Scott Beauchamp and Scott Button write on commitment – to the military, to conscientious objection – and its consequences; Rhina Espaillat joins your podcasters to talk about poetry.
About This Episode
An excerpt from Scott Beauchamp’s memoir of his time in the military, Did You Kill Anyone? highlights what it was that he found in his service: meaning, the sense of a non-trivial life, a life that was not just about his own curated experience. Meanwhile, Scott Button’s account of his own grandfather’s commitment to pacifism, and the adventures on which his conscientious objection sent him reminds us of the risk and demanding commitment to be found in the service of Christ, as our commanding officer.
Peter and Susannah discuss the nature of the Christian life as a kind of military service, and the need that we have to live a life of commitment to something beyond ourselves.
Then they welcome Rhina Espaillat, Dominican-American poet, in whose name the annual Plough poetry contest has been founded; she reads several of her poems and talks about the nature of poetry and her inspirations; Rhina and Susannah get into a debate about martyrdom.
- I. The ScottCast: War, conscientious objection, and the quest for meaning. (00:39)
- II. The Plough social world (20:00)
- III. A Conversation with Rhina Espaillat: Fathers and daughters, devotional poetry, and the problem of martyrdom. (23:27)
- IV. Recommendations (48:34)
- Scott Button, A Life That Answers War
- Scott Beauchamp, Did You Kill Anyone?
- A. M. Juster’s interview with Rhina P. Espaillat
- Poetry by Rhina P. Espaillat: Annuals, The Widow Offers Herself to Life, Mary Magdalen Responds to the Harsh Judge, In Retrospect, A Backward Look and Where Nectar Was
- Stanley Donen, Charade
- Daniel Larison’s Substack
- Prudentius, Psychomachia
- Richard Adams, Watership Down
Susannah: How do you fit back into life after war? And what does a life of conscientious objection to war, spanning almost a century, look like?
Peter: We’ll also speak with Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat and we’ll be talking with her about a new poetry competition Plough has created in her honor.
Susannah: I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.
Peter: I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough Quarterly and this is The PloughCast.
Susannah: So this is the third episode in a six-part series on nonviolence, The Violence of Love, our recent issue. Make sure you look us up and give us a follow on your podcast platform of choice.
Peter: And while you’re at it, subscribe to Plough.
I. The ScottCast: War, conscientious objection, and the quest for meaning. (00:39)
Peter: Susannah, the first two articles we want to meet are both by contributors called Scott. Scott Beauchamp – he’s an Iraq veteran who wrote an article for us, “Did You Kill Anyone” – and Scott Button, who wrote an article about his grandfather and about the story of the Bruderhof, it’s called “A Life That Answers War: The Story of Conscientious Objection and the Bruderhof.” Scott is a member of the Bruderhof, is also a lawyer, and tells a story of one hundred years of people living out an alternative to war.
So I think it’s kind of interesting that we’re talking about a piece both by a veteran, talking about why people go to war and another piece at least implicitly is talking about why people don’t go to war.
Susannah: Yeah. And one of the strange things about reading those two pieces in tandem, aside from the fact that I feel like this segment of the podcast should be called “The Scott Cast,” is that there’s something extraordinarily similar between even the impulses behind Scott Beauchamp, friend-of-the-pod, Scott Beauchamp’s decision to go to war and Scott Button’s grandfather’s decision to persistently not go to war. And that similarity is fascinating to me.
Peter: Well, it is. And the similarity boils down to, spoiler alert, a search for meaning. But before we talk about that, there’s actually something I wanted to get to first – that there’s another similarity with both these articles, and that is that war and conscientious objection both seem almost to be irrelevant to a lot of people. That comes out in both articles as well. So although we’ve been fighting the so-called “forever wars” – this year marks twenty years since 9/11, and Congress is looking at the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) and there’s talk of drawing down US forces in other countries. Still, war has almost never felt more distant from most people’s lives. And so, how is it that war matters? Whether we have a professional military so most people aren’t signing up and enlisting and serving; that also means that conscientious objection to war, which used to be a huge issue, if you think of World War I, World War II, actually all the way back to the Revolutionary War now seems this almost quaint historical artifact that doesn’t make a lot of difference.
People don’t burn their draft cards, they don’t run to Canada, whether or not you want to serve in the military makes almost zero difference in most western societies to how people view you. And that’s actually a problem that emerges from both these articles is that war is happening, war is being fought in our name, people are getting killed in our name and yet to most of us it seems kind of theoretical.
