A mouthful of air: the power of poetry in a time of war


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There’s little doubt that Russia’s war against Ukraine is one of the best documented in history — we have a profusion of photographs and film footage, literally millions of posts on social media, countless articles in magazines and newspapers, as well as novels and memoirs, some of which have already been discussed. I’m here to speak on behalf of the documentary power of one of our oldest technologies, poetry, which has reflected on war since at least the days of Homer and the Greek tragedians. But what exactly does poetry contribute to the discourse?

The essay was initially presented at a series of public discussions titled “Wartime Documentation: Literature, Memoirs and Testimonies” (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, April 22-24, 2024).



It’s commonplace for so-called “people of action” to regard poetry wryly, as a somewhat precious and frivolous activity conducted against the backdrop of the real work being done in the shaping and transforming of the material world by engineers, architects, lawyers, soldiers, and politicians. Poets themselves, on the other hand, have risked hubris in exalting the power of language: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme,” writes Shakespeare, scorning the fleeting victories of “wasteful wars” in favor of the lasting triumphs of immortal verse.



Yet poets are surely wise not to over-valorize the role they play during an armed struggle — unless, like Serhiy Zhadan and a number of others, they’re also enlisted in the military. It is, after all, nearly impossible to convey the reality of war through language, as Zbigniew Herbert observed in his poem, Episode in a Library:



A blonde girl is bent over a poem. With a pencil sharp as a lancet she transfers the words to a blank page and changes them into strokes, accents, caesuras. The lament of a fallen poet now looks like a salamander eaten away by ants.

When we carried him away under machine-gun fire, I believed that his still warm body would be resurrected in the word. Now as I watch the death of the words, I know there is no limit to decay. All that will be left after us in the black earth will be scattered syllables. Accents over nothingness and dust.



The academy is certainly capable of squeezing the life out of literature. Fortunately, literature always finds a way of breaking free of its embrace.


We might instinctively imagine war to be inimical to poetry, yet it’s a strange truth that, for better or worse, war has not only provided writers with a subject, but their direct experience of it has influenced the values espoused in their work. Both Sophocles and Aeschylus were former soldiers who took part in major battles and held high ranks in the Greek military. (Serhiy Zhadan take note: Aeschylus was 46 when he last fought the Persians in the Battle of Platea). Even the bookish Euripides, who eschewed military service and declared himself a pacifist, made an exception for defensive war, which he regarded as inherently virtuous.



More recently, World War I gave us T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” David Jones’ “In Parenthesis,” and Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” which ends with this damning declaration:



There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization.


For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.



The struggle on behalf of that botched civilization continued; consider the roster of names to emerge from the crucible of World War II — Paul Celan, Eugenio Montale, Primo Levi, Zbigniew Herbert, Rene Char, Wislawa Szymborska, Wasyl Barka, W.H. Auden…



Obviously, poetry’s focus differs from that of journalists, filmmakers, social media influencers, and historians. Poetry centers on “being” rather than “doing,” and it’s precisely the distance from direct action that defines its singular strength and contribution. In his essay “The Redress of Poetry,” Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrestles with the question of how poetry can be an agent “for proclaiming and correcting injustices” without sacrificing what it owes to the art itself — that is, without becoming propaganda. He points to its capacity to help orient the reader’s (or listener’s) inner life while reflecting on the external world.



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Heaney writes: “If our given experience is a labyrinth, its impassibility can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting… us with a vivid experience of it. Such an operation does not intervene in the actual but by offering consciousness a chance to recognize its predicament… it offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit…” He further adds that he can see how this might not be enough to satisfy committed activists.


Poetry, in other words, is soul work, offering readers what William Carlos Williams calls “the hunted news”:



“It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.”



That this kind of work is meaningful for the citizens of Ukraine, even during Russia’s siege, is evident from remarks made at Harvard last week by the writer Yuri Andrukhovych. He described the large audiences attending events, from poetry readings to rock concerts, taking place underground, in tunnels and subways, during air raids. “Culture has become a kind of cult,” he quipped.



But just what kind of news does poetry offer? What does Williams mean by “the hunted news”? Here we should remember that Williams was a physician, a pediatrician, and general practitioner whose work put him in direct contact with people at their most vulnerable. By “the hunted news,” he meant that spark of energy he felt when looking into a patient’s eyes. He describes it as the moment when the patient opened to the healing energy of someone else; that moment when the barrier between self and other dissolved, allowing for a comprehensive and radical recognition of common humanity and purpose. It is worth noting that such dynamic encounters are more common in times of stress or emergency, when one is ill, or during a war. We’ve heard many stories about the fortifying experience arising from the collective efforts of communities in crisis. Poetry strives for language capable of communicating such life-affirming energy directly to the reader while offering a shelter, a temporary haven, for all who recognize contemplation and thought as vital, not marginal, pursuits.


I gained another level of understanding of the mood in Odesa, for example, when I read poet Lyudmyla Khersonska: “In a country where everyone’s name is fear:/it’s a good thing that you don’t see a thing/and don’t hear a thing. Say to anyone not a thing….” The closed society Khersonska described is precisely one in which it’s not possible to get the hunted news. In a closed society, people are compelled to be guarded, secretive and mistrustful. For this, they pay a price. A closed society short-circuits the dynamic energy exchange that makes life meaningful.




I’d like, finally, to underscore what’s singular about the poetry emerging from this war — and to consider what it might say to future historians. Perhaps the most obviously striking difference is that so much “war poetry” has been written by women. “In the Hour of War: Poetry From Ukraine,” an essential anthology compiled by two American poets championing Ukrainian literature to an American audience, Carolyn Forche and the native Odesan Ilya Kaminsky, contains work by 12 men and 14 women. The titles of poems alone tell their own tale: “Explosions are the New Normal,” “People Carry Explosives Around the City,” “In the Hospital Rooms of My Country,” “1918,” “Sniper,” “trees are budding with war,” “Eastern Europe is a pit of death and decaying plums,” “Funeral Services.”



