November 8-15, 2006

home | metro santa cruz index | the arts | books | poet profiles

Honoring All Soldiers By Questioning War

Local poets Tom Marshal and Rob Wilson hold a Veterans Day reading

By Laura Mattingly

During a war in which images of returning coffins are banned from the media--and venues for questioning the country's political actions are limited to free speech zones, The Daily Show and the privacy of personal therapy sessions--the country once again seems in need of vocal and impassioned poetry.

On Veterans Day at Louden Nelson Center, two socially and politically conscious Santa Cruz poets will host a reading to commemorate the soldiers and everyone else who has been touched in some way by the war. Poet Rev. Tom Marshal is an English instructor at Cabrillo College, and poet Rob Wilson is a professor of literature at UCSC.

"In these poems I'm trying to address as many people as possible: anybody who might be thinking about the war, soldiers, their moms, their relatives, the people who put them there," says Marshal of the works he intends to read this week. "I think we're all involved. I think one of the things that motivates this poetry is that to some extent we're all involved and we can't dissociate ourselves simply by being angry about what's going on."

Marshal carefully chose the wording on the flier to be as inclusive and respectful to veterans as possible, wishing to bridge gaps between groups rather than aggravate them.

"I put on the flier that phrase, 'honoring all veterans by questioning war,' and I have heard from a number of veterans of the recent wars that they're not being treated fairly in a number of ways, that the war itself is something that they might rather not have had to participate in," says Marshal.

Marshal, in his poetry, and for this event specifically, uses the technique of "questioning" rather than imposing judgment or offering answers.

"I think that the idea of offering some poetry that questions the war--and doesn't just yell at Bush or seem self-righteous about it--seems like a way to serve those veterans. And as I thought about it, I thought, well, that's kind of the same story I heard even from my dad and my uncles and my grandfather about service that they did, that they certainly wished the politicians would have found a way to solve things other than war."

Wilson also considers poetry and critical voice as integral to democracy, and believes that poetry, rather than straight news, has the potential to not just transmit information but also unsettle the listener on other experiential levels.

"I think if people hear a poem like "Howl," it turns their head around, and they say, 'Wow, we're still there.' Whereas if you watch the news you just say, 'Ugh, well, you know, that's just the news.' You don't have a way of breaking it through," says Wilson.

Though the audience for page poetry, or poetry in the written form, has all but disappeared in the contemporary United States, Wilson holds the unique view that one essence of poetry as a venue for critical questioning exists in other media forms.

"That's why even Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, is kind of like a poem, it kind of estranges the news, makes it look kind of stupid. Or Dave Chappelle does the same thing. They're like poets to me, they just kind of weird-it-out, they're not like CNN, which to me just sounds like the Bush regime. It's very uncritical. ... You've got to have a critical perspective, so poetry, journalism, writing, actually, is very important to a democracy."

Wilson's own questions center on how to respond to what he, and a growing number of people in the United States, believe is an "unjust war." He maintains respect for the soldiers and their experiences, while strongly disagreeing with the decisions of policymakers.

"One thing I would want to say is, my father fought in World War II, and he fought in Anzio, and he fought in northern Africa. To me that was a just war," says Wilson. "I actually agree with the pope, Pope John Paul II, that this was an unjust war all along, an obscenely unjust war. I marched in the streets against it. The pope said that this [war] was going to open the doors of hell, and that's kind of what's happened. Bush, who claims to be a Christian, just let it happen, and the bodies are just mounting up to high heaven. I just feel it's an obscenity."

The tradition of antiwar and anti-commodification poetry in the United States caught its wind in the 1950s with the works of now famous Beat poets and prose writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and others. Though not restricting themselves to being strictly Beat, both Marshal and Wilson consciously draw from this tradition and others, Marshal having studied with Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute, as well as with W.S. Merwin, Robin Blazer and Ron Silliman.

Much of the Beats' writing sustains its popularity, Ginsberg being arguably the most mainstream American poet since Whitman. Wilson understands this as an indication that much of the Beats' criticism of American mainstream culture remains relevant, perhaps even more so, today.

In the poem "Howl," Ginsberg uses the Old Testament concept of "mammonism" to describe the postwar proliferation of materialism in the United States.

"You know, mammon's like a false idol," says Wilson, "it's the machinery of plunder. Mammon is in 'Howl,' it's a kind of an Old Testament image of not worshipping false idols, and when you worship golden calves or oil or something. He, Tom, is a reverend; I'm not, I'm just kind of a small-town Catholic poet, but I want to have an exorcism. So I'm going to play Blind Willie Johnson's 'John the Revelator,' and maybe five minutes of 'Howl,' the mammon section, because it fits so well. He [Ginsberg] was talking about the Cold War of the 1950s and it's actually worse now, much worse."

In line with this thinking, Marshal, in addition to his other poems, will be reading a rant-style poem on the "possession of possessions." His intention in all of the work he'll be reading is for it to be accessible, relevant and hopefully thought-provoking for the general public, rather than specifically geared toward poetry aficionados.

"It's a short series of poems that interweave the sensibilities of soldiers and their mothers. To me they're an attempt to do poetry's work of raising questions about the language that we use and how it affects our thinking, and I have tried to write in a way that any American could get."

Marshal's respect for the counterculture poets of the 1950s, '60s and '70s is coupled with his awareness that their impact at times fell short.

"When poetry became simply angry, simply self-righteous, I think it failed," says Marshal. "I avoided using the word rant just now because I was afraid it might be associated with Diane DiPrima's work, and I think of her as a person who did raise questions. There are others whose rants were more simple and self-righteous, and that's happening again today, and I think we could do better than that."

Meticulously aware that antiwar poetry can easily become exclusionary, Marshal hopes that through intention this can be avoided.

"I don't want to condemn anybody or blame anybody," says Marshal. "I just really would like to point in the direction of something more I think we could do. If we satisfy ourselves with our anger, it has gone nowhere."


The flag flaps running down the
       free-way in a pick-up bed,
or lazily drapes its tall pole in the still blinding heat.
Neatly folded tri-corner, it is handed over in the end--
all the wind knocked out of it--
to one who wonders if she would or could begin again.
--Rev. Tom Marshal

Tom Marshal and Rob Wilson will read Saturday, Nov. 11, at 7:30pm at Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz; 831.420.6177.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.


Museums and gallery notes.

Reviews of new book releases.

Reviews and previews of new plays, operas and symphony performances.

Reviews and previews of new dance performances and events.