Susannah: Almost a lifestyle choice.
Peter: You do it if you want to, if it makes you happy, right?
Susannah: Yeah, or if it’s part of your path of self-actualization. And the strange thing is that if war becomes a lifestyle choice or a career choice, then pacifism, or conscientious objection, rather, in the sense of Scott Button’s grandfather’s life – also becomes less of an existential choice and more of a position or a belief. But not something that grabs you by your throat and leads you into essentially a life of adventure through following this principle which is essentially not entirely a principle in an abstract way but it is loyalty to a different commander, loyalty to Christ.
Peter: So what used to be for centuries a really foundational and controversial position that “I will never kill anyone” now is equivalent to saying, “Well, I prefer not to eat at McDonald’s. I’d rather eat at some more fair-trady or more animal-friendly operation.” It’s not without moral import but it really does seem more, like you said, like a lifestyle choice, like almost a consumerist thing. I’m the kind of person who prefers not to go to war. And I really, really love Scott Beauchamp’s piece. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book of the same title, Did You Kill Anyone? And it’s questions they ask veterans coming home from war. And I just found this really compelling because he goes through all the questions that people are asking him implicitly and explicitly about why go to war.
And then the questions or the answers that people who actually serve give and he basically comes down at the end of this piece, which is just beautifully, beautifully crafted writing, that those answers for instance, “I joined because my father and grandfather and his father before him all served. My kids needed healthcare. I wanted money for college.” I’m reading now. “My uncle wants me to be a police officer like him and he said this is the best way to go about it. Underneath each of these answers was a basic agreement usually about the honor of the venture. No one joins the military just for money or solely out of love of family. It’s too profound and uniquely complex a sacrifice for that.
And when a young person tells you he enlisted for adventure, what he really means is that he went on a quest for meaning – our popular vocabulary being too anemic to support the weight of a desire, simultaneously so necessary and recondite. We don’t have the words to describe our hunger. We struggle to articulate both the depth of our appetite and what might be required to sate it. And there are a lot of reasons why people join up. Some are unutterable. And of those that we can express, many contradict each other. When it comes to something like swearing loyalty to a warring army during a time of combat, motivations can’t necessarily be seen through a Manichaean lens. So I tried to think of the question the Brooklynites should have asked me if they really want to understand something so alien to them. A question that doesn’t emit vague antagonism, but one that could possibly draw us closer together, and that we could both learn from. Something that would help us understand each other. One day, the question posed itself to me. ‘Do you miss it?’”
Susannah: The interesting thing that that particular selection brought out, I think was, he’s really talking about two different cultures and the way that they understand what it means to go to war. He’s got this kind of culture of origin where going to war is seen as a normal thing that you would do. And also a thing that, joining the army at least is seen as a normal thing that you would do, and also something that has an intrinsic value to it. And then he’s also talking about his Brooklyn friends later on. He describes them as people who read Zizek and The Hairpin and Zadie Smith and Walter Benjamin and Tan Tan and have IKEA shelves.
Peter: Tin Tin.
Susanna: Tin Tin, fine. And have IKEA shelves in Red Hook or somewhere. And he found that people who he was talking to and to whom he told his story that he had been to war there was this like, “Why would you do that?” It’s completely alien. And as you read at the end, he spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was that they should be asking him in order to find out, what it was that he was getting at in joining the army and going to war, and the, “Do you miss it,” question, which he puts in their mouths, and he says, basically like, “If you Brooklynites want to understand what it was to me to join the army and to go to war, what you should be asking me is, do you miss it?” And that’s just fascinating. And the whole rest of the book, which you guys should read, is a further exploration of that.
Peter: I really loved this book and I think what’s great about it, is it’s one of those slim books that sticks in your mind more than many fat books. It’s so nicely written. Do you think it’s true, Susannah, that we don’t have the words to describe the hunger for meaning?
Susannah: First of all, I think there’s a little bit of a gender difference. I certainly think that I had the hunger for meaning when I was growing up. Part of my conversion was confronting that and trying to figure out following that hunger back to its source. I think that we do have a psychologized version of that language. Even a kind of Jordan Peterson – we understand that there is a need for self-actualization or something. But self-actualization, as we were talking about before, is something a little bit different than getting caught up into something that you can say yes or no to, but it’s not a morally neutral choice and it’s not just a kind of like, “I think this will give me meaning – I’m going to start doing Pilates or SoulCycle,” or something.
