Shared Experience and Personal Witness
Aaron Baker, in his review of Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, raises the question as follows:
Any poetry clearly based on a writer’s personal experiences (and not just when those experiences are of war), adopts an aura of authenticity that readers can find coercive. It’s not uncommon to see poets who use “experience” as a cudgel of authority to beat down a reader’s resistance. When it comes to stories or poems about war, or others forms of trauma, there is always a nagging sense that we ought to shut up and just listen to those writers who have, in the vernacular, “been through the shit.” But at the same time, we can’t help but remain on guard against the attempts to self-justify and self-mythologize to which such work is especially prone. And all of this happens before we can even begin evaluating poems on the basis of their technical achievement—to commence weighing and measuring somebody’s extreme real-life crises in a way that some might find (not always unreasonably) inappropriate if not downright indecent.
How does one balance the credibility of the eyewitness against the problems of solipsism and the confessional personality-ego "I" in poetry?
Baker continues, about Turner's collection: At the same, the less successful poems in the collection are those in which there is no first-person speaker at the center. The instinct to decenter the subjective I, to sympathetically enter into the experiences of others, is admirable, but the poems which do this usually seem cursory and ill-suited to the minimalistic, perceptually immediate approach that serves Turner better elsewhere. [Such] Poems . . . have documentary interest, but they could just as well have been written by anybody who had heard the same stories.
Towards the end of his review, Baker provides one answer: Because war is a societal, communal event, does the voice of a soldier actually command greater deference than anyone else’s? Does having “been there” give a poet’s work additional weight? The question of deference is probably the wrong one to ask. Regardless of any single poet's experiences or imaginings, poems are entities with lives and careers of their own and will flourish or fail according to terms separate (if not wholly independent of) a poet’s biography.
Poems, like all artworks, have to live or die on their own merits. In parallel, a poet's varying bodies of work must also live or die on their own merits; some may be stronger than others. It's not always admitted, but writers do have areas where they are stronger than in other areas.
It's exactly the experience-factor that is often used to justify poetic "street cred" in the hip-hop and poetry Slam scenes (not that those are distinct scenes any more), and also used by poets of victimology, woundology, and the worst extremes of political correctness, to deflect all criticism before it can start: "You can't criticize my writing becuase you haven't been through what I've been through!" That sort of thing. (I don't get a sense that Brian Turner is doing that, from reading his poems cited in Baker's review; but who knows?)
However, the aura of authenticity only works, I think, if the writing is good writing. Otherwise, it's pretty blatant that bad writing is given a pass because it's highly topical or because it's "not okay." If you don't want to get called racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., you generally have to keep your mouth shut rather than point out that the poem is just a bad poem. The problem is, as usual, one of ego, rather than one of literary merit.
This is a familiar fallacy: confusing the poet with the poem. The rejection of critique of the poem relies upon the poem being identifying with poet, so that all critique of the art becomes an insult to the artist.
The autobiographical fallacy is also why writers get accused of lying when it's discovered that they haven't actually had the life-experience they claimed to have had in their writings. As if writing was ever not lying, on some level. All writing is fiction, to some extent, because it's filtered through an individual's personal perspective, experience, viewpoint, etc. Even the literature of witness has passed through the creative process: readers tend to forget that journalism is also creative-writing, not the direct transmission of thought. Factual memory, as any cognitive psychologist or experienced trial-lawyer will tell you, is notoriously imprecise and self-serving.
One of the purposes of collective memory is so that the tribe can remember its own myths; nonetheless, there is always room for variance. Yet an individual take on an event, whether or not it agrees with the collectivized fiction of cultural myth, whether it affirms or disrupts consensus reality, is a fiction. We could perhaps think of fictions as atomic units, as assembling blocks that generate cultural myth, cultural trope and pattern, and even dogma, doctrine, and belief-system. As the anthropologists have repeatedly pointed out: every tradition is an invented tradition. We could call the historical era in which we live our "ficton," a word coined by SF writer Spider Robinson for just that purpose.
