As a former journalist, Sherman Pearl has a unique perspective on the role of a poet in society. The passage below was taken from an interview Pearl did for Voices in Wartime. After reading answers to questions asked of him, consider the discussion questions that follow.
What do you think is the role of the poet in wartime?
I think the poet is a revolutionary, regardless of his or her political positions, by the nature of the art itself. The poet in seeking truth and inner truth is not subject to the dictates of the state if he or she is writing with integrity. Once you are removed from the political winds and once you are in the business of truth seeking, you become a bit of a subversive.
Does the poet stand outside of society or have a special view of society?
Well, I don’t think the poet has any unique position regarding society. The difference between what the poet does and what most of us do, vis-a-vis politics and the problems of any particular time, is to write, not from the head, not from a perspective that dictates what the poem is going to be about, but from the heart, from the emotions, and from one's personal experiences. That means you don’t know where the poem is going. If it’s an outcry against injustice, so be it.
But the poem does not incorporate what the state has mandated as the acceptable point of view. In that regard, I think the poet is a subversive. To the extent that the poet's works get read and get into the public mind, the poet is freeing other people to listen to another aesthetic and not just to the propaganda that all states provide. So, I think that just by being a bit freer than many other people, the poet influences others to seek truth.
When the war began, did you feel that the Poets Against the War effort had been wasted?
Well, I was horrified but not surprised when the shooting war started. I felt that the Poets Against the War movement was generating a lot of anti-war sentiment, at least within the perimeters of poetry audiences. In fact, the poetry programs against the war that I was involved with drew large audiences— not necessarily poetry fans or aficionados, but rather large, non-poetic audiences.
As the war went on and as the anti-war movement developed, the Poets Against the War movement gained steam, and there were more anti-war poetry events. I was involved in some of them. So I think that poetry did put on its political face during this war, just as it had in Vietnam. There were lots of poetry events, art exhibits, plays, and other forms of art that were adjuncts, necessary adjuncts, to the overall anti-war movement.
Are you a pacifist, or do you think that war is sometimes justified?
I’m not a pacifist—I do think that war is sometimes justified. I think that World War II was necessary, in spite of the injustices and horrors that took place within that war. I am an Army veteran, although I didn’t experience war myself. I think that it’s necessary to have a strong defense in this country and to oppose tyranny. That doesn’t mean that I support intervention or pre-emptive war, but I see the necessity of having a strong position in the world, as long as we ourselves maintain our democracy. We have to be careful about what kind of democracy we’re spreading to other countries. We have to safeguard our liberties and our democratic system before we can so blithely export it to other countries and assume that our system is, by definition, superior to theirs.
Discussion Questions: The Poet’s Role in Wartime
- What is meant by the term “revolutionary?” Given your definition how is the poet a revolutionary?
- According to Pearl what is the role of a poet in time of war? How is this role different as to what it might be at other times?
- How are poets subversive?
- How does poetry move people to seek truth? How would you define the process that poetry allows the listener to explore after hearing a poem?
- What place does poetry have in a time of war? For the poet? For those who listen to poetry? How might poetry be an invitation to dialogue?