This essay discusses three antiwar poems—Pablo Neruda's “I Explain A Few Things,” Galway Kinnell's “The Olive Wood Fire,” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's “Speak Out”—which condemn the modern world's predatory, unjust and inhumane wars—from the armed hostilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to the Vietnam War and the Spanish Civil War. (It was the Spanish Civil War that gave us the haunting name of the small Catalan town of Guernica, which was obliterated from the air by Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe). These poems are thematically significant because they draw attention to the mass slaughter, into which mankind has been repeatedly plunged by aggressively bellicose, vain, overambitious and war-profiteering politicians, who remain deaf and blind to the tragic sufferings and deaths of ordinary people.
This topic is also important because such politically engaged antiwar poetry can attract the interest and empathy of many readers and may even propel them into direct protest action against war. Investigating the lives of these three famous poets as well as the savage military conflicts that inspired their antiwar songs highlights their important artistic contribution to contemporary political poetry. As Galway Kinnell commented in a 1982 interview, “In fact, I think it's actually hard to find any great modern poem that is not political. I would say that in the last twenty years there's been quite a lot of explicitly political poetry written in this country. I think of Robert Bly, James Wright. I think Wright's poem on Eisenhower landing and meeting Franco is one of the great political poems” (qtd. in Daniels 296). Several biographical and autobiographical sources as well as authoritative literary criticisms offer an insight into the creative backgrounds, artistic approaches, and poetic styles of the three masters of modern verse as key to analyzing their engaging antiwar poems.
“I Explain A Few Things”
By far the finest and also the most tragic of these three poems, Pablo Neruda's “I Explain A Few Things” (“Explico Algunas Cosas”) is a grief-filled lament over the unspeakable horrors and cruelties of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The poem originally appeared in a collection of poetry, Spain in the Heart (1937), which the poet wrote to voice his ardent support for Spain's Republican government in Madrid during this calamitous conflict, in which more than a million Spaniards were killed and another million were forced into involuntary exile abroad. The Western “democracies” remained supposedly “neutral” but, in fact, the pro-Franco British government froze all foreign-currency and gold deposits of the Spanish Republic's democratically elected government in London banks. Socialist-led France did the same, although to a lesser extent. The FDR Administration followed a similar policy of “non-intervention,” but J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee investigated and blacklisted as “Communists” all Americans who had volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic (the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and even American journalists, such as writer Ernest Hemingway, whose reporting from Madrid was judged to be anti-Franco and pro-Republic. Only the Soviet Union supported Spain's Republican government with money, heavy weaponry, and military “volunteers” (Neruda 111-134). This may explain why at this critical moment the poet's political views and poetic work drifted so much to the political left.
Neruda (1904-1973) became an unwitting witness to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He was Chile's consul in Madrid, when Army General Francisco Franco's fascist insurrection started with the direct military backing of Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and right-wing dictator Antonio Salazar's Portugal, igniting a vicious civil war and countless massacres. Spain in the Heart was actually first printed by the Republican troops at the front, using captured paper and improvised printing presses (Neruda 121-126). The horrifying experience of the Spanish Civil War thoroughly radicalized the largely apolitical Surrealist poet and turned him into an outspoken and politically committed artist. Rene de Costa, Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Spanish-American Literatures at the Chicago University, quotes a 1937 interview with Neruda, in which the exasperated poet explains the reasons for his newly politicized poetry: “I am not a Communist. Nor a Socialist. Nor anything. I am simply a writer. A free writer who loves freedom. I love the people. I belong to the people because I am one of them. That is why I am anti-fascist. My adhesion to the people is not tainted with orthodoxy nor submission” (qtd. in Costa 92-93). Obviously, Neruda was not a “fellow traveler” when he decided to support the Republican cause in Spain. His feelings of grief and moral outrage at what Franco's fascist army was doing to the Spanish people were heartfelt and genuine.
