set of formal strategies that have many family resemblances. It’s crucial to de-balkanize studies of poetry as much as possible. Writers don’t stay put, texts don’t stay put, and ideas don’t either. Writers read widely among both their precursors and their contemporaries. Although U.S.-based poetry criticism often neglects the rest of the world, some scholars like Jahan Ramazani, Roland Greene, and Harris Feinsod have written books that take a transnational, comparative approach to poetry, and which have been models for me. It’s important to examine how writers in disparate geographical places and social contexts deal with similar problems, even when they have no direct knowledge of each other’s work. For News of War, this meant reading a good deal of poetry not just in English, but also Spanish and French (I also translated a number of the quoted poems and critical texts).
And while the book may be considered a study in comparative modernisms, its comparative periodization also may stand out. Throughout News of War I refer to “the 1930s and 1940s” instead of “the Modernist period,” because Modernism is not an easy fit for this grouping of international writers who belong to a range of national and linguistic literary traditions. Auden, Stevens, Moore, and Stein certainly are modernist writers, but Vallejo’s work is linked to the vanguardia and Queneau’s to the avant-garde.
We also haven’t yet fully addressed your book’s foundational point that as these innovative authors attempt to construct a self-reflexive wartime poetics, they turn not only to prevailing news formats, but simultaneously, and perhaps more unexpectedly, to tropes and tactics of classical rhetoric.
I was surprised to realize the extent to which these poets look to print newspapers, such that they borrow from them even while actively pushing back against them. But at the same time, they also do draw on classical rhetoric — in a way that was often eschewed at the time in English-, French-, and Spanish-language literature. Think of Ezra Pound and Imagism, or André Breton and the Surrealists, or T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, or the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro writing his major poem Altazor, which ends in a play of phonemes without fixed semantic meaning. By the 1930s, rhetoric had become associated with what was perceived to be the excesses, ornamentation, and artificiality of the 19th century. So I was intrigued to see poets using classical rhetoric strategies so smartly, savvily — highlighting complexities of linguistic expression per se, whether in war news, propaganda, journalism, literary arts, or of course classical rhetoric itself.
I got an early hint about this from Kate McLoughlin’s work on literary representations of war. She brilliantly assesses the use of adynaton (also known as impossibilia in Latin), an expression of the difficulty of literary expression itself, which she calls a “distress flare.” The more I thought about it, the more I discovered these linguistic distress flares throughout civilian war poetry, and uncovered other classic rhetorical tropes and schemes as well, such as Stevens’s use of correctio, and so on.
Queneau’s work makes its ties to rhetoric quite explicit. He wrote Exercises in Style, a series of 99 restatements of a very banal incident, while living in Paris under the occupation from 1943-1945. The narrator gets on a bus and sees a long-necked young man, and then later in the day sees the same person at a train station, having a conversation about a button for his coat. The incident is told in 99 different styles. Absolutely nothing happens beyond that coincidence. But Queneau’s 99 different styles of delivery imitate a progymnasmata — a preparatory handbook for would-be writers — and recall Erasmus’s exercises demonstrating copia, where he famously offers over a hundred ways to say the mundane sentence “Your letter pleased me very much.”
To my mind, Queneau’s book, which he wrote under censorship, is not an innocent set of exercises. He was an established public intellectual, an editor of the major press Gallimard, and cultural mediator (he had been involved with Breton and Surrealism from its inception, and with the ‘Pataphysicists, and was later a founding member of Oulipo). In the early 1940s, Queneau witnessed Jews being removed from positions of power, including at institutions he was affiliated with. His wife was Jewish, and he sent her and their son to take refuge with friends in a small town outside Paris. Queneau is thinking about what does and doesn’t make it into the newspaper, about how narratives of public incidents are shaped. He makes the argument, through his book’s form, that how you tell a story crucially shapes how that story will be understood. Style can determine meaning. Queneau makes this point in a humorous fashion, but that humor itself is an especially canny tactic given the moment’s perils.
