The US Library of Congress invited David Lehman to contribute to a series of essays by leaders in the literary field, including former Poets Laureate and Consultants in Poetry, that illustrate how poems by Americans helped define the country. This presentation aims to complement conventional historical texts and showcase poetry’s place as an essential tool for recording our nation’s past. The authors are expressing their own opinions in these essays, which may not necessarily reflect the position of the Library of Congress. Here is David Lehman's contribution:
Peace and War in American Poetry
War and Peace: the title of Tolstoy’s massive novel of Napoleonic Europe trips off the tongue. Not so “peace and war”: the inversion of the customary word order represents a victory of hope over experience — or of the poetry of aspiration over the prose of sad actuality. As a subject for poetry, war has an immediate advantage over peace, because war entails action, whereas the experience of peace is an absence, not noticed until not there, like the absence of pain.
War was the first subject to quicken the pen of an epic poet. But the author of The Iliadknew that the scenes of the Trojan hero Hector in battle with Patroclus and later with Achilles would not be so remarkable if there were not also a tender scene of Hector bidding farewell to Andromache, his wife, and their baby boy, who is scared of daddy’s helmet. Epic poets have followed Homer’s lead, widening the scope of war inevitably to include peace – whether peace be construed as the absence of hostilities or as something positive in its own right.
In book XVIII of The Iliad, Homer describes the shield of Achilles that the lame god Hephaistos has fashioned for him. The shield depicts two cities – one embattled, besieged; the other functional, with a wedding and a court of civil law where disputants can settle their differences without violence. In layers of concentric circles the shield also shows some of the things conspicuously lacking in fields of battle: a vineyard, a herd of cattle, a circle of young men and women dancing, the bounty of the harvest – the fruits of peace.