Beautifully translated by Galway Kinnell, the poem opens with an ironic rhetorical question, “You will ask: But where are the lilacs? / and the metaphysics covered with poppies” (lines 1-2), as well as with evocative metaphors and internal rhyme: “and the rain that often struck / his words, filling them / with holes and birds?” (3-5). Using an informal, almost conversational tone, Neruda is drawing attention to the fact that his previously lyric and meditative poetry (of “lilacs” and “metaphysics”) has now changed in tune with the more turbulent and brutal times. The Spanish Civil War, which he witnessed as a partisan sympathizer with the Republican cause, marked the most important transitional period in his evolution as Latin America's greatest poet. Spain's bloody carnage forced him to expand the domain of his earlier love and philosophical poetry to include totally new and unpoetic subjects, such as politics and the war against Franco (Neruda 111-134). The author wants to explain all these profound changes within him and in his previously modernist and post-Romantic poetic art: “Let me tell you what's happening with me” (6). Neruda is using his politicized poem to persuade his readers of the ugly truth about the tragic plight of victimized Spain. In this sense, “I Explain A Few Things” can be seen as a creative turning point in the poet's legendary artistic career.
In the next few lines, Neruda is explaining the historical context of his sad personal story and the circumstances of his radical literary transformation: “I lived in a suburb / of Madrid, with bells, / with clocks, with trees” (7-9). He uses an imaginative metaphor and a simile to describe “the parched face of Castile / like an ocean of leather” (11-12), which he could easily observe from the poetized capital of Spain. The poet is filled with tenderness and deep nostalgia when he recalls that "My house was called the house of flowers, because from everywhere geraniums burst: it was a beautiful house with dogs and children." (13-17) Then he alludes to the tragic cultural context of his tender and nostalgic, yet most depressing memories: “Raul, do you remember? / Do you remember, Rafael? / Federico, under the ground” (18-20), addressing three of his best personal and literary friends, all of them tragic victims of the brutal Spanish Civil War—Spain's greatest ever poet Federico Garcia Lorca (executed, like many other Spanish writers and intellectuals, by Franco's fascist thugs, who even forced Lorca to dig his own grave), Rafael Alberti, another famous Spanish poet, and Raul Gonzalez Tunon, one of Argentina's greatest poets and writers, living at that time in Madrid (Neruda 111-124). Neruda is addressing his very emotional rhetorical questions (coupled with a beautiful metaphor) to his three dear friends (only two of whom were still alive at the time): “do you remember my house with the balconies / where the June light drowned the flowers in your mouth?” (21-22), ending with a chagrined exclamation: “Brother, brother!” (23) At that point, the poet's emotional and political commitment to the Spanish Republic was clearly irreversible. In condemning Franco's savage atrocities and man's inhumanity to man, Neruda's politicized ode reads like an anti-fascist political pamphlet.
The poet's feelings of personal loss and emotional desolation are deep and very palpable, especially when he remembers having walked amidst the “loud voices” and “crowds” of busy merchants and customers “in the market of my barrio of Arguelles, with its statue / like a pale inkwell set down among the hake” (27-28) (another metaphor and a simile) during Spain's happier and more peaceful times. He is symbolically equating peace with material prosperity and the abundance of foods in his neighborhood's marketplace: “salt of goods,” “crowds of pulsating bread,” “[m]asses of fishes,” and “delirious fine ivory of potatoes, tomatoes, more tomatoes, all the way to the sea.” (36-37) What these details accomplish is to contrast Spain's previously tranquil and prosperous life with the terrors of war brought on by fascism's dark forces. What the grief-stricken poet witnesses next in post-military coup Madrid is a terrifying war scene painted through a procession of violent visual images and metaphors (“it was all burning,” “bonfires sprang out of the earth,” “devouring humans,” “fire,” “gunpowder” and “blood”): "And one morning it was all burning, / and one morning bonfires / sprang out of the earth / devouring humans," (38-41).