I had read Exercises in Style many times, but it wasn’t until I investigated Queneau’s archives and read some of his drafts that I began to see the text in a new light. Archival research was quite crucial for News of War and informs my arguments throughout. Queneau’s archives are held in a small Belgian town called Verviers (near Liège), which was rather economically depressed (with even the town’s one hotel shuttered) the summer I visited. But Verviers’s public library holds Queneau’s archives, managed by one extremely capable librarian who knows everything about the author’s life and work. In reading Queneau’s drafts, I found an exercise he wrote in the voice of a French reactionary, ostensibly a Vichy collaborator. This figure’s bitter monologue drips with acidic irony. This piece appeared in the book’s first, 1943 edition. But after the war, when Queneau’s book is reprinted many times, he insists on removing the monologue. It spoke too directly to a moment of shame in French history, namely the Vichy complicity, which the French wouldn’t really begin to excavate until the 1970s. With that realization, I began to recalibrate my view of the Exercises, recognizing it was essential to read them in the context of their historical moment.
It’s also useful to think of Queneau’s exercises as shaped by the model of the fait divers, or very brief news items, compressing a whole narrative into the space of what today might be a tweet. Queneau admired Félix Fénéon’s famous fait divers. One fait divers, for example, narrates the story of someone getting hit by a train but managing to survive, all in three compact lines. So in my reading, Queneau’s Exercises in Style repurposes both the rhetorical handbook and the spectacular faits divers to problematize what it means to tell a story about current events under censorship and Nazi occupation. This is just one example of how the writers I study combine contemporary news forms and classical rhetoric to write about war from a civilian perspective.
In terms of the historical sense of shame you just mentioned, I wonder in particular how adynaton (with its seemingly straightforward foregrounding of linguistic impossibility, say of an author’s descriptive incapacities ever to offer adequate representation of wartime experience) helps to structure an affect of shame (perhaps shame before the present moment’s complicities, perhaps shame in relation to future audiences), all amid what otherwise might feel like an abstracted, austere poetics. At the same time, adynaton stands out due to its failure to police these very boundaries it seems to have imposed upon itself. Disavowing one’s own literary authority of course might just boost one’s authenticity, at least among certain audiences. So could we address for example Stevens’s serialized, asymptotic, kaleidoscopically structured adynaton as perhaps the most elaborate case of a poet’s descriptive capacities emphatically failing (at first, at least) — and how/when wartime temporalities might encourage such a project? Or in terms both of serialization and of shame, we could just move on to Stein, who clearly seems to provide the most provocative case study, presenting, again, the most unappealing politics and, simultaneously, perhaps the most inventive and subversive challenge to constrictive wartime conventions of affect, perception, articulation. I’d love to get to how what you describe as Stein’s poetics of the éclat (or reverse epiphanies, or opposites of revelation) might measure not Stein’s retreat from wartime reality, but her engagement with that reality on her own terms (perhaps through their lyrical/anti-lyrical disruption of progressive forward-motion; perhaps through their fearful, doubtful, angry deflections of the authoritative reporter’s typically stoic pose; perhaps through their conventionalizing/anti-conventionalizing practice of wartime witness, here less of dramatic combat then of a more pervasive “waiting, worrying, working, stockpiling food, seeking news, gathering rumors, anticipating violence”), terms from which we ourselves still might draw out a constructive criticality.
Adynaton and other tropes and schemes are used to wrangle with the guilt that Auden describes as “the guilt which every civilian must feel at not being in the fighting line.” Stevens employs correctio (which autocorrect always wants to change to “correction”), a classical rhetorical strategy by which the poem first makes some kind of statement/proposition, then amends it, then amends that emendation, and so forth. Stevens’s “Examination of the Hero in A Time of War,” for example, offers an accumulation of definitions of what it means to be a hero in wartime, such that readers may find it hard to articulate conclusively who or what this poem considers heroic.
Stein, by contrast, seeks to maintain a certain restraint in Wars I Have Seen, echoing what she sees as the French cultivation of retenue, or a “civilized” discipline of keeping a stiff upper lip. Retenue evokes the idea that carrying on with life despite the threats at one’s door is a badge of national courage. Obliquity and humor are key resources in maintaining retenue. This idea informs Stein’s apparent stoicism in much of her book, which reads as a kind of anti-newspaper, written in real time as the war unfolds, with date-stamped entries. Stein, living with her companion Alice B. Toklas in a small village under the occupation, is starved for news and has to get what she can from the radio, from neighbors, from rumors, and so forth. So, Stein writes her own first draft of history. But she can’t hold the prose thread taut throughout the whole book. Instead these éclats (the French word for flare-up, fragment) offer bursts of lyrical luminosity. A richly rhyming passage will suddenly erupt amid a more straightforward discussion of the Allies’ movements, for instance. The book is anything but a smooth, transparent prose account of life in her small French village. It contains a prose full of lyric outbursts, where we encounter poetry absolutely of a piece with lines from books like Tender Buttons and Stanzas in Meditation.