Susannah: I do think that there is a lack of language of obligation that we’ve got, and instead of that language of obligation, which really leads to meaning we’ve got a language of self-actualization and that’s where we look for meaning, and I’m not sure that you can really find meaning there.
Peter: Yeah. It’s funny that a lot of the military’s recruitment advertising actually leans pretty heavily on the language of self-actualization. You remember back in the nineties, the whole “Be All You Can Be,” campaigns, when actually, what Scott’s talking about here, and this is something that I as a pacifist can absolutely relate to, and if it’s a gendered thing, I think possibly most guys are absolutely looking for is a venture that has an intrinsic honor to which I can swear my loyalty, and find a meaning and substance to my own life in that tuition I give myself.
That ties into the Scott Button piece on conscientious objection, because ironically, the motivation is really similar. To join the army, especially nowadays when you’re not drafted into it, it is an individual decision, is more similar to the decision conscientious objectors made, say in World War II, where you were standing up against an entire society that was telling you the only honorable way to comport yourself is to join the military. And you were saying, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And you were actually going to willingly be called a coward, willingly put up with all kinds of drama and difficulty and sometimes prison in order to do something different.
And what’s really cool that comes out of this, Scott Button’s article, is the lengths that these young men would go in World War II to show that they were not cowards. They willingly entered medical experiments. They worked their butts off fighting fires, fire jumping, really strenuous work. They served years and years, in these CPS Camps, the super-principled ones were actually locked up for years. And I knew a bunch of these guys as older men.
My grandfather was one of them. He has two older brothers. He was a Wisconsin farm boy, and his two older brothers, one went to the Air Force, one went to the Navy, and he as Lutheran farm boy in Wisconsin, for some reason, as a twenty-year-old felt that he can’t kill and doesn’t go to war. His brothers come back, work him over. His mother who’s Mennonite actually works him over, “Go to the army.” And she was pretty proud. She has a son who’s flying a pontoon plane and another son who’s doing pretty well on his naval career, and here’s this guy who’s just making us all look bad. And his dad, who was this old Midwestern socialist, listened to the fight for about two hours and said, “Son, you’re doing the right thing,” and kind of shut the rest of the family down.
And he went down to CPS Camp, Civilian Public Service Camp, which Scott tells about in his piece here. For a whole bunch of years, it was life-changing, but we digress.
Scott’s piece is actually not about American conscientious objectors, so much as about the story of my community, the Bruderhof, and particularly his grandfather who happens to be my next-door neighbor, Jakob Gneiting, now in his eighties, and his wife Juliana, who’s a Paraguayan woman with indigenous roots, and their story and how it’s incomprehensible without conscientious objection. So this quaint-sounding issue absolutely shaped their lives. And it’s a pretty great framing to talk about war, I found, in a way that ties into that quest for meaning that Scott Beauchamp talked about in his piece, on military service.
Susannah: The thing that really struck me about Button’s piece, it’s a saga. It is the saga of the Bruderhof encapsulated in the story of one man. One way to look at it is that he enlisted, he enlisted in Christ’s service early on, and that took him places. Because of his understanding of what that meant and what he had to do in order to be loyal and faithful to that commitment, there was no opting out and every twist and turn of living in Germany and then living in England and then living in Paraguay, and then going to America, like this incredibly adventurous life and incredibly physically strenuous and dangerous life, was essentially a life that was dedicated to a service.
And we use the word service and it can sound mealy-mouthed. But if we think of the service of Christ as a kind of military service that you would enlist in, and then you’re stuck. I think obviously Saint Paul used this metaphor a ton, and so many saints have since. I think that we need to take it seriously as something that we sign up for, and then we’re stuck and we are not allowed to go AWOL. And figuring out what that means from day to day and year to year, that’s the next question.
But Christianity is not like a lifestyle choice and it’s not like a quest for self-actualization exactly. It’s something that – you’re in it, and then you don’t know where it’s going to take you, and there are no guarantees ahead of time and that no-guarantees-thing sure played itself out dramatically in Scott’s grandfather’s life.
Peter: It’s a great little quote that Scott Button puts at the end of his piece from George Fox. He was the Englishman who in the 16th century founded the Quakers, the Society of Friends. And he said they’re of course pacifist and he said, “If we’re not going to fight, we must live in such a way, ‘in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all Wars.’” So if you’re not going to serve, if you say, I’m not going to kill, you can’t rest on your moral laurels, you actually have to find that cause, that venture, to give yourself to.