The fascist coup d'etat has resulted in a monstrous civil conflagration, whose on-going tragedy is underlined by the repetition of “from then on”: “and from then on fire, / gunpowder from then on, / and from then on blood” (42-44). The culprits are General Franco's rebel army (“Banditos”), supported by Spain's traditional classes who were enamored of bull-fighting and aristocratic women (“banditos with rings and duchesses”), Moorish mercenary troops (“Moors”), Spain's reactionary Catholic Church (“black friars making the sign of the cross”), and Nazi Germany's “planes” (Hitler's Condor Legion in Spain) which “came down from the sky to kill children” (48): “Banditos with planes and Moors, / banditos with rings and duchesses, / banditos with black friars making the sign of the cross” (45-47). The fascists are indiscriminately massacring ordinary men, women, and children, especially innocent and defenseless “children”: “and the blood of children ran through the streets / simply, like the blood of children” (49-50), while the outside world barely takes notice. These moving lines cannot but remind one of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya's famous series of antiwar prints entitled “The Disasters of War.”
Having used a metaphor and a simile to condemn their shocking atrocities (“the blood of children”), Neruda is denouncing Franco's Falangist troops as an abomination that even nature's wild animals and plants would abhor: “Jackals the jackals would despise, / stones the dry thistle would bite on and spit out, / vipers the vipers would abominate” (51-53). The poet uses a simile and several metaphors to describe how ordinary Spaniards (“the blood of Spain”) rose up angrily “like a tide” and “a single wave of pride and knives” against the murderous Francista fascists (calling themselves “Nationalists”): "Facing you, I have seen the blood / of Spain rise up like a tide / to drown you in a single wave / of pride and knives!" (54-57)
Neruda is employing the brutal visual imagery of violence, war, and death to warn the military coup's “Traitors” and “generals” that there will be popular justice for the brutalities and devastation they are inflicting upon war-torn Spain (“my dead house” and “Spain broken”): "Traitors, / generals: / look at my dead house, / look at Spain broken" (58-62).
Popular revenge for their barbarous crimes against the Spanish people is vividly and allegorically described as “flaming metal bursts...from every house,” “from every crater of Spain / comes Spain," "for every dead child comes a rifle with eyes, / from every crime bullets are born,” and other colorful metaphors and hyperboles: "from every house flaming metal bursts / instead of flowers, / from every crater of Spain / comes Spain, / for every dead child comes a rifle with eyes, / from every crime bullets are born / which will one day find in you / the site of the heart" (63-69).
Dr. Rene de Costa explains the allegorical and universalistic meaning of Neruda's poetic narrative about Spain's “senseless” war, death, and destruction: “Neruda's personal story is thus made part of a larger community of interests. Being less unique, it is more universal. His experience is made to stand for that of Spain; his radicalization that of the Spanish people. Both are the innocent victims of a senseless war. In this view the villain is fascism, personified by the forces of Franco” (Costa 95-96). Having previously been a self-obsessed avant-garde artist and playboy, a politically awakened Neruda has now become one with the peace-loving and freedom-fighting part of humanity.
Finally, the poet reiterates the rhetorical question he has posed in the first stanza: “You will ask: Why doesn't this poetry / speak to us of dreams, of leaves, / of the great volcanoes of his native land?” (70-72) According to de Costa, the purpose of all of Neruda's Spanish Civil War poems is twofold: "to chronicle the author's experience and to persuade his readers to share his interpretation of that same experience. Fundamental to the rhetoric of persuasion is the devise of repetition. For this reason, 'Explico algunas cosas' closes with a studied variation of the rhetorical question with which it began.... The answer...is given in the form of an example, a thrice-repeated command to witness what the poet has witnessed in all its complexity." (Costa 97)
Neruda's “thrice-repeated” poetic answer to his own rhetorical question is indeed uniquely touching and indelibly memorable: “Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / the blood in the streets” (73-75). And he repeats once again, “come and see the blood / in the streets!” (73-77). Through repetition, the poet is trying to persuade his audience to believe in his anti-fascist message by playing on the reader's feelings of pity, compassion and empathy, as well as by appealing to the reader's moral and social conscience.
