Three Poems

by Keith Ratzlaff

Like many of my generation of Mennonites, my introduction to “peace poetry” was Peter Ediger’s 1971 The Prophet’s Report on Religion in North America. Ediger’s flat, faux-Whitman lines and Blakean rhetorical stance defined for us what poetry should do. Once in a while I’ve wished my poems could reach Ediger’s level of outrage or political truth-telling. But I’ve also wondered if that idea of a poem “doing” something might not be a trap.

Public poets, as Richard Hugo calls poets like Auden (and by my extension, Ediger), “must always be more intelligent than the reader, nimble, skillful enough to stay ahead, to be entertaining so his didacticism doesn’t set up resistances.” That’s not to say there aren’t great, profound public poems—I’m thinking of the poems in Robert Bly’s The Teeth Mother Naked at Last, or Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, both written during and against the Viet Nam war and at roughly the same time Ediger was raising his own voice. But that public voice, as Hugo points out, is hard to sustain. Even Bly writes that “by the end of the war, I felt some affinity gone in me, and I wanted to return to privacy rather than to go on judging, useful as judgment is.”

Which is to say, at least for me, that a poetry of peace or protest in the long run might not be declarative, but meditative; that poetry comes not from the relationship between writer and reader, but between writer and language. William Stafford said once that “every poem I have ever written is a quiet protest poem.” However much I might wish my work louder, more direct, more prophetic, more overt in the cause of peace, it’s Stafford’s attitude I’ve ended up sharing.

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