Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Work & Days” and “Rift Zone.” She is the editor of the new book “Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands That Tend Them.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
This week, US Sen. Tommy Tuberville gave poets a wonderful compliment. It is imperative to root out “wokeness,” he claimed in an interview on Fox News Wednesday, adding that the world (and the US military) are falling apart because “we’ve got people doing poems on aircraft carriers over the loudspeaker.”
From where I am, traveling the country on book tour, reading poems which I hope will spark a seed of joy or empathy in people I meet, I had to laugh. After all, Tuberville, who’s also famous for mucking with the work of military confirmations, enjoys his own bombast. He didn’t mean to compliment poets! But, in sounding the alarm about how our poor Navy recruits are falling victim to the siren song of poetry, he reminded us that poetry is powerful: It can wake us up in dark spaces. It can call us to ourselves even (and especially) on Navy aircraft carriers.
Tuberville, of course, also revealed his ignorance about the history of the US military, about the inner lives of soldiers and about what poems really do. For context: Reading and writing poetry while at war has been long considered an urgent, humanizing and patriotic act.
Some of the best poems in our literature are the poems of WWI’s trenches, including those by Robert Frost’s friend, Edward Thomas, who gave his life in the English infantry. Some of America’s best books have been sent alongside American soldiers into battle. Between 1943 and 1947—as US military of all stripes were fighting fascism, facing down terrifying missions worldwide—the Council of Books in Wartime sent a dazzling 123 million books to soldiers, in carefully designed editions light enough to fit in a soldier’s pocket. The books included bestsellers, classics, books by Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter and the reprinted edition of “A Boy’s Will” — by none other than Frost.
“Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas,” read a poster that circulated widely at the time. The American idea — the patriotic idea — was that having ideas, savoring them, using them to cultivate and feel one’s own humanity, was restorative human work, necessary for anyone who was going to put their life on the line. This was the work of freedom, and this freedom — of thought and spirit — made life worth fighting for.
So reading poetry while deployed is not new, nor is it, as Tuberville said, “insane.” It is, in fact, a way of helping anyone going to war locate the deep sanity from which any of us take moral action at all. Perhaps, ultimately, that’s what Tuberville fears about it.
It’s not really about the content of the poetry. The poems sent along with WWII soldiers include Frost’s “Mending Wall,” an old chestnut about borders and barriers and laying stone. If it’s about battle, or politics, or identity, the reference is slant. A WWI masterpiece, Edward Thomas’s poem “As The Team’s Head Brass” holds the tragedy of war as a charged offstage character which is nonetheless transforming life at home. More recent poems, like Brian Turner’s magnificent “Here, Bullet” capture the texture of warfare, bear witness to it for other soldiers and for those left behind.
Here’s what poets know and Tuberville fears: that poems can reroute us, dig deep in us, help us turn over some stones in our own soul. Poetry helps us declare our inner lives. Perhaps that is what Tuberville finds most dangerous about it. Personally, I find that danger charged and thrilling. Let us all risk this danger far more often.
As I wrote this article, I called Turner, a poet who served in the second infantry division in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 to ask him what he thought about Tuberville’s comments. Beyond being full of “ignorance” Turner told me, he thought Tuberville’s was a comment “borne of a fear of humanity or tenderness.” He’s “using it as a wedge, but he has no idea what it’s like to be a service member,” Turner told me.
The second infantry in Iraq was full of poetry: Turner remembers both a lieutenant in his platoon who read poetry and the open poetry nights at a large base north of Baghdad. Turner, already a published poet before his deployment, wrote in his notebook between missions. When he wrote “Here, Bullet,” he carried it in a plastic bag in a Velcro pocket in his uniform, so that it would be on his person in case he died. “If I’d been killed it would have been what they found on my body,” he told me.
The poem “was a way of being in conversation with the closeness of both beauty and possibility of death,” Turner said. Writing poetry was for him also about “remembering beauty” and” knowing that even as I was fighting, I am really in love with the world.” Soldiers are not robots, Turner told me. “We are human beings in an impossible situation. And we come home and we play guitar, we do the things that reconnect to ourselves.”
“Tuberville thinks that poetry is a weakness, but it’s actually a strength,” he said. “Knowing our feelings, knowing that we care for people, knowing that we care about the world is fundamental to knowing what we want to do with our lives, what we want to protect with them.”
In the years since, Turner said he has visited all of the US’s military academies repeatedly, to be part of a conversation with the future officer corps. “These are people who are working to deepen their imaginations to prepare for the experiences that they are going to have.” At West Point or Annapolis, he loves to hear the young soldiers he meets talk about “The Iliad.” “They are deeply engaged with questions of life and death and they need these poems,” he said. “Poetry is a tool we have to deal with the inexpressible. It’s one of the ways we ground ourselves.”
Maybe it’s this grounding that Tuberville fears most. What do those poems on aircraft carriers do? What is their real danger? “No poem ever stopped a tank,” said Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet from Northern Ireland who knew a thing or two about living through a deadening tide of ongoing violence. In that sense, Heaney argued that “poetry was useless.” But he also knew that poetry and the imaginative arts “verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self / that lies at the base of every individuated life.”
Which is to say, poems resound inside us, they help us excavate the glinting mettle of our inner lives, the deepest stuff of which we are made. If this is being woke, let’s keep waking and waking and waking up.