Rene de Costa defends Neruda's partisan poetry: “So, in 1937, as Neruda's poetry became a kind of propaganda, he publicly began to cultivate a style of expression designed to move the reader totally, to affect not only his literary sensibility but his social consciousness as well” (Costa 99). But it is for the same reason that Chile's conservative regime fired him as its consul in Madrid: “Because I had taken part in the defense of the Spanish Republic, the Chilean government decided to remove me from my post” (Neruda 126). Having previously granted political asylum to four-thousand Franco supporters, the Chilean embassy in Madrid even denied diplomatic protection to Neruda's friend and protege, the young Spanish poet and playwright Miguel Hernandez, who was imprisoned for his anti-fascist sympathies soon after the fall of the Republic and executed by the Falangist regime three years later (Neruda 126). In 1943, Neruda was forced to give up his post as Chile's Consul-General in Mexico City, after the “neutral” Mexican government objected to two of his poems devoted to the Battle of Stalingrad, “Canto a Stalingrado” and “Nuevo canto de amor a Stalingrado," which appeared to praise the Soviet Union while implicitly denouncing Nazi Germany and fascist Italy (Costa 12-13). Like other dejected supporters of the defeated Spanish Republic, Neruda learned with revulsion about America's and Britain's fervent defense of Generalissimo Franco against postwar accusations that his fascist regime had closely collaborated with Hitler and Mussolini during WWII, while President Dwight Eisenhower even paid an official visit to Madrid, where he most cordially shook hands with the smiling military dictator. Seared by such political experiences, the poet joined the Chilean Communist Party soon after WWII and was elected a Communist senator, representing the militant miners of northern Chile (Neruda 171; Costa 112, 117).
Here is incontrovertible proof that politically engaged poetry does not have to be “politically didactic, polemical, or proselytizing”—to use Galway Kinnell's cautionary words. Nor does it have to be aesthetically compromised, inferior, clichéd, or boring. Some of Neruda's finest poems skillfully combine politics and art in an impressively creative and appealing fashion. Even when politics was at the heart of his lyric art, he wrote some of the most beautiful and emotionally captivating poems that Melpomene, the ancient Greek goddess of tragic poetry, could ever inspire in her earthly followers. Neruda's political poem “I Explain A Few Things” is exactly such an exquisitely artistic masterpiece.
“The Olive Wood Fire”
One of America's most important poetic voices, Galway Kinnell (1927-2014) was—very much like Neruda—an actively engaged political poet. He was among a group of poets involved with American Writers Against the Vietnam War (AWAVW), such as Robert Bly, James Wright, David Ray, Denise Levertov, David Ignatow, and other antiwar poetry figures (Daniels 293). Kinnell participated in the 1965 Poets for Peace reading at New York City's Town Hall, the first of many anti-Vietnam War readings around the country in which the poet took part. He was organizer and director of the anti-nuclear war reading, Poets Against the End of the World, held at New York City's Town Hall in May 1982. The next year Kinnell won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and shared the American Book Award. He continued to work for the cause of preventing nuclear war as president of P.E.N. in 1983-1984 (Calhoun 4-5). He participated in organizing the “Days of Poetry Against the War” along with other poets whom First Lady Laura Bush had invited to her “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium scheduled for 12 February 2003, an official White House gathering which was canceled after the manuscripts of over 13,000 antiwar poems composed by nearly 11,000 poets from all over the world were delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On February 17, Kinnell recited his old poem “The Olive Wood Fire” during a series of readings at the Avery Fishery Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, sponsored by the antiwar organization “Not in Our Name” on the eve of the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq (Hamill xvii-xxi). “The Olive Wood Fire” was later included in poet Sam Hamill's anthology of antiwar poetry, Poets against the War. Thus, Kinnell appears to have been a committed antiwar activist from very early on in his poetic career.
Composed during his long stay (with his Spanish-born wife) in Spain, the well-crafted “The Olive Wood Fire” (subtitled “Majorca, winter 1970”) is an unmistakably autobiographical poem, revolving around his one-year-old son Finn Fergus (as are Kinnell's other Fergus poems, such as “Fergus Falling,” “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” and “Angling, a Day”). But so are all of Kinnell's poems which, according to poetess and literary critic Lorrie Goldensohn, were self-admittedly written “from within a consistently autobiographical frame: 'My poetry does stay fairly close to the experiences of my life. I don't usually write in others' voices.' He has named and presented himself in his work...introducing us to a 'Galway' and also to a 'Kinnell,' as he makes the poet and speaker one” (244). Obviously, “The Olive Wood Fire” refers to a specific and very concrete episode of the poet's long sojourn in Spain.