And George Fox, we were talking in one of our earlier episodes Susannah, and you mentioned it, in referring to St. Paul, he was not legalistic about his pacifism. So when William Penn, who was a nobleman, came to him and he was attracted, he wanted to join the Quakers, William Penn who founded Pennsylvania. But of course, back then as an aristocrat, he needed to carry a sword, as just part of your normal …
Susannah: Everyday carrying.
Peter: … dress as an aristocrat … he asked George Fox, “Can I still carry my sword?” And George Fox replied to him, “Carry your sword as long as you can bear it.” So William Penn wore his sword for a little while longer. And then at some point felt the conviction, “No, I’ve given my life to something else, and now I can put my sword away.”
That’s the nature of the Christian pacifism that Scott Button tells about [in] his piece on the Bruderhof, I think we’re living for. I just love George Fox and those early Quakers. There’s just something so down-to-earth and radical, but also very human and natural and uncoercive about their way of following Jesus and talking about questions of violence.
II. Intermezzo: The Plough Social World. (20:00)
Susannah: So this is the part of the podcast where we catch each other and you guys up on what our doings are. I’m kind of the Plough’s ambassador to Downstate/New York/the rest of the world or something. Normally I would be probably leaving my house, but we don’t do that anymore. I mean, we kind of do, but I don’t in particular do that now, because I have a little bit of the COVID and so I am in self-isolation, pretty strictly. I’m doing fine.
But what the broader Plough community is doing this week, is I’ve hassled a bunch of, I would say like weird Christian, New York City-girl-gang, into watching the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant movie Charade with me. So we’re going to be having a Charade-watching party. And I’m pretty excited about that, but it’s also lame because we’re just going to be all Zooming with each other, because nobody can come near me cause I’m a plague victim.
Peter: Well, get better soon, Susannah. And you know, since we are still in COVID-tide, and vaccines aren’t really there yet, we might as well just push the whole COVID, Zoom thing a few more times, right? So actually – thankfully I don’t have coronavirus – but what I did this last week up here in the Bruderhof, so I’m the upstate mouse to your downstate mouse, it’s a little coronavirus-related, because normally the seventh and eighth class in the school my son goes to here in the Bruderhof community, we’ll go down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in this time of year. But since that’s not possible, instead we went to the mountains with a bunch of snowshoes and it was 15 degrees in the Adirondacks and we brought our backpacks and we went camping last week.
So it was really cold. Basically. All we did was we snowshoed in, made our tent, cooked some rice, got cold, got in our sleeping bags, slept as long as possible, got colder, got up, were really cold, and so on. That’s sort of how it went, it was all about just sort of gradually losing energy, but it was really fun and the kids were absolutely pumped coming back. So it was really fun, and I’m still just warming up.
III. A Conversation with Rhina Espaillat: Fathers and daughters, devotional poetry, and the problem of martyrdom. (22:40)
We better get to the second half of this podcast, which is where we get to meet the acclaimed Dominican-American poet, Rhina Espaillat, in whose name Plough is just launching a new poetry award. And we include an interview with her in our new issue as well as three poems, two of them bilingual. She writes in both Spanish and English. So, welcome, Rhina, to The PloughCast. We are so privileged to have you here with us. And I wonder if you could start, Rhina with reading one of the poems that is in our new issue to us. And, as the father of two girls, I really loved your poem, “A Backward Look.”
Rhina: A Backward Look.
“The perfect girls our Mamas meant to rear
or never, now. Back in my time, wherever
daughter mouthed off in public, or defied
the social guide,
or thought she could—with arguments!—debate
her elders, fate,
Mama took her aside, not to upset her,
but teach her better:
Be quiet. Sit. Don’t make me say it twice.
Some of us turned out much like Mama, though
a silent “No!”
crept into every dialogue, and kept
some secrets swept
into dark corners. But, different altogether,
sons prospered, whether
they matched a pattern set by father, mother,
or chose some other—
all by themselves!—from the adventurings
of ruthless kings,
or buccaneers, or gods from pagan days,
with Papa’s praise
and Mama’s pride. Everybody enjoys
rearing their boys.
Do they break things, mess up, fight, swear and spit?
Get over it.
Peter: That’s a wonderful poem. I have two daughters and I really appreciated reading it. It kind of was an education for a father.
