Polemical Poetry I: Pain into Power

The Misfortune Teller

The Misfortune Teller
Sculpture-Painting by Michael Murry © 2014

We have appointed Michael Murry as the Contrary Perspective’s “poet laureate” and have decided to bring his ” Polemical Poetry” to our readers as a regular feature that will appear every month.

From time to time established poets have written verse that is political and verges on the polemical but Michael has brought his poetry to the level of a genre or complete style of unremitting satire and exposure of the abuses of political power. Every line, every word, of Michael’s poems tears at the false pretenses of power and can reach deep inside of your own sense of injustice or bring a smile at a clever satiric swipe at a banal common misreading of power.

Michael does not use abstractions as most poets do but uses common language  in an honest and direct way to communicate complex thoughts. One can easily see the deep rooted personal feelings that are expressed in his work and which lend authenticity. This is no dabbler in the poetic form but an intense and thoughtful student of the poetic genre. Read with relish!

b. traven  (for TPC)


By Michael Murry, the polemical poet.

“I never saw it coming. Forty years after I had left the battlefield, my memories of death and wounding were suddenly as fresh and present as they had been in 1968. I thought I was past that. I learned that none of us are ever past it.” – Max Cleland, “The Forever War of the Mind,” New York Times (November 7, 2009).

In March of 2003, the United States foolishly blundered into another military debacle in Iraq. As the predictable disaster quickly unfolded, many Vietnam veterans started experiencing insomnia, fits of explosive anger for no discernible reason, periods of depression, and even thoughts of suicide.

Personally, I had always considered myself fortunate not to have suffered any physical or emotional wounds in Vietnam. I got out of that mess pretty much intact, I thought, and had the rest of my life to live as I pleased. Well-meaning people advised us veterans to just “put it out of your mind” and so we did. Or thought that we had done so. We discovered later that you cannot really put some things out of your mind. You can only push them down deeper into the darkness of the subconscious, where ugly things wait until their hour comes to surface again at unexpected moments.

I had read about this sort of thing but didn’t think it applied to me. But once I retired and moved to Taiwan, I found myself with lots of time on my hands and no daily commute to and from work. So I began to brood upon ugly memories. Then I got angry. Not just angry, but enraged. How could any country stupid enough to do Vietnam once ever go back and do the same damn stupid thing all over again? Not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan as well. Not just one Vietnam but two of them at the same time. And I could do absolutely nothing about any of it.

Fortunately for me, my wife spotted the symptoms right away and told me simply: “Turn the pain into power.” That sounded like a good plan, but how does a person do that? I began to do some research into veterans groups who had started forming creative writing workshops as a means of coping with their own unwelcome memories. Some of these workshops focused on poetry and so I thought I would try my hand at that. But I didn’t know of any other veterans to work with here in Taiwan, so I had to strike out on my own. Sometime in 2004, my younger brother Jack, the high school history and English teacher, challenged me to write an anti-war poem in the particular stanza format that he provided as a guide. After a bit of fumbling around, I came up with:

Bread and Circuses
(in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)
Mired in heat and dust and sand
Gallant band of brothers true
Country’s service is their aim
Death and maiming is their due

In where angels fear to tread
Foolish, dreaded leaders rush
Bringing power’s fearsome groan
Leaving only graveyard’s hush

“By the pricking of my thumbs”
This way comes the wicked pawn
Drunk with drinking conquest’s draught
Juggernaut goes crushing on

Won with honest trifles’ lure
Still so sure in dwindling light
Now betrayed in consequence
Of the senseless, needless fight

Can this be the path they chose?
How can those who serve inquire?
Why has this rough beast come ’round,
To be drowned and born in fire?

Stillborn monster, undead thing!
How we sing your praises high!
Those whom we’ve made destitute
Still salute and fight and die

Hear the crowd’s roar! Feel the heat:
Sizzling meat now roasting slow
Do they die for reasons known?
Or for only pomp and show?

Who has wavered; who stands fast
‘Till the last good soul goes free?
Who says “he” and who says “she”?
Who but thee and who but me

Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

Upon finishing “Bread and Circuses,” I went on to write other verse compositions in the same style, but then felt the urge to try other metrical arrangements. So I bought books on the subject of poetry with an emphasis on those which contained famous examples which I might emulate. I soon discovered, however, that what I had begun as a form of Do-It-Yourself psychotherapy had mutated into an angry polemic aimed at those miscreant political “leaders” who had demonstrated such a vast ignorance of history not just in my own youth but in my sunset years as well.