Much like Neruda's “I Explain A Few Things,” “The Olive Wood Fire” makes a masterful use of poetic contrast—provided, on one hand, by the soothing quiet and stillness of divinely peaceful nights at Kinnell's Spanish home, whose midnight silence is interrupted only by his one-year-old son's occasional crying, when he has to pick up the baby from the crib, hold him in his arms, feed him with a milk bottle, and rock him back to sleep in a rocking chair “before the fire of thousand-year-old olive wood” (4) burning in the fireplace. As the infant's silent tears keep rolling down his baby face, father and son huddle “against the darkness” of the night in a touching scene of fatherly love:
"Sometimes, for reasons I never knew
and he has forgotten, even after his bottle the big tears
would keep on rolling down his big cheeks
—the left cheek always more brilliant than the right—
and we would sit, some nights for hours, rocking
in the light eking itself out of the ancient wood,
and hold each other against the darkness,
his close behind and far away in the future,
mine I imagined all around." (5-13)
The night's “darkness” is, of course, both a metaphor and a symbol of death and the void of non-existence. His son's “darkness” is “close behind and far away in the future” (that is, preceding the baby's recent birth but also a very long way off into the future), while the poet's own “darkness” is not that far off and “all around” him (Malecka 188-189). But then, in contrast to the quiet and peaceful stillness of the Spanish “night,” the poet is suddenly awakened by a terrifying nightmare about the “horror” of the Vietnam War back home, “One such time, fallen half asleep myself, / I thought I heard a scream” (14-15), imagining that it was “a scream” uttered either by a terror-stricken U.S. Air Force pilot dropping napalm bombs on Vietnam or by a Vietnamese “child thus set aflame” by one of his napalm bombs:
"—a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn't know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame—
and I sat up alert...." (16-19)
The half-asleep poet cannot escape the horrors of the Vietnam War even at his quiet and peaceful home in far-away Spain.
Kinnell's reverie concludes by returning to the earlier, almost pristine quietude and eternal darkness of the night, barely illuminated by the fireplace's dying-out “olive wood fire”: “...The olive wood fire / had burned low. In my arms lay this child, / fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God” (19-21). It appears that in a hopeless world of war, death, and wanton destruction by airborne “fire” (napalm) unredeemed by the empathetic presence of any supreme being up above, the despairing poet has lost his faith in God. The only “God” Kinnell knows now is his own one-year-old son, even admitting in a contemporary interview: “Of course, I was raised as a very devout Christian, and I believed very much in God.... I am not a Christian now; I certainly don't believe in Christianity. I regard it as a system, a complete invention of the species to make life and especially death more comfortable” (qtd. in Malecka 190). When asked specifically about his poem's use of “God” in reference to Fergus, Kinnell explains in another interview: “The word 'God' is a word I don't use very often. I use it sometimes because there isn't actually another word which will do. I use it as a metaphor. I'm not saying that Fergus is some kind of supreme being, but rather he is at that moment in my eyes the embodiment of the sacred character of life” (qtd. in Calhoun 108). In his universe, “God” is a symbol of the normalcy and orderliness of the world, not a supernatural being.
Whether he was indeed an agnostic or even a godless atheist, the poet appears to have rejected dipping for spiritual comfort into the realm of the sublime, supernatural, metaphysical, and transcendental. He claimed in yet another interview, “My circumstances are such that I live most of my life rather busily in the midst of the daily and ordinary...whatever my poetry will be, from now on it will no doubt come out of this involvement in the ordinary” (qtd. in Goldensohn 244). In Kinnell's brave new world of life's fragility and inescapable mortality, not even God could protect his infant son from war's fiery devastation, ruin, and death. In “The Olive Wood Fire,” war is the most burning question of life's struggle against death (“darkness”)—a violent kind of death which threatens to extinguish by “fire” the innocent existence and God-like “glow” of his sleeping child. As such, Kinnell's theme of the Goya-like horrors of modern warfare is not that different from Neruda's poetized horror at Franco's German “planes,” which “came down from the sky to kill children” (48) in “I Explain A Few Things.”