Rhina: I was like this with my father. Father was one of the joys of my life. But with your mother, you kind of have a little tension that is good for you because it teaches you a lot of things.
Peter: You know, I kind of gathered that, that you and your father were close from the interview that you did with A.M. Juster, Mike Astrue, our poetry editor, that really shone through. Could you talk a little bit more about what it was like growing up with your parents and did they contribute at all to your interest in poetry?
Rhina: Oh yes. They encouraged it very much. They loved poetry. They were book people altogether. They were always reading – whenever they had a free moment, out came the book. So I learned early in life that this was something that people did that not just, you were given assignments to do it, that you caught at the chance to do it.
So that was wonderful. A lot of wonderful things from my parents, the fact that they talked about the books they read afterward. I grew up with that and you don’t always see that with adults, but they were forever, “Why did he do that? You know, in chapter three, it sounds as if he’s going to do this, but then later he disappoints you when he does the other things.” They spoke about Dostoyevsky novels for example, as if they were real life. and who else was it they loved? Oh, there’s so many novelists and poets in particular that they talked about all the time as if they were family. So I grew up with that. That was great.
Susannah: Which poets in particular, can you remember? What were the earliest poets that you remember?
Rhina: Well, they love Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican nun she was, and really, she’s one of the two great first poets of the Americas. I think she and Emily Dickinson were the two first great poets of this double continent.
Rhina: And I’m always tempted to write translations of their work, the two of them together.
Peter: One part of it that intrigued me too, was when she stopped being a poet, the way that she obeyed her superiors, I’m not sure how willingly, and sort of died as a poet, but then continued to serve people in a different form.
Rhina: She died shortly after that. She caught the illness, she caught the plague that she was getting the other nuns through. And of course it’s wonderful to be helpful to others. But when you have a mission like that, to write the way she wrote, to dig into things with language, the way she could do, it was such a shame that she was forced to do it. She really was forced, it was cruel. And she died because I think because she wanted to.
Peter: She couldn’t carry out her mission in life.
Rhina: That’s right. That was her gift. It’s like the little drummer, that was her drum. Poetry was her drum.
Peter: Do you have a favorite poem by Sor Juana?
Rhina: Oh, they’re all favorites. I love them all. But let me find something by Sor Juana, who is a nun, but not because she felt she had that mission, but because she wanted to be left alone and not bugged by the world. And if you’re a nun, it’s considered that you’re living a good life and that you’re doing what God wants you to do, therefore you don’t have to be watched all the time and bugged by other people. So that’s what she did.
Peter: A pragmatic nun.
Rhina: A pragmatic nun, yes. And also it was a good way to get her mail straight through because her friends would send her all the scientific news of the world from Spain, from Argentina, from the advanced countries. So she would have all of this. And this was the other place where her heart really lived. She loved science. They would send her devices that have been invented. And that was one of the things that they made her give up. Not only her writing, but also all of her books and all of her scientific devices and all of her scientific treatises. This is as if somebody had pulled out your eyes, I know that if somebody said to me, “In order to be saved, you’re going to have to give up all your books and all your writing.” I’d say, “Good, kill me now. Hold my sword and I will run on it.”
Peter: Which is what she did. More or less.
Rhina: That’s right. Yes. That’s what she did. How cruel. Here it is. This is called “To Hope, A La Esperanza,” To Hope.
Green spell that so beguiles humanity,
unreasoning hope, gilded delirium,
dream that the sleepless dream, unrescued from
the fantasy of fortunes not to be;
soul of the world, old age dressed handsomely,
imaginary blossoming of some
bare branch, the lucky man’s today—“to come
tomorrow,” says the luckless man, “for me”:
Let them who will follow and live for you,
those who, green-spectacled, pursue in vain
chimaeras they create and trust too much.
Saner about my fate, I keep my two
eyes in my two hands, and find it plain
there’s nothing I can see but what I touch.
That’s a dangerous poem.
Peter: Well, she loves the world she finds herself in, it seems.
Rhina: Yes she does.
Peter: And she’s going to live a real life.
Rhina: She’s going to live a real life. And yet she has other poems in which she writes to the world directly. And she says, in fact I don’t think that one’s here, but she says in effect, “Why are you bothering me? Why are you annoying me, when all I’m doing is minding my own business and doing what I can do well. I have no interest in riches. I have no interest in fancy clothing or jewelry. I have no interest in what the world considers delight. My delight is what I do. Why are you bugging me for doing it well?”
