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To Independence (Steve McQueen) and some prose in favor of peace [by David Lehman]

Steve McQueen Great EscapeIt is July 4th in The Great Escape, and in the POW camp dominated by Brits, the Americans on hand gather to celebrate the day. Steve McQueen lifts his glass of homemade rotgut and says "Independence." In one word he characterizes an entire way of life. We observe the privileges of freedom and independence on a day when we must also remember that the fruits of freedom begin with peace and that a hallmark of peace is civility in discourse and an agreement to respect ourselves by respecting each other. 

The great music in The Great Escape was written by Elmer Bernstein.

Poets tend to be more in love with love, with ideas, with death, or with the details of their own autobiographies-in-progress than in peace, or health, or well-being as a subject in its own right. Peace in poetry is the necessary but only implied backdrop for all productive human endeavors. I sometimes think of William Carlos Williams as the one modern poet whose collected works seem a hymn to peace as the ground condition that makes all else possible, beauty included. I have wondered whether this may be because he preferred things to ideas. He captures fragments of being: plums in a paper bag or in the ice-box, a young housewife, flowers and farm implements, people at a ballgame, rain, a cat in its stealth, an eight-foot strip of copper, the “rank odor of a passing springtime.” But before I get carried away, Bob Hass reminds me that Williams could also be warlike; he wrote enthusiastically about the cleansing blaze of violence in “Burning the Christmas Greens” (1944).  In the poem, green turns into ash, and we stand there “breathless to be witnesses, / as if we stood / ourselves refreshed among / the shining fauna of that fire.”

Poems of war announce themselves as such; poems of peace do not invariably do so. An exception is Kenneth Koch’s long poem “The Pleasures of Peace,” which he wrote in the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was raging and poets felt a tremendous pressure to write anti-war poems or take part in protest rallies. Many bad antiwar poems were written at this time. Political urgency leads often to poetical triteness. Koch’s solution to the problem was to write a joyful poem not an angry one, radiating pleasure, not scorn or detestation. The madcap poem affirms that the natural state of man is peace, not war. In a last,valedictory stanza, boats sail and apes run and the sun shines for peace, and monkeys climb for peace, and serpents writhe for peace, and “the Alps, Mount Vesuvius, all the really big important mountains / Are rising for peace.” The poem reaches its highest level of pathos when the poet punctuates his closing peroration with a plea, not a prediction: “Surely it won’t be long.”

For more of the essay "Peace and War in American Poetry," written at the behest of the Library of Congress, click here.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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