It has come to the attention of Dispatches that there is resistance to the idea of “war” in certain circles Dispatches considers as friends. “I don’t care for war,” writes a marvelous poet whose work we deeply respect, and who defines herself as a “passive resistor” to this conflict. While we have had practical experience resisting wars ourselves, some subtlety, and hence possibility, is lost if the word “war” is limited to association with the brutalities and insanities of various aggressive nations. William Blake called these “corporeal wars” and contrasted them to “mental wars:”
“Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war.
The clue to what Blake meant by mental war lurks in the word’s history. If Old English “wyrre” refers to military conflict, its proto-Germanic cognates suggest an original sense of “to bring into confusion.” Con-fusion. A turning against fusion? To mix and mingle things, the etymological dictionary has it, to mix it up, and eventually (18th century) to “discomfit in mind and feeling.” These seems related to Dispatches’ affection for bewilderment. It is certainly not meant to hurt anyone.
Why would Blake want Mental War, or as he calls it elsewhere in his work, mental fight, and even great blows of Intellect? Well, it seems he had the wild idea that some people were committed to keeping themselves in possession of power through money and the distractions generated by corporeal war, while wrecking the works of imagination that give form to our lives, “a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying.” For Blake, this was a crime, even a war, against the Imagination, and he called on those whose work it is to create new forms to fight this destruction.
Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works
Mental war had to do with sowing confusion in the ranks of the “fashionable fools,” with destabilizing the structures of power and freeing the imagination to mix and mingle things, to discomfit the self-satisfied status quo.
That is not unlike what happened beginning in 1960 when Donald Allen unleashed Poetry War with the publication of The New American Poetry 1945-1960, and its seminal call to arms, Charles Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse.” “Projective Verse” changed the world, becoming a focus and articulation for those who were sick of the polite veneer of the smug, Methodist, academic critical establishment and their select poets. It became a rallying text for the resistance to the regime of poetic Unity, unleashing havoc in their ranks, and leading to the outbreak of Mental war that opened up the way to the spaces our friends now occupy.
“The war, too, defines eternal measures,” Robert Duncan wrote in The H.D, Book, a theme he developed in his essay, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife.”
“War is both King of all and Father of All,” Heraclitus says. Among poets throughout the world or within any nation, men are at war, even deadly war, with each other concerning the nature and responsibility of poetry. Conventional poets and avant-gare poets are at war; within the avant-garde followers of Pound and William Carlos Williams find themselves at war with the new gang of concrete constructivist poets. And within the tribe of concrete poets, sound poets are at war with visual poets who raise the polemic of the letter of the word against the voice. Every order of poetry finds itself, defines itself, in strife with other orders. A new order is in contention in the heart of existing orders.
Duncan, the radical anarchist conscientious objector and anti-war poet, recognized the crucial role that War (and the point here is not the particular word, and certainly not its material analogy, but the generative fact of strife), in another sense or level of modulated meaning, plays in creating the conditions for the emergence of new orders of poetry in the midst of complacency and self-satisfied accomplishment. War then rages in the heart of every word with the world as the stake.
Take “shipwreck”, for instance. What is the “Olsonian shipwreck?” As something that one survives, as in a sentence such as “Creeley survived the Olsonian shipwreck,” it is a sign of chaos and descent, a loss of order to the forces of dis-integration. But what is that order? Could it be the resplendent halls of Literature with their innermost altars to Pulitzer and Nobel? The great ship of literary excellence? Here it is brought to wreck and ruin by death, booze, drugs, and too many fawning acolytes, leaving the poet alone, staring out at the sea, scrawling poems with too many references on his window sill.
But shipwreck may also be the sign of the opening of plenitude, of a new beginning, as in Daniel Defoe’s book (which was dear to Robert Creeley’s imagination). Then shipwreck is the fortunate disaster that opens the world to the unprecedented, the unmapped, the unforeseen. Shipwreck undoes the spell of mastery (think Titantic here), unweaves the illusion of control, and dispenses with the precious complacency of literary excellence.
Shipwreck is then a fight for meaning, a struggle for the world. Shipwreck then is the site of poetry war. And while some poets may think themselves pacifists, like it or not, every word they write is a battlefield.