Because that’s what the Inquisition had against her. The fact that she had the nerve to be female, brilliant and knowing it, that’s unforgivable. How can you be a woman – you’re supposed to be cooking in the kitchen? How can you be a woman, and not only do everything you do right with what you know, but also be happy about it? They weren’t open-minded in those days. I’m glad to see the church has changed somewhat, not enough.
Peter: Rhina, I’d love to talk to you a little bit about your work as an educator, not just as a teacher, but also as a lifelong educator and inspirer of people, with the power of poetry. Just a little story, I was recently traveling to visit some friends down in Nicaragua and I had lived there for a while, and coming to the airport, one of the first things you saw, there was a big display of the products that Nicaragua was proudest of. And there was cigars and there was flor de caña rum, and there was a big shelf of poetry books.
Rhina: Of course.
Peter: I had to think, how many countries are there, where the first thing that they boast about to tourists coming to their country, I’m sure that there’s the rum and the cigars, but here’s our poets? And that must be something that you’ve been thinking about. How do we inspire people to read poetry, knowing the numbers of how few do. You obviously did that in New York public schools for decades?
Rhina: I did. I sold poetry wherever I went. It’s all over Latin America, by the way, that attitude that the poet is somebody very special. And that poetry itself is a gift. And even people who don’t know how to read memorize poetry. I remember in the Dominican Republic, having people who are raking the leaves or who are forced to spread the seed or whatever they’re doing in the country, who are clearly not learned people. And yet, if they find out that you’re a poet, they put the hoe down and the rake down right away. And they say, “Do you know this one?” And they’ll start spouting from memory.
And it’s not always wonderful poetry, but it is poetry. It’s the art itself that they love. And they memorize and they know names of different poets. It’s a wonderful thing. I think it came from Spain. It’s just something that they brought with them from the mother country and from Portugal. And then those of us who have some French in us as well, the whole Mediterranean circle there, is crazy about poetry, about art in general.
Peter: I know that of course has a centuries-long tradition behind it. Of people being moved by poetry or feeling that it says something important about who they are and what their life is about.
Rhina: The only way to spread it in other countries like this country, my second country, which I adore, is to show it to people, to tell them, “Look, this doesn’t belong to any elite. It doesn’t belong to any intellectuals. It belongs to you. It belongs to all of us. This is part of our being human.”
And once you introduce it that way, and you take the big fancy words out of it, and you take the – I don’t have anything against academics to the people who are academics, but there is something about the academic tradition that has gone wrong. It’s a matter of making poetry feel sacred, as if it were so sacred, you can’t touch it with your human hands, but that’s not the case. It’s for everybody, it’s for the farmers, for the mother, it’s for the child, it’s for human beings.
I tell my students, we all need poetry because it’s the world’s first gossip and gossip is a necessity. You have to know, you have to have gossip. Because what is Homer? Homer is nothing but a fantastic gossip. He tells you things about the gods and goddesses, their sex lives, all the things they do wrong with and to other people, all of the warfare and violence that they spread, the infidelities of Jupiter. I mean, how can you not be interested in something that meaty? It’s part of the life of the world.
And if you introduce it like that, if you don’t tell them that poetry is absolutely novel, there is nothing in it that is outside of the sphere of nobility and holiness as over and so they’re bored right away, they don’t even have to read it to be bored, is how you introduce it that makes a difference.
So it’s gossip. I tell them it’s stories well-told and that it lets your imagination go hog-wild because there again, it’s Homer. I told them you know what’s wonderful about Homer, that he lies so well that you believe him all the time. For example, there’s somebody on the battlefield, the Trojan War, somebody’s dying, and he’s telling you how the spear went through the neck and came out at the back and it’s absolutely gruesome. And the boys in class will think they are going to hate the poetry. They’re thrilled. This is marvelous. This is real life. So you’ve got half the population right there. Homer knew how to do it. So I tell them, not only does he tell you that, how does he know? He wasn’t there; he’s lying. He’s making things up, poetry’s made-up stuff. And it’s wonderful.
To tell them not only that, but then he tells you how the soul of the dying man flies out of the body. And he tells you what that soul is thinking. How do we know that really? Plato was right. Poets are all liars.
Susannah: Are they dangerous to the state?