These lyric outbursts herald reverse epiphanies. The texts holds back from fully articulating what is happening, because that remains too frightening. Instead, Stein domesticates the machinery of war — she describes an armored train as appearing to wear a tea cozy on top of its engine. She diminishes the import of the scene, poking fun at the Germans, and maybe also at herself. Stein always displays not just second-degree, but also third, fourth, and fifth degrees of awareness. The result is that the reverse epiphanies in the text signal an authorial presence, just as the lyric outbursts serve the same purpose as does the use of adynaton elsewhere, namely to indicate the difficulty of expression. As with other News of Wars poets, this opens up a self-reflective awareness of the author’s positionality and the insufficiencies of trying to create a seamless piece of literature while living in occupied France.
Here especially I appreciate how News of War seeks to parse present-day discussions of Stein’s problematic collaborationist politics from more general prescriptive discussions of whether poets always must adopt easily instrumentalizable stances amid moments of acute historical crisis. And more generally, since the term “ethics” has come up a couple times today, I should note, amid News of War’s exuberant attunement to any number of meta-rhetorical practices, its ongoing recognition that “meta-rhetoric and its techniques are not necessarily motivated towards progressive political ends.” I also do note, however, your subsequent paragraph stating: “at bottom, the use of meta-rhetoric correlates to these poets’ wish to write a modern war poetry that is ethical in its commitments.” If I here were to propose a perhaps parochial, vernacular conception of the ethical as inseparable from progressive politics, what more refined and/or more expansive conception of the ethical might News of War provide in order to resolve its seeming self-contradictions on this subject?
Well, ethics and progressive politics do not map so easily onto each other, as shown by the lives and works of the poets in this study, as well as by myriad other examples. Form in the abstract is always politically neutral. However, particular realizations of form can be put to political ends or acquire specific political resonances in a given context, and that’s where things get interesting.
The fact that the use of meta-rhetoric does not imply a certain politics gets displayed throughout this range of writers I consider, from lifelong committed Communists to deeply conservative, pro-Franco Stein, who also translated speeches by the Vichy leader Philippe Pétain (something I’ve written about in a separate article). But the epistemological challenge posed by valuing experience-in-the-flesh as a guarantor of authority persists. Each of these writers thinks through that challenge with great nuance, and each life story offers its own matrix of conditions and particular perspectives. The premise (and endless problem) of that epistemological certainty rooted in fleshly experience remains deeply persuasive. Yet it is also clear that this episteme has the potential to curtail public debate and policy debate about war, and makes it more difficult to keep a critical distance from the perpetuation of war culture.
Here my thinking was aided by the work of military historian Yuval Harari, who wrote an impressive synoptic study of the rise of war culture in letters from about 1450 to 2000. He shows that, beginning in the 18th century, “truth” and “authority” become valued in war writing. War becomes portrayed as a revelatory experience in writing of many kinds: diaries, letters, memoirs, various types of creative works. Harari argues that war is understood to bring a type of untransmittable knowledge, the authority of flesh-witnessing. Once you’ve acquired that knowledge through your body, you can’t necessarily give it away. It adheres to you. This means a certain authority accrues to writers who have had that experience, with a wide range of cultural ramifications. And that episteme absolutely persists today, say in the privilege granted to experience in U.S. journalistic standards, which were codified and professionalized in the early 20th century. Since the mass circulation of newspapers, reporting has been conceived of as contingent upon seeing something with one’s own eyes, which confers the credibility to report the facts (this story becomes complicated by war reporting in the mid-20th century, when some reporters take on activist roles or shift their discourse — using rhetorical figures like adynaton to indicate their inability to describe the scale of violence they witness).