Like Kinnell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919), the Beat Generation's leading poet, dissident publisher, playwright, novelist, and perennial political activist, was an active member of American Writers Against the Vietnam War (AWAVW). As a conscripted naval officer, Ferlinghetti had taken part in the invasion of Normandy and had been stationed in Japan at the end of WWII, when he “made several visits to Nagasaki shortly after the city had been destroyed by atomic bombs. Witnessing the devastation of Nagasaki transformed Ferlinghetti into an ardent peace activist and anarchist” (Claypool). For the poet, these visits were a profoundly soul-shattering and transformative experience very much akin to that of Neruda during the tragic Spanish Civil War. San Francisco, the West Coast metropolis of his long-time “inveterate” residence (since 1951), had named him in 1998 the city's first official Poet Laureate and had even re-named one of its streets after him (the protected landmark of Via Ferlinghetti) for having done more to put the city on the literary map than any other living writer. But the principled opposition to war by Ferlinghetti, already counterculture San Francisco's bohemian pre-eminence (“Dissident poetry is not un-American”) and 2003 Robert Frost medalist, extended well beyond the Vietnam conflict. “Due to the inhuman and illegal Middle East war launched by Bush the Second and his far-rightist planners of the new Pox Americana in defiance of the United Nations and most of the population of the world, we at City Lights Bookstore will close our doors for the day when U.S. forces begin their attack, hoping that everyone will join us in demonstrating for peace,” read a public announcement posted by the famous Beat co-founder and proprietor of the legendary San Francisco bookstore and publishing house on the eve of the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq (Claypool). “Speak Out” thus came out of Ferlinghetti's fervent opposition to the White House's Afghan and Iraqi military misadventures.
The poem was composed in early 2003, when poetry publisher Sam Hamill and several fellow poets urged Ferlinghetti to protest the approaching U.S. military aggression against Iraq and observe “A National Day of Poetry Against the War” by submitting his antiwar work to their new Web site, www.poetsagainstthewar.org, a hard copy of which was delivered to the White House (along with thousands of other antiwar poems). Like Kinnell, Ferlinghetti performed “Speak Out” during a February 12-17, 2003 series of readings at the Avery Fishery Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, sponsored by the antiwar organization “Not in Our Name.” Later, his new poem was included in Hamill's anthology of antiwar poetry, Poets against the War, along with Kinnell's “The Olive Wood Fire” (Hamill xvii-xxi). Unlike the other two antiwar poems discussed here, “Speak Out” is as unconventional, rebellious, shrill, and rambunctious as an unruly child inside the largely stolid house of contemporary American poetry. It reads almost like a primaeval scream against the U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks. Also unlike the other two poems, “Speak Out” is a great performance poem (one of Ferlinghetti's many) composed for the ear rather than for the eye.
The melodious and punctuation-free narrative opens in the style of a Homeric epic poem by introducing the political context of this tragic story: “And a vast paranoia sweeps across the land / And America turns the attack on its Twin Towers” (1-2)—quite unsurprisingly, given the nature of the beast—“Into the beginning of the Third World War / The war with the Third World” (3-4). Having been attacked on September 11, his country is now swept by a “vast paranoia...across the land.” America's response to the bombing of “its Twin Towers” is launching a “war with the Third World.” (Instead of the previously feared nuclear annihilation of a “Third World War” with the Soviet Union, the conflict is actually with two poor and already war-devastated Third-World countries, Afghanistan and Iraq.) The poet angrily condemns “the terrorists” occupying the White House's Oval Office for having started yet another war of foreign conquest and domination: “And the terrorists in Washington / Are shipping out the young men / To the killing fields again” (5-7). For a more dramatic effect and added emphasis on his message of protest against the latest wars by the White House warmongers, Ferlinghetti uses twice the repetitive refrain of “To the killing fields again / And no one speaks” (7-8 and 14-15). The use of refrain as an internal form of repetition is much favored by all performance poets.