Rhina: No. They’re dangerous maybe to the people in the state who think that the only thing that matters is making money, because beautifully-told stories and lies that work will not do that. So Plato was right in a way, because the practicality of the life of the state is opposed to this. I mean, I’m wasting time. I’ve wasted my whole life writing lies and making people believe them and packing things into those lies, that would be good for them to think about. That’s what you do. I think that in some ways, you have to be the devil’s advocate. You do. I don’t, I don’t say that carelessly to people like you. You’re very involved with religion, I understand that. But sometimes you do have to say, “How do you know that? How do you believe that?” Join me in wondering about this, join me in finding this out, join me in digging. The poet is a digger.
Peter: Well, we know we were talking about daughters a little earlier, with Homer for some reason, my fourth grade daughter got into the Iliad and she was an Iliad completionist. There was no death that I was not allowed to read aloud to her. And every day at five, for about three months, the first thing, luckily, we managed to put a hold to it. When Christmas came, it didn’t seem seasonal, but everything had to be read. My wife was worried. It sounded really sketchy some of it, but it was really fun. And actually I rekindled my own love of Homer. It’s interesting you were saying how poetry is telling lies, and yet you have a love for devotional poetry. How do those two things fit together?
Rhina: Well, they tell lies all the time, because for instance, St. John of the Cross tells lies having met... He met Christ in secret one night because they were not married yet. They were just lovers at that point. The make-believe of poetry is wonderful because that’s the metaphor. And I think that that religious poetry, devotional poetry is full of metaphor. It’s a wonderful metaphor. Is telling you about the human spirit, but it’s telling it to you as stories and the stories need not be factually true.
But when you have somebody like Homer or St. John or Sor Juana who is going to tell you a truth disguised as a lie, that turns out to be a truth. That’s a wonderful thing. And that’s what poetry does. He pretends that he’s somebody’s wife, St. John, but you see this is why in Latin America, not only is poetry blissfully common, but so is faith.
There is something about the Latin American tradition, the mind of Latin America, who understands this as a story about God, who understands this as metaphor. They don’t even expect you to believe it as real life happening. They understand metaphor; they grew up on metaphor. And I think that’s the difference. They’re satisfied with our relationship with something much too large, much too far to understand, but they understand it, if they’re told the story in metaphor.
Peter: And maybe then, the difficulty that so many contemporary Americans and other Westerners have with poetry, maybe that desire for control. We want to control the metaphor rather than letting the metaphor[crosstalk 00:42:03].
Rhina: And you can’t do that. You have to have that drop of doubt that gives you freedom to think. If you have no freedom to doubt, you have no freedom to think. And if you have no freedom to think you can’t understand poetry.
Susannah: Rhina, you mentioned that you had been recently watching our launch of our new graphic novel about the White Rose, the anti-Nazi student group, who were executed in Munich in 1943. And you had a bone to pick with us about the idea of martyrdom. Do you want to go into it a little bit more about what your problem is with martyrdom and why you’re against it?
Rhina: Oh, I loved seeing it because I admire those people no end. Not because they were prepared to be martyrs, but because they were prepared to do the right thing for other people.
Susannah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rhina: I’m really not crazy about martyrdom. I think staying alive and doing the right thing for everybody who is still around you is so much more important than so much healthier and better. I don’t want to die. I want to live long enough to do things.
Susannah: I absolutely agree. I mean, one of the things that I was thinking about when we were talking about that, especially talking about Christoph Probst, Max Probst’s grandfather, he made it really clear that he was not looking to die. His purpose was not dying. He wanted to stay alive. He wanted to stay alive for his family.
Rhina: I don’t mean to argue with you, but I like arguing.
Susannah: Go for it.
Rhina: I don’t want to argue with you, but I like arguing. You said something about the importance of teaching about martyrdom to children. And I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Children should be taught the joy of life, not the joy of any kind of death. Death is the end of your opportunity to do things in this world. I don’t know about the other one, but in this world, it’s so good to be alive because you can teach, you can take things to people who need them. You can comfort those who need comfort. You can’t do that if you’re dead. You look great if you’re a martyr, it makes you look great to those who survive you, but I don’t care about that. I want to be around to do things.
And I think children are being invited to die in so many different ways these days. The drugs are around. The dreadful sex habits are around. All the ways to take risks that are not worth taking are around. So many of the “heroes” are around and what do they do? They strap terrible things to themselves, and they go among crowds and they blow themselves up with other people. And that’s supposed to earn them all sorts of kudos in some kind of heaven that I don’t believe in. I think our business is here. Our business is to live and to make something good of our lives. I would not talk to children about the joy of martyrdom. I would rather die.