Still considering the specifics of such embodied experience, and with Auden’s book titles from this era including the loaded The Double Man, could we also address more directly the place of queer affect within these cagey reenvisionings of a male-saturated militarized rhetoric? News of War astutely acknowledges the ever-present simultaneity of ascetic masculinity and of more alluring homoerotic prospects within wartime poetics. You cite Richard Bozorth’s reading of Auden’s inclination towards the airman’s view as the coded deployment of a semi-detached, desire-infused perspective on wartime’s extravaganza of masculine theatrics. Or “New Year Letter,” with its ultimately abandoned wordplay between “light” verse and more illuminating modes of light, speaks to that term’s own coded gay refractions. Or for my only confident critical assertion throughout this conversation: “New Year Letter’s” “many times…my crimes” stanza, with its practice of the “preacher’s” loose immodest tone, with its closing rhyme on “sin,” definitely seems to have inspired Depeche Mode’s “Strange Love.” So could we talk about queer affiliations playing out across this study: about the extent to which Auden both taps and perhaps sets the tone for subsequent camp sensibilities, about the book that I now most want to read, his Journey to a War with Christopher Isherwood — with its drunken “high falsetto” antics, with its parodic conflations of aroused eye-witness and authentic flesh-witness, with its critique of journalistic grandstanding perhaps still palatable to contemporary critics, even as its amused and enticed attunements and attachments to the Sino-Japanese War likely raise (or, one could argue: as Auden and Isherwood adroitly anticipate our own era’s guilty grappling with) concerns of privileged Eurocentric distance?
That’s terrific that you noticed the resonances between Auden’s “New Year Letter” and Depeche Mode’s “Strange Love.” I admit I never made that connection before, but now that you mention it, it seems obvious! Regarding Auden’s use of self-deprecation and camp: that’s right, Auden and Isherwood are already grappling self-critically with their own privilege and sense of relative safety as they lightly make their way through China, unscathed by the Sino-Japanese War, which they are presumably covering in their work of mock reportage. Their self-deflation is supposed to indicate their ineptitude. From the get-go, the reader is meant to understand that Auden and Isherwood are perhaps the least prepared pair of war correspondents ever to set out. Their amateur undertaking offers a chance to make up for their generation’s sense of having missed out on World War I and its associated rituals of masculinity. When they encounter the hardened reporter Peter Fleming, whom they call “Chief,” they simultaneously venerate him and poke fun at him, including his impeccable outfit and his many gadgets, parodying the conventional associations of war and masculine adventure (we see a similar critique of hypermasculinity blended with homoerotic longing in Auden’s earlier writing, where he idolizes pilots, mountain climbers, and war correspondents — as well as in The Orators, particularly in the section titled “Journal of an Airman,” where the act of flying indexes a subversive queerness).
In Journey to a War, Auden and Isherwood’s journalistic mission offers a way to put writing into action and to formulate an objective appraisal of events. At the same time this book warns, tongue in cheek, that its authors can’t vouch for the accuracy of its assertions. But as I was saying in relation to Queneau, style is integral to meaning. And I see a significant connection between Auden’s campy Journey to a War style, where he affects unflappability (what he and Isherwood term a “civil style”), and Stein’s version of retenue. Auden and Isherwood admire politicians and war correspondents who show their class and urbanity, their worldliness, through their dry, restrained, “civil style” even in the face of air raids. Part of my larger point about Auden and Stein (and this applies to Stevens and Queneau as well) is that evoking apparent restraint, obliquity, and understatement can serve as methods for approaching the difficult task of writing about a war one has not experienced first-hand. These writers have received criticism for their failure to write directly and to stake out clear positions on pressing political questions, and those criticisms have merit, but I show that ultimately these wartime texts do make quite complex statements about civilian war experience. Self-reflexive indirection or understatement, when it works to demur, defer, or deflect, is not a retreat from reality, but rather a mode for confronting an experience on one’s own terms. Meta-rhetoric can be used to make visible the gears and sprockets of expression and perception, and to question the norms of war culture in an ethically attuned fashion.
