Poetry and Conflict: Postcard From St. Andrews, Scotland

Sara Polsky

Five years ago, as poets and readers converged on St. Andrews, Scotland, for the annual StAnza poetry festival, the war began in Iraq. This year’s festival, held from March 12 to March 16, acknowledged that anniversary explicitly with its two themes, “Poetry & Conflict” and “Sea of Tongues.”

In the face of such gargantuan destructiveness, how on earth can we sit here and talk about poetry?

The festival’s participants included Adrian Mitchell, the 2008 poet-in-residence; Sarah Maguire, this year’s festival lecturer and director of London’s Poetry Translation Centre; and Brian Turner, whose debut poetry collection, Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005), draws on the year he spent as an infantry team leader in Iraq.

Underlying the readings and discussions was a sense of uncertainty about the purpose of poetry in disastrous times. As Maguire put it on Friday evening, during the annual StAnza lecture, which focused on the poetry and conflict theme, “In the face of such gargantuan destructiveness, how on earth can we sit here and talk about poetry?” What use is poetry— or discussions among poets about poetry—in wartime?

The answer for a few festival participants was, essentially, not much. “Poetry is useless—that’s part of its appeal,” poet August Kleinzahler said earlier on Friday, during the festival’s poetry and conflict-themed discussion, a panel featuring Kleinzahler, Mitchell, Turner, and poet and St. Andrews English professor Tom Jones. Prose, songs, and film are all better suited for making arguments about war, or for inspiring people “toward resistance or restraint,” Kleinzahler argued. As for discussions about poetry, Kleinzahler asked, “I wonder what a conversation like this, among intelligent, middle-class people who feel the same way, can do?”

But most of the poets reading and speaking at this year’s StAnza festival had more encouraging answers to Maguire’s question. Mitchell said that he began to write poems at age fourteen, “partly because I’d fallen in love for the first time and partly because I was getting very worried about why people killed each other.” As for the impact of that anxiety-inspired poetry on others, poets “influence the people we write for, and they influence us,” said Mitchell, a pacifist who joined the Air Force “determined never to kill anyone,” and whose views on war permeate his poetry.

Turner said he sees his poetry as part of a conversation about the war. “I don’t see war in America,” Turner said. Instead, the news focuses on the election campaigns and pop culture figures, and “soldiers are taught to put things in a box” rather than talk about the war when they come home. Turner asked audience members to raise their hands if they knew people who’d served in wars and, seeing hands go up, pointed out that maybe it would help everyone if veterans talked more about their experiences.

“The war doesn’t really stop for the living that have survived it,” Turner said, and his own poetry reading at StAnza offered evidence, from the “in-your-face” declarations of his book’s title poem (which begins, “If a body is what you want, / then here is bone and gristle and flesh”) to “Eulogy,” a poem about the suicide of a fellow soldier.

Maguire, in her lecture, pointed out that poetry has been used as a tool in past wars—during the Cold War, for example, when much poetry from the Soviet Union was translated for Western audiences. More importantly, Maguire noted the significant role poetry plays in some of the most war-torn places in the world. People from these countries “can’t understand why anyone would think poetry irrelevant,” because it is so valued by their cultures. “Somalis are arguably the most poetry-obsessed people on earth,” said Maguire, who has worked with Somali poets through the Poetry Translation Centre, which supports the translation of contemporary poetry from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Maguire called translating poetry “the opposite of war,” and the exchange of poetry across cultures was another theme of this year’s StAnza festival. Frisian poets Tsead Bruinja and Elmar Kuiper and Norwegian poets Odveig Klyve and Finn Oglaend, among others, read work in translation and in their native languages at an event on Thursday. In fact, more poets from outside the Anglophone world participated in this year’s events than in any previous StAnza festival.

It would be hard to make a more convincing argument for the value of poetry, in wartime or otherwise.