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War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Part I World War II

Phillip Metres,  English professor at John Carroll University, has written Behind the Lines:  War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941, the first important book of literary criticism about anti-war poetry of the last 70 years. Metres has also edited a poetry anthology Come Together:  Imagine Peace (2008). Between the Lines is an important book for all who care about U.S. literature and culture as Metres excavates a lost tradition of U.S. anti-war literature and anti-war culture.

The first part "World War II;  The Poetics of Conscientious Objection" focuses on the conscientious objector (C.O.) who was also a poet. Metres argues that though English anti-war poetry and the modern peace movement emerged from the horrors of World War I, "the American peace movement owes its particular identity to the cultural transformation during and after the Second World War." The carnage of trench warfare in World War I and the English soldier/poets who fought in the trenches--Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon etc-- are widely known, read, and anthologized but the United States C.O. poets of World War II are not well- known except for Lowell.

Metres provides the important context  that 50,000 Americans refused to fight in World War II,  6,000 C.O.s were in prison (one in six men in federal prison was a C.O.), and 12,000 worked in Civilian Public Service Camps as an alternative to prison.  In the camps C.O.s fought forest fires, built dams, planted trees, farmed, worked in mental hospitals, raised money for war victims, etc. Of course, most C.O.s were from the Protestant peace churches who forbade participation in any war:  Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren , and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Many of C.O.s who started nonviolent resistant organizing while in prison later became leaders in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements:  Dave Dillinger; James Farmer; Jim Peck; and Bayard Rustin. Two CO's, Lew Hill and Roy Kepler, would found Pacifica radio in the Bay Area in the late 1940s as a place where anti-war voices could be heard. Further, Metres tells us that the C.O.s at Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut had a hunger strike which successfully integrated the prison cafeteria, the first federal prison integrated. These C.O.s began practicing non-violent resistance as a way to change society within fedral prison and C.O. camps and then emerged as anti-war, civil rights, and literary leaders in the next four decades reshaping American politics and culture.

Metres gives excellent analysis on three C.O. poets:  Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and William Everson. Metres convincingly argues that Lowell's famous poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" about his C.O. service really is about 1950s domesticity and cynicism undercutting the youthful poet's Catholic idealism. Lowell became in the 1960s an important poet who refused to go speak at Johnson's White House but Metres argues Lowell's anti-war poetry is lacking.

William Stafford produced an imporant memoir about his time as a C.O., Down in My Heart, which  is about the "complexity and burden of nurturing [nonviolent] community." Metres and others recognized that "Stafford's lifelong commitment to nonviolent war reistance" was the central fact of his life and his poetry--and his commitment was solidified by his four years spent in C.O. campus during World War II.  Metres argues that over the next four decades Stafford would write short  lyrics many of which were obsessed over peace and war, and these lyrics "impart some hardwon wisdom." Stafford like Frost uses deceptively simple surfaces in his lyrics as "a way of adressing the reader and creating through parable, a way of living that has been "forgotten by everyone." Stafford in his poem describes the peaceable community at its marches, giving us history from the bottom up. The poet also gives attention to the natural world as an act of reistance:  "attention to his present amounted to a reclamation of time itself--of the span of moments--from the claims of the state ...."

The third C.O. poet is William Everson, who while a C.O. founded the Fine Arts Camp at Waldport, Oregon. There he founded Untide Press and published his own and others' war resistance poetry during World War II. Everson's poems X War Elegies and  Waldport Poems according to Metres "articulate the polarities of the experience of objection--from the early hopes , the the gradual disillusions--and finally point to life beyond the campus, where objectors would reenter American society with tempered utopianism." Metres then describes how Everson and his colleagues in the Fine Arts Camp as well as Kenneth Rexroth, another poet C.O., in the late 1940s ignited the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.  Rexroth and Everson joined with other poets--Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer--to begin an experimentation in new poetry forms as well as utopian practices that resulted in beat/countercultures of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The chapters in Metres' book on World War II C.O. poets are fascinating in unearthing this lost history of American poetry, but they are only one-third of the book (I'll talk about the remaining 2/3 of the book in a later post). There is one flaw in Metres' book. He should have included a chapter on Kenneth Rexroth, the fourth important C.O. poet. Before being interned, Rexroth helped Japanese-Americans fight for their civil rights. Rexroth was an important poet, organizer and translator--particular of Japanese of Chinese poetry. Metres accurately states that many like Everson were influenced by Thoreau's ideas of civil disobedience, but the 1930s left also affected many of these poets, particular Rexroth and Rukeyser. I'd also like to hear more about how the C.O.poets connected to Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Patchen, two famous poet also writing anti-war poetry in this period. But these are quibbles. Metres book is a brilliant piece of work.