In “Take Only What is Most Important,” Serhiy Zhadan describes what those fleeing their homes might carry with them, and all they’ll lose by leaving: “We will never see our corner store again.” It’s as though he’s trying to prepare himself and his readers for certain inevitable losses, and the hardships to come:



“We’ll scoop up water with our bare hands,

sit waiting in camps, annoying the dragons of war.”



Halyna Kruk, on the other hand, emphasizes all the things a person can do without: “How much does a person really need/to reach safety…./I don’t need underwear/don’t need a change/except extra socks…./and it turns out even keys/are non-essential.”


Poets remind themselves (and their readers) of the importance of keeping perspective inside the frenzy of war, and move us by displaying nimble wit under impossible conditions, as in these lines from Iya Kiva: “You get a sickly short haircut/as if preparing your head for something horrible,” or in this stanza by Ekaterina Derisheva: “You just want to take a warm shower/stretch your legs/sleep the whole night in your bed/instead you lie between sashes/of bathtub and blanket/as if you were a scallop or an oyster/though I be no pearl.”



One notices the absence of sentimentality and mawkishness in the poems. On the contrary, consider the rakish wit of Yulia Musakovska’s brilliant contemporary allegory, “What’s rattling in the bag.” The poet re-imagines the story of Cain and Abel in which the older brother slays the younger, then plants one of his bones in the garden from which an apple tree rises. The older brother explains his motivation:



“It is because your wife is prettier

your song is louder

your soil is richer,

the apple tree in your garden grows taller.

Give me your wife,

your land,

tie your song

in a knot in your throat.”


But the dead brother will have his revenge on his murderer:


“Your wife will come outside

and take a bite of an apple.

She will fall dead.

Your children will come out,

they will take a bite

and fall lifelessly.

The sun will rise

and burn your house to the ground,

sowing the land with ashes.”



Musakovska has, incidentally, also written some remarkable love poems during the war, one of which, “The Vow,” which imagines an utterly contemporary set of marriage vows, has in fact been used by couples in wedding ceremonies during the war.



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In an essay published shortly after the end of World War II, the Italian Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo noted: “War alters the moral life of a people. Man, at his return from war, no longer finds measures of certainty in an inner mode of life, a mode he has forgotten or treated ironically during his trials with death…War summons up…a hidden order in the thought of man, a greater grasp of the truth….”


I’d like to end by registering the tonal changes evident in two poems by one of Ukraine’s great women of letters, Marjana Savka. The first, written in 2007 while the poet was on a fellowship in the United States, is titled “Easter Jazz”:


Sonny Rollins

mad and bearded like a god with his sax

wild as the wind

beating against the door

of Symphony Hall

prophesizes that spring still has a chance

to bloom

and the mindloose jazz

and my desire

and blood

blow recklessly through my veins

I go

I dance

I catch the syncopations,

Lord of Jazz,

Bless, please, this our Easter.



The poem is a celebration of a sort of union of secular and spiritual pleasures abundantly available in so-called “normal times.”  Here, the prophet and liberating presence is the “Lord of Jazz” himself, the celebrated saxophonist Sonny Rollins whose music stokes his audience to get up and dance.


Now compare this with the Savka poem included in the Forche/Kaminsky anthology:



My god spends all night forming his battalions,

Is a crack shot, wages wars.

My god forgives my curses

As he polishes his stones.

My god won’t hide behind my back,

Throws quilted covers over children.

My god buys tourniquets

Then lines up to give blood.

My god can’t get a good night’s sleep

While the entire country’s standing guard

My god allows me never to forgive

And lets me call things as they are.


Calling things as they are has long been one of poetry’s most important functions and contributions to the general discourse. The poem’s note is unmistakably martial. Its tone contrasts sharply with the voice in the earlier poem. The innocence of the earlier poetry demonstrated an innocence regained after centuries of struggle.  Perhaps — because one feels a desperate need to bring something positive out of this waste, “having to construct something upon which to rejoice,” as T. S. Eliot put it — the one benefit this new disillusioned voice offers is the gift of disillusionment itself.  The poet herself is the prophet faithful to her art’s calling by speaking truth to power by honoring the demands of reality. As another poet, Dmitri Bliznyk, puts it: “Take immortality, God, but give/me this cold apple cellar. Take the souls/and other toys, but let us live….”


What will historians make of these documents in the future? Whose version of what happened will they believe?


Remembering is what poetry is good at. Indeed, the techniques of traditional poetry were designed to facilitate memorization: rhyme and meter are mnemonic devices. Yet it’s worth noting that, while free verse has long been an accessible mode for Ukrainian poets, many continue to deploy traditional prosody. In one of his most delicate yet tensile poems, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats addresses the Irish revolutionary and activist Maud Gonne, a woman he once hoped to marry, as she is publicly attacked by her political enemies. In “He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of his Beloved,” the poet raises the shield of verse against the banter of pundits:



Half-close your eyelids, loosen your hair,

And dream about the great and their pride;

They have spoken against you everywhere.

Now weigh this song with the great and their pride;

I made it out of a mouthful of air,

Their children’s children shall say they have lied.



Today, students all over the world study Yeats’ poem; no one remembers the names of Maud Gonne’s critics.



Copy editing: David Joseph Soares, Terra Friedman King




The essay was initially presented at a series of public discussions titled “Wartime Documentation: Literature, Memoirs, and Testimonies” (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, April 22-24, 2024). The project is implemented within the framework of the Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky Ukrainian Studies Support Program of the Ukrainian Institute and the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, with support from the International Renaissance Foundation.