Thursday, January 3, 2013

Michael Herr, Dispatches, and Wallace Stevens, "Anecdote of the Jar"

Got to talking awhile back with some students about a Wallace Stevens poem mentioned in Michael Herr's Dispatches.

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Below is the Wallace Stevens poem Herr alludes to on p. 107 of my edition of Dispatches -- the last line before section IV of "Khe Sanh."  It's called "Anecodote of the Jar."As for some of the other mysterious terms -- Tet, Dien Bien Phu, etc. -- some of you may have had that in high school history, others can learn all they need by context (Tet = the moment when every sane person understood the war would never be won; Dien Bien Phu = the moment when the French, before the Americans, were biblically defeated by their own vanity, plus overwhelming numbers).

The history, of course, is not the point. We don't read Dispatches to learn about the Vietnam War anymore than we read Moby-Dick to learn about whaling. Then again, one should never rest too easy on symbolism. One of you asked about the insertion of symbols in creative nonfiction, whether it could be done. With the reminder that rules are for breaking, no -- just as you shouldn't insert symbols into fiction, or a poem. One doesn't insert symbols, one -- perhaps -- finds them, recognizes them, maybe even accentuates them. There really was a white whale, there really was a war. The rest is in the telling. And Dispatches, in particular, is in the words.

For instance: rereading the "Khe Sanh" section, I had to stop and read this simple bit aloud a couple of times: "A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out there in the open, fighting it out on our terms, fighting for once like men, fighting to no avail. There would be a battle, a set-piece battle where he could be killed by the numbers, killed wholesale, and if we killed enough of him, maybe he would go away."

There's the devastating kindness of this passage, its sweet empathetic suspension of disbelief, for just a moment, for just long enough to evoke not only the delusion of the generals but also the vulnerable childishness of that delusion: "maybe he would go away." But there are cross currents in this passage, so read it again, with ears for the emphases and the deliberate cliches: "A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out there in the open, FIGHTING it out on our terms, FIGHTING for once like men, FIGHTING to no avail. There would be a BATTLE, a set-piece BATTLE where he could be KILLED by the numbers, KILLED wholesale, and if we KILLED enough of him, maybe he would go away."

My third time through I realized that "maybe he would good go away" isn't even the most absurd, most heartbreaking phrase; I think it's "there would be" -- "there would be a battle." That's the saddest, most pathetic verb tense in the language. I'm using the term "pathetic" colloquially, but it might apply formally, too -- part of what makes Dispatches so powerful, so unlike other war stories even as it traffics in machismo and cynicism, is that he never allows "the Mission," as he describes in a bit of magical realism, the grandeur or depth or romance of tragedy.

Ok, enough of that -- if you still want it, the Stevens poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.