Next, the author employs once again an anaphora (repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of several successive clauses, sentences, lines, or verses, usually for emphasis or rhetorical effect)—“And” and “All” in this case—to draw attention to the government's companion war on the individual rights and civil liberties of minorities and immigrants, especially Muslims, “And they are rousting out / All the ones with turbans” (9-10), as well as of other similarly “strange immigrants”: “And they are flushing out / All the strange immigrants” (11-12). The poet is afraid that even dissident artists like himself may be next to be rounded up by the authorities: “And when they come to round up / All the great writers and poets and painters” (16-17), while the nation's top cultural institutions like the National Endowment of the Arts, which the poet mocks by his parody of its name, remain complacent and silent: “The National Endowment of the Arts of Complacency / Will not speak” (18-19). The poet-anarchist does not seem to have any faith in America's institutions to protect either his civil liberties or those of other American artists.
Nor does Ferlinghetti have much faith in the establishment's many “lovers” of human rights speaking out for peace and justice. He now transforms the previously twice-repeated refrain of “To the killing fields again / And no one speaks” into a new refrain, “While all the young men / Will be killing all the young men / In the killing fields again” (20-22), which is a masterful prelude to his sarcastic call (“now is the time for you to speak”) upon “All” of America's hypocritical intellectuals and self-proclaimed “lovers of liberty” and “lovers of the pursuit of happiness,” who seem to be “deep” asleep in their selfish and inward-looking “private dream”:
So now is the time for you to speak
All you lovers of liberty
All you lovers of the pursuit of happiness
All you lovers and sleepers
Deep in your private dream. (23-27)
Ferlinghetti does not seem to expect these numerous human-rights “advocates” (like Freedom House, Helsinki Watch, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the other so-called “non-governmental organizations” fronting for the federal government) to wake up any time soon from their official ideology-induced stupor and start opposing the new wars.
The poem ends with Ferlinghetti's urgent, conscience-awakening appeal to those Americans, who have always formed Richard Nixon's conservative “silent majority”: “Now is the time for you to speak / O silent majority / Before they come for you!” (28-30). The last line especially, “Before they come for you!”, is an obvious allusion to the illustrious words of a German clergyman imprisoned by the Nazis, who famously denounced the cowardice of his countrymen under Adolf Hitler's dictatorship: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me” (this quote, from which the poem's title may have been derived, is reproduced here from memory). In its pointed antiwar message, “Speak Out” is far more explicitly political than either “The Olive Wood Fire” or even “I Explain A Few Things,” inasmuch it mercilessly lambasts the aggressively war-like government of Ferlinghetti's own homeland rather than the fascist/Nazi militaries and governments of foreign countries. Now it is Ferlinghetti's turn to prove that politicized poetry does not have to be aesthetically compromised, inferior, clichéd, or boring to read/listen to. Quite to the contrary, “Speak Out” is simply an exquisite performance poem, the work of a true creative genius.
In recapitulating the message from the poems of Neruda, Kinnell, and Ferlinghetti, one might consider the words of Sam Hamill, poet, essayist, poetry translator and publisher, and editor of Poets against the War—the anthology of antiwar poetry, in which both “The Olive Wood Fire” and “Speak Out” appear: “A government is a government of words, and when those words are used to mislead, to instill fear or to invite silence, it is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly” (Hamill xxi). This memorable quote succinctly sums up the dissident artistic philosophy which unites our three very different antiwar poets: a Surrealist and Communist “poet of the people” from Chile, whom the world-renowned Latin American novelist Gabriel García Márquez called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”; an introspective Yankee from America's Northeast, who was “one of our most accomplished poets” as well as “one of the best kept secrets among contemporary writers” (Calhoun ix); and a wildly anarchistic “Renaissance man“ (“Be subversive, constantly questioning reality and the status quo”) and Beat poet from counterculture San Francisco. Likewise, a common antiwar motif unites these three artistically very disparate poems: a moving political ode about the fascist/Nazi/Francista destruction of the democratic Spanish Republic; a Vietnam War-induced personal reverie about war, life, and indiscriminate death (“darkness”); and an unconventional performance poem which reads like an angry personal rant against the brutal U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These three antiwar songs by our “Three Tenors” of verse are unforgettable and extraordinary in being among the most remarkable antiwar poems of the twentieth century.
Calhoun, Richard J. Galway Kinnell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. Print.
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