Television and cinema have slighted Hiroshima, but fiction has virtually ignored it, at least explicitly, as I observed yesterday in Part I of this series. Still, it can be said that Hiroshima is everywhere in postwar and contemporary fiction—in its themes of futurelessness and absurdity, and its predilection for violent or vengeful behavior by heroes and anti-heroes alike. The critic Peter Schwenger has observed that the “usual place” for Hiroshima in Western literature is “the unconscious.”
If the great Hiroshima novel remains unwritten, a number of major poets have written brilliantly on nuclear concerns, and they have invoked Hiroshima far more often than the novelists. This is especially significant when one considers that the tradition of political poetry in the country was “very, very thin” until Vietnam, as Galway Kinnell (pictured below with Carolyn Forche many years ago) has observed. The subject of nuclear war is “inherently very difficult,” Kinnell explains. “If a poem is to be useful, it has to give hope, but if it is to be realistic, it has to cause despair. Despair is built into the subject.”
American poets have applied themselves to Hiroshima more imaginatively and persistently than novelists or film-makers perhaps because they are not constrained by the historical or documentary narrative common to those other forms of expression. They can attempt to get at the meaning of Hiroshima in a more personal, creative, imagistic, even fractured way—an approach the event practically demands. Atomic Ghost, a 1995 anthology, includes more than 100 “nuclear” poems, many relating specifically to Hiroshima, written by well-known poets such as Philip Levine, Mary Jo Salter and Denise Levertov.
Shortly after Hiroshima, Randall Jarrell informed a friend that he felt “so rotten about the country’s response” to the atomic bombings that he wished he could become “a naturalized cat or dog.” That year, in “Losses,” he wrote:
We read our mail and counted up
In bombers named for girls, we
The cities we had learned about in
The following year, in “1945: The Death of the Gods,” he pondered the end of the world “when rockets rise like stars.” Robert Frost in “U.S. 1945 King’s X,” observe the hypocrisy of those who “invented a new Holocaust” yet believed that no other country had the right to use the bomb. John Berryman in “The Dispossessed” considered individual vs. collective guilt for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Years passed, and suppression of images and evidence from the atomic cities continues (see my new book, Atomic Cover-Up), but prominent poets would not let go of Hiroshima. Robert Penn Warren’s “New Dawn” rendered the flight of the Enola Gay in a disapassionate, documentary like manner. Thomas Merton did much the same for the entire nuclear project in “Original Child Bomb.” Beat poets, on the other hand, railed angrily, vulgarly, against the bomb in the 1950s. Who can forget Allen Ginsberg’s “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb."
In the late 1980s, Marc Kaminsky created a book-length cycle of poems about bomb survivors, “The Road from Hiroshima.” Galway Kinnell’s powerful “The Fundamental Project of Technology” grew out of his visit to Hiroshima, and is marked by the memorable repetition of the phrase “a white flash sparkled.” Just published in 2010: Michael Lista’s “Bloom.” portrays a little-known Manhattan Project nuclear accident in 1946, with sidetrips to Odysseus and Leopold Bloom.
Like Kinnell, Carolyn Forché visited Hiroshima, and exclaimed in 1984, “We are the poets of the Nuclear Age, perhaps the last poets…. Some of us are finding it harder to write…. There is no metaphor for the end of the world and it is horrible to search for one.” Nevertheless, she would compose one of the most haunting poems about Hiroshima, “The garden of Shukkei-en.” An American visits a place in Hiroshima (I have been there myself) with a survivor who “has always been afraid to come here.” Forche writes: “it is the sriver she most / remembers, the living / and the dead both crying for help.”
The poem ends, however, with the line, “it is the bell to awaken God that we’ve heard ringing.” Is Forche itelling us that Hiroshima can provide illumination, can “awaken God,” and that the Hiroshima bell tolls for everyone? That is precisely the message Americans have resisted for so long and must now address after sisty-six years have passed, perhaps with the help of today’s younger poets.
Greg Mitchell’s new book is Atomic Cover-Up: Hiroshima & Nagasaki and the Greatest Movie Never Made.