I began to identify with George Orwell’s character Winston Smith, who remarked – in the dystopian novel 1984 – that he “could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war.” So the endless Orwellian war continues with the citizenry of the United States seemingly unable or unwilling to recognize its true nature and bring it to a long-overdue halt.

Ten years have passed since I started writing my therapeutic polemical poetry. I feel better when I’ve written something that sounds pleasing to me and perhaps expresses an idea as well. But since my fellow Americans forgot all about the long War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) within only a few years of Congress cutting of funding for further misadventures, I have little reason to suppose that they will remember Iraq or Afghanistan in a few years, either. I refuse, therefore, to indulge in optimistic fortune telling – telling people what they most want to hear – and instead ply the lonely, unwelcome trade of misfortune telling.

The truth will not set you free, as some have maintained. But it might make you mad. I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

4 thoughts on “Polemical Poetry I: Pain into Power

  1. Congratulations, Mike, on your much deserved “appointment”! However, I must disagree with your concluding statement: I would contend that Truth HAS set YOU free…free from the mind-fogging power of Establishment propaganda, the concept that a lie will be accepted by the majority of the populace if it is told often enough. (Like the absurd notion that George W. Bush, rather than Cheney, was really “the President”!) I would enjoy meeting you some day, but I’m afraid I don’t have it in my budget to visit Taiwan any time soon…

    • Thanks, Greg. I would like to meet you in person, too, but for the present we’ll just have to go on meeting “virtually” (as opposed to “virtuously”) here.

      I know I sound pessimistic to he point of cynicism, but I don’t see any other way to keep my sanity. For example, you’ve probably heard that the Congress just voted down another attempt to repeal the so-called AUMF, or “Authorization to Use Military Force. This immediately brings to mind the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution whose nasty effects you and I could not escape. So I feel like that Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhdg Day, doomed to get up every morning only to relive the day before — again and again and again. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand once said of the Bourbon monarchs that “they learned nothing and they forgot nothing.” Even worse, though, when it comes to the American Congress, they learn nothing and forget everything.

      Back to you for the further analysis of who gets the bread and who dies in the circuses.

  2. Since I don’t know if or when I may revisit this particular stanza format again, I’ll just include here another composition in the same style and from the same time period, 2004. My mother and stepfather lie buried together at the National Cemetery in Riverside, California. Shortly before we moved to Taiwan, my wife and I visited them to say goodbye for awhile. On our way over to their section of the grounds, we passed a newly opened section for deceased veterans of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” On one of the gravestones a mother had written to her departed son: “I will never forget you.” So I thought I would write something to help me not forget her either. Hence:

    They Also Serve
    (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

    Gone to soldiers every one
    Mother’s son so brave and true
    Looked his duty in the eye
    Saying, “I will serve for you.”

    Father’s daughter: joy and pride
    Did not hide from duty’s due
    Serving in this grievous time
    Saying, “I’m a soldier, too.”

    Not for them to choose the fight
    Others might who stay behind
    Handing out the new bank notes
    To the votes that never mind

    Country’s man and woman strong
    Right or wrong prepared to serve
    Told to go and save the cause
    Not the laws that they deserve

    Flung into the grinding maw
    What they saw no words describe
    Still, Valhalla’s maids rejoice
    At the choice blood they imbibe

    Shocked and hurt and staring blank
    Missing ankles, wrists, and knees
    Howling moans from Cruelty’s whelp
    Help him! Help her! Help me! Please!