Finally, when your book presents its recurrent critique of an unquestioning/unquestionable authenticated poetics of flesh-witnessing, when you highlight certain potential dangers of “an epistemology that grants authority to ‘literal experience’ as an ‘aesthetic, political, and moral criterion for the proper war poem,’” when you cite historians stressing how this embodied “foundation of military analysis ‘removes debate about war…not just from academic analysis but from the public sphere altogether, with serious implications for…democratic debate about policy,’” when you question the incommensurability or sublimity of the flesh-witnessing lyric and yet, within the same paragraph state that “I am not convinced it is possible to evade this tendency in poetry criticism,” I’ll wonder about pressing present-day questions concerning who has the right to speak as/for/to whom. I’ll wonder how an “epistemic framework that valorizes this knowledge acquired through somatic experience above knowledge gained through reflection,” relates to current prioritizations on various modes of embodied identity (and, of course, to preceding poetic traditions’ all the more unexamined epistemes authenticating white, male, straight, able-bodied lyric testimony). And here, given your book’s focus specifically on what it means to write from a mediated position partially insulated from present-time social crisis, maybe it makes most sense for us to discuss what it means to write from privilege — again with some authors perhaps taking a more paranoid/prophylactic stance (hoping to curb prospects for future condemnation of the perspectives they present), and some authors risking an enactment of complicity more akin to Moore’s self-conscious use of rhetorical mediation, her deliberate mishandling “so as to signal its mechanisms,” her canny divestments of literary authority. Here in particular I wondered what space remains for poets of relative privilege to perform their own mediated engagements with such privilege, without inevitably being characterized as out-of-touch thinkers or oblivious oppressors. So how might you yourself apply News of War’s somewhat ambivalent critique of an episteme of authenticating embodiment to any related topics and questions?
People immersed in these debates are thinking very carefully about appropriations of experience, about who profits from the representation of whose experience. Those questions are very timely in U.S. public discourse right now, and I am keenly attuned to that. But I don’t see News of War as offering a prescription for action regarding this important question as it manifests in other realms. Instead, I’ve tried to diagnose a set of conditions, to describe how specific authors have responded to those conditions. It is important to avoid drawing an equivalence between types of violence (violence ranging from microaggressions to genocide) that people experience due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and the violence waged upon people in wartime that is addressed in the poems under study.
But I would say that the writers my book considers do ultimately assert that they can’t stay silent. They may have to find a way to problematize their own poems, but they can’t stay silent. I think of writers like Elie Wiesel and Martin Niemöller describing the horrors of the Shoah, and the imperative to speak when humans are suffering. Audre Lorde has written about this in regard to race, in her amazing essay, which I love to teach, about transforming silence into language, and transforming language into action. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu have made the case that when you stay silent in the face of injustice, then you’ve chosen to side with the oppressor. So I do take seriously the major ethical obligation not to remain silent, which runs alongside the obligation not to appropriate or profit from someone else’s experiences. There is a real tension there that has to be handled with great care.
I want to return to your mention of Moore. Critics don’t typically talk about Moore this way, but I trace a strain of poetry that follows from her citational work and from the documentary poetics of the 30s and 40s practiced by Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznikoff, which contemporary poets have engaged to write about race, war, capitalism, and other issues. Mónica de la Torre’s Public Domain, for instance, contains a long poem titled “Imperfect Utterances,” which I analyze in my book’s epilogue. De la Torre’s poetic sequence addresses difficult questions related to immigration, border policing, the war in Iraq. It opens with someone confronting a text that is difficult to articulate while speaking publicly, both in English and Spanish. In subsequent sections, De la Torre demonstrates how rhetoric has colluded with the logic of capital in the violent treatment of bodies — prisoners’ bodies, for example. The poem contains the image of a person in an emergency-restraint chair, which is basically a chair that serves as a seated straightjacket, and has been used for torturing Guantánamo Bay prisoners. De la Torre dissects the language used to sell this particular chair, showing connections between everyday speech, public speaking, and the language used to market instruments of torture. “Imperfect Utterances” is laid out on the page with graphic-design elements highlighting rhetorical phrases and speech transitions. The difficulties of speech, the complexities of language amid the logic of war culture, and the role of capitalism in the perpetuation of war culture, come together in a perceptive and powerful poem.
Many poems written in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 draw on strategies and concerns of World War II-era poems, often quite explicitly, as they urge critical distance from contemporary U.S. war culture. They likewise ironize news coverage, and use meta-rhetoric and self-interference. Contemporary poets including C.D. Wright, Juliana Spahr, Claudia Rankine and others are sharply aware that poetry can play a part in creating an imaginary and in setting the terms for discussion and debate. Poetry, like journalism, is a first draft of history.