Does anyone remember Poets Against the War? That was the group formed in 2003, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, when first lady Laura Bush organized a White House poetry symposium and promptly canceled it when word got out that several poets intended to criticize the impending war.
The event galvanized a movement of artists around the world to stage readings as part of a larger political antiwar movement. "Voices in Wartime," a documentary by Rick King, captures the idealism of the activists behind Poets Against the War and, unintentionally, their arrogance. Often speaking with self-righteousness and sanctimony, they come across as surprisingly devoid of self-awareness and healthy ambivalence.
The documentary intercuts footage of U.S. soldiers in Iraq with talking heads at home.
Thankfully, King uses the story of Poets Against the War to explore the larger subject of poetry and war throughout history, starting with Homer's "Iliad" and including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, the poets Bush wanted to honor at her symposium. (Poets Against the War organizer Sam Hamill suggests in the film that such a gathering at that time was not only naive, "it was almost illiterate." Ouch.)
From the triumphalist mythology of war, the film provides a cursory survey of how poetry has changed with the time, as artists used it to bear witness to senselessness and carnage and, finally, to use it as a form of therapy. ("Voices in Wartime" is part of a larger network of workshops and exchanges designed to help veterans use poetry as a way of coping with post-traumatic stress.)
Stodgily structured by intercutting grisly stock footage with talking heads and muddy videos of Poets Against the War events, "Voices in Wartime" isn't nearly as cinematically inspiring as many of the poets it brings to light. But its pedagogical tone perfectly suits it for viewing in classrooms, where with luck new generations will discover such magnificent writers as the World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Ironically, their true successors can't be found in "Voices in Wartime," but they can be seen in the recent documentary "Gunner Palace," with its soldiers delivering raps while their fellow servicemen tap out beats on the hoods of Humvees. It's just their tough urgency that this film, in all its good intentions, sorely lacks.
Voices in Wartime (74 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated. It contains graphic images of violence and war.