    Reeling, falling souls set free
    What they see no song can sing
    Reaping not what they have sown
    Giving only everything

    Stinging Furies! Noisome hags!
    Penance gags the prideful throat
    Tried to dam the River Styx
    Wound up fixing Charon’s boat

    Patient Death in silence waits
    Near the gates of Fear and Dread
    Judging not; forgiving none
    Merely one who greets the dead

    Having watched the short parade
    Summer’s shade to winter’s frost
    Comes now time to pack and close
    Tasks for those who count the cost

    Adding up the fearful sum
    Heavy numbers weighted down
    No reprieve; no second chance
    No romance; just war’s grim clown

    Fading glory; fleeting fame
    Once the game of battle ends
    Left to shattered lives of care
    Lovers, parents, wives, and friends

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

    • When four dogs-of-war mercenaries from the notorious Blackwater, Inc. (then renamed Xe, now renamed Academi) ran into an ambush in Falluja in 2004, the U.S. Marine Corps set out upon a Vengeance and Retribution operation that turned into two battles that left the city of Falluja a smouldering wreck littered with tons of depleted uranium. Ironically, about a year later, when Marines discovered that those dogs-of-war mercenaries made over a hundred thousand dollars a year compared to the paltry $29,000 that a PFC made, the marines started harassing and shooting at the mercenaries, too. Meanwhile, as President George “Deputy Dubya” Bush postponed the second battle of Falluja until after the election of 2004, I thought of President Richard Nixon postponing the Christmas bombing of Hanoi until after the election of 1968, confiding to his staff: “I’m going to bomb the bastards like they’ve never been bombed before.” Some things about frustrated and vengeful U.S. presidents don’t seem to change much. But since the entire “war” charade has only the purpose of “privatizing” the public functions of government — including the U.S. military — let’s just hire some corporate Hessians. After all “free market” capitalism always does things better and at a lower cost, including war. Really. Honest Injun.

      Now, if you can stop laughing and vomiting at the same time, consider, if you will:

      Dragon’s Teeth
      (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

      Dragon’s teeth by Cadmus sown
      Sprung full grown from battle’s plain
      Men who answer Havoc’s call
      Until all but few are slain

      Grieved by peace and fed by war
      Running sore on life’s pale skin
      Strife and commerce set the pace
      Of the race they hope to win

      Many money hope to earn
      Others learn to love the game
      Rent-a-Mercenaries smile
      All the while they stoke the flame

      “Gold Rush” is the phrase they like
      Then they strike a bargain good
      Duty doesn’t count for much
      When there’s such a trough of food

      Feeding local fear and spite
      Foreign fighters skim the cream
      Raking in the profits huge
      With deluge a distant scream

      Doors revolve and bring around
      What we’ve found the times before
      Crony “contracts” — no-bid deals
      Squeaking wheels get grease galore

      Poor men fight while rich men count
      An amount not advertised
      Dogs of War gnaw battle’s bones
      Congress drones on, not surprised

      Soldiers die for song and dance
      But freelancing guns do well
      Armed by well-connected firms
      Easy terms that simply smell

      Mercenaries have their fling
      Then they bring their bonus back
      Riding war’s careening bus
      Billing us for their attack.

      Carpetbagging ghouls arrive
      Hot to score a killing fast
      “Reconstructing” what they’ve wrecked
      Never checked by laws that last

      Soon “security” begins
      Many sins their praise to sing
      Why the “liberated” screams?
      No one dreams of answering

      Why the speeding SUV?
      Why the beady, covered eyes?
      Why the brandished weaponry?
      Why the readjusted lies?

      Why do not the “rescued” cheer?
      Why the fear and loathing deep?
      Why shrink from the broken door,
      On the floor to cringe and weep?

      Just get off the road, you hear!
      Best you clear a path, and quick!
      Mercenaries coming through!
      Later, you can heal your sick

      Why the ambush? Why the death?
      Why by breath of rage consumed?
      Why not patient sufferance
      Of the once-proud now entombed?

      Why the shock to folks back home?
      Fiddling Rome finds war obscene?
      Doesn’t napping Nero know
      Of this blowback long foreseen?

      Don’t the Visigoths and Huns
      Fight the ones on our frontier?
      Don’t we buy protection’s balms
      With the alms we pay from here?

      Whence the need to hire some goons?
      These poltroons serve their own needs
      Why send our G.I.s to score
      “Vengeance” for these cowboys’ deeds?

      “Soldiers die for Dogs of War!”
      Avatar Fallujah cries
      Bitten through by Dragon’s teeth
      Crushed beneath the Dog she dies

      Soldier schooled in war’s regime
      Not a scheming, moneyed flack
      Fights for friend and family
      Not for fee or loot or sack.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s