Susannah: One of the things that I can remember when I was first thinking about Christianity, I read, do you know G. K. Chesterton?
Susannah: Okay. He has this line, I forget where it is. I’ve read so much Chesterton, including some really bad stuff. He’s got some trash. But he has this one line about how the suicide and the martyr are actually opposites. The case that he would make is that the suicide is someone who doesn’t love life. And the martyr is someone who loves life so much that they’re willing to – No?
Rhina: Sorry, wrong. The martyr is not someone who loves life so long. He’s someone who loves his own positive appearance so much that he’s willing to die to buy it. He wants the future to applaud him so badly that he’s willing to give up his one chance to help his neighbor in order to have that. I couldn’t do that. If somebody wanted to throw me into the ring with lions, I would say, whatever you want, I will burn the incense in front of Diana’s statue, [inaudible 00:46:25] but then I will go home and I will make food and spread it to the hungry. Because I don’t care how I look after I’m dead. I care how I do right now. So I’m not big on martyrdom. I’m big on hard work.
Peter: So we’ll invite you back for our martyrdom-themed podcast, which we’ll have to do some time properly.
Rhina: I’ll tell you who I really respect and love, the people who hid Jews in their attics and in their barns, because they knew they were risking their lives and the lives of their children who were worth infinitely more than your own. And they did it anyway.
Susannah: But those are people who are risking their lives, because there was something else that they thought that was valuable.
Rhina: But it was not something else. It was someone else. It was a human being. I would never die for a principle. Principles don’t speak to me. They don’t sit with me. I would die for a human being, but not for a principle. If I had to burn the incense, I would burn it. And then I’d say, “Forgive me. I goofed. Are you mad at me?”
Susannah: Oh, I want to have you on a podcast about martyrdom as the anti-martyrdom speaker. I’m having so much fun, Rhina.
Peter: Thank you so much Rhina. And we’re so proud to have you in our issue. And we’re looking forward to the first Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award. The contest is open and any of our listeners who are poets, you’re warmly welcome to participate in the contest. And first winners will be announced at the end of this coming summer 2021. So glad to meet you and thank you for joining us today, Rhina.
IV. Recommendations (48:34)
Susannah: All right. This is the part of the podcast where Pete and I give our recommendations for things that you should be reading or listening to, or watching or going to, or et cetera. And I’ve actually got two today. The first is, Daniel Larison is a reporter who has actually written for Plough in the past. He has been covering essentially some of the things that we’ve talked about today, America’s forever wars, since forever. He has just been one of the people who has been most faithful about not letting us lose track of the fact that people are dying in our name and keep dying. And he’s got a really good Substack email newsletter, essentially, which is daniellarison.substack.com. And we will drop that link in the show notes, and I encourage you to sign up and follow him.
Susannah: And my other recommendation is, there is a 4th century, I believe, poem by a Christian called Prudentius. Christian poet called Prudentius called the Psychomachia, which is this extremely weird, kind of like, imagined, extended metaphor. Like if you took one of Paul’s military metaphors and blew it up into this weird vaguely Homeric, extremely gruesome description of the Christian life, the life of fighting for virtue, as though the virtues were actual women, but actual women who were terrifyingly murderous. So it’s a really weird and strange and interesting poem. And just in case you think that we’re making this stuff about spiritual warfare up.
Peter: No, we’re not making it up. And I wish we had done the sort of like a graphic novel, a rendering of the Psychomachia and put it in our issue. And maybe that’s something we should do some time. And definitely if you’re going to Substack get on Daniel Larison’s list, he needs support for his work.
My recommendations can be quite different, but also kind of related to what I was talking about with Rhina earlier about raising kids. So our family read Watership Down recently, the 1972 novel by Richard Adams that’s supposedly for kids, but is equally good for adults. I can’t recommend this book enough. It just kept our whole family absolutely transfixed and is so beautifully written. And it explores many of these themes of honor, war, loyalty, friendship, quest for meaning, in a way that is probably a lot more interesting than anything we said today.
Susannah: That’s all for this episode of The PloughCast. Give us a like, give us a rating, give us a review, wherever you’re listening to this, or let us know what you think, give us feedback. How can we do this better? What do you want? Get in touch.
“A la esperanza,” Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mexican, 1651-1695; tr. R. P. Espaillat