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Poetry Chapbook Review:

W Is For War

by George Held

w is for warRespected poets can sometimes make mistakes. For George Held, W Is For War Is the whopper.

It's a shame because I've heard him read. In fact, I've heard him read some of the poems in this chapbook, and I wasn't much more impressed with the oral experience as I am with the reading.

The challenge for any protest poet is to write poems that can make your opponents respect your thought and your verses even though they may disagree with your position. Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" is a poem that comes to mind as a protest poem that paints the poet as a prophet worthy of admiration even if you believe he deserves some sort of derision as a rabble rouser and a lawbreaker. But George Held's W Is For War can't even entice those of us who agree with his protests to sing praises for his poetics.

It's not that there aren't any good poems in the chapbook. There are. But they are the exception.

Held begins with the title poem, a simple ditty that seems to be written with children in mind even as he invokes their name in the opening stanza:

In the old alphabets
Kids learn "A" is for apple
And "B" is for ball
Innocent images all
And so it begins. The strongest stanza of the poem and it is followed by one that is almost as good, reminding us that "F" is for fate, "P" is for pain, and "W" is still for war, but in the third stanza of "W Is For War", Held moistens his dry cloth of poetic music with the wet sponge of sentimentalism, opining

That takes their dads and mums
To "I" is for Iraq
And "O" is for oil
And "W" is for war.
The final stanza, with brilliant execution, takes the reader deeper into the chosen sentiment:

Soon enough they learn
That "A" is for amputee
And "B" is for bomb
And "D" is for death
And of course "W" is still for war. The problem is that most of these kids' mums and dads come back home with arms and legs intact, making the poem a disingenuous plea for acrimony.

This should come as no surprise. Held is an anti-war activist and has been since Vietnam. It's a way of life, which probably accounts for his one-sided view that is stale and rarely improves from that first line. Held uses the poems in W Is For War to polemicize his liberal talking points, from racism to illegal searches and the evils of capitalism. And every poem uses the same old talking points and liberal clichés, including the allusions to Jim Crow and Wounded Knee and the proverbial mushroom cloud "in our name." There is little here that hasn't been said before - and by better poets.

But I did find two poems in W Is For War that are gems, that actually show Held to be the poet that I know he is. "War Lovers" is more than an exercise in polemics and actually uses a flash of brilliant metaphor to put on display the perversion of those who delight in watching the Iraq War on TV. The simplicity is dire, the execution is apt, and the final explosion is a repetitive "shock and awe". Nice bang on that final note.

The second poem worth reading in W Is For War is "The Hunter's Moon." Playing off the epigraph that accompanies it, "The Hunter's Moon" highlights the night time missions on the first full moon after the Harvest Moon in which the air strikes and mechanized warfare become the fruit of the season's planting. The language is actually poetic, unlike most of the other poems in Held's chapbook, and Held shows his craft best when he croons

Flooding the October sky
You sent the Mohawks
On the deer path, kept the Hurons
From the warpath until
The new moon …

Now you watch the modern Hurons
Engage in war
So mechanized no sachem
Would countenance it:
Desert Warriors in hi-tech suits sight
Through electronic lenses …
If you can get through the liberal talking points and get to the real poetry that resides in "War Lovers" and "The Hunter's Moon" then you might invest in W Is For War. Otherwise, wait for the movie.

Order your copy of

W Is For War by George Held


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