The principal problem with excluding the reader from any possibility of being able to critique, because you have not shared the writer's experience, is that this exclusion leads ultimately to solipsism: If you claim exclusivity of experience—only women should write about women, only blacks should write about blacks, only gay poets can write about being gay, only X can write about X, only (ex-)soldiers can write war poetry—you reduce your audience to a purist group of pure insiders, you reduce your audience to only cliquish in-group writers, and ultimately you reduce your audience to you yourself alone. (The rhetoric of much post-modern poetry criticism seems to want to do just this—and then complains about the lack of an audience. But I digress.) And where is the literary-critical discourse in such solipsism? Usually, there is none, nor can there be any. Discourse is simply shut down.
Most war poetry is similar to most political (politicized) poetry, in that it tends to rely on generalities and abstractions, rather than on the specific and evocatively personal—or, as war veteran Ernest Hermingway once quipped, Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. Still, war poetry, as I have often read it, seems more innately personal than most political poetry. It tends to be more embodied and more visceral than political poetry, which is words about ideas, not words about experiences. Anti-war poetry is often political poetry, but war poetry written by veterans of war, or by soldiers in the field, has a different tone than anti-war poetry written by folks who object to war but have never held a weapon or fought in a battle. Some of the most visceral anti-war poetry I have ever read is that written by veterans; for example, Michael Casey's small book of poems, Obscenities, which was about the Vietnam war.
The question of coercion towards the reader is an interesting question—but isn't any compelling, absorbing reading experience therefore coercive in the sense that it envelopes the reader into a full experience evoked by the poem? Isn't any poem that recreates an experience in the reader so that they become completely immersed in the poem—isn't that coercive? It is, in the purely technical sense. The issue is really one of consent.
I think we should clarify the use of the word "coercive," perhaps by rephrasing it as non-consensually coercive, to restrict this connotation to those poems that try to force the reader into believing a viewpoint stipulated by the poem (and maybe by the poet, but not necessarily). Poems that argue political or religious points, poems that tell me what to think—I find these sorts of poems far more coercive than Brian Turner's poems of wartime experiences, in that I feel he invites me viscerally into his experience. Invites me in, rather than forces it on me. He entices, and I consent. This is possibly the difference between restraint and subtlety in poetry versus the heavy-handed use of rhetoric to force (ideological) agreement. The latter is definitely coercive; the former is perhaps what we have discussed before as "poetic embodiment:" inviting the reader to re-experience what the poem evokes as an experience. This allows the reader to consent of their own free will to enter the viewpoint of the poem. To my mind, enticement and invitation go much further, in activist poetry, than do preaching and ideology. By bringing the reader into the experience of the poem, they are free to make up their own minds about the politics of the poem; this, in a nutshell, is "show" versus "tell" in poetry.
I think it takes imagination to read these war poems, too. (In my opinion, baker fails to use his imagination at the end of the review, where he misses the title poem's correlations between the body's gastro-intestinal system and the barrel, body, and action of a bullet leaving a rifle.) They are laced with images that make powerful metaphors.
In the end Baker makes the argument that Turner's book, while containing good poems, and while serving as an effective book of witness, does not break new literary ground, stylistically or technically. Well, maybe that's an understandable and justifiable response to the overzealous hype around the book and the poet; one can only imagine the Pentagon's propaganda machine foaming at their orifices about having a genuine war-hero poet to present. (For the record, my sense is that Turner is complicit in none of that.) But it seems pretty Ivory Tower to demand that a book of war poems must always contain poetic technical innovation on the same level as Wilfred Owen's, et al. I'm not sure that's a valid criticism, even if one does assume that war poetry does drive poetic and literary change. Even though Owen's et al. poetic work did drive some of the changes of Modernism in literature, it's probably not fair to expect any contemporary book of poetry to have the same impact—partly because the world of the arts is not as monolithic as it was a century ago, and partly because war itself has changed so much, technically and stylistically, over the past century. I've read numerous comments along the lines that post-modern warfare is more like a video game, with less direct contact with the enemy (as happens in Owen's well-known poem Strange Meeting). It may therefore be an unfair comparison to force Turner's book into having the same impact on litetature as did Owens'. Only time will tell, on that front. The problem with second-guessing the verdict of history is that history happens after you're dead and gone, usually.
Where Owen and Turner do share common ground as poets can be found in Owens' famous statement: My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. A reader of imagination, whether or not they are a war veteran, can I think participate, as witness, to both the pity and the poetry.