How I learned to write about the war

This article addresses some of the ethical challenges in writing poetry about war. It suggests that using archival sources of the words of participants themselves addresses one of those challenges. Two projects involving the archives of war museums are described as examples in practice of writing poetry that honours conflict participants while raising questions about the conflicts themselves.


Keywords: poetry—ethics—archives—war


That I’ve become involved professionally and creatively with matters of war surprises me, because I have been anti-war, pro-peace, lean towards the left politically and, although I’ve had relatives in the military, I’ve never really understood why someone would join up. I’ve marched and demonstrated against various conflicts since I was a teenager at my conservative Catholic School where the Australian poet Bruce Dawe taught English. This paper tells of how creative research into war and conflict found me rather than my finding it. This has involved a coming to terms personally and creatively with dealing candidly with war while respecting the views of others. The inherent ethical challenges in such a project are well served by making digital poetry as opposed to purely textual work, and whether digital or on the page, the use of archival material attends to some of the ethical imperatives of such an undertaking.

In 2014 my path crossed with some people from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) who were trying to encourage responses that go beyond the long tradition of visual and fine art responses to their collections about military conflict. They envisaged literary and musical works that said something about Australians in the many conflicts in which the country has participated. Around that time, the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra (UC) began negotiating with the Department of Defence to pilot a four week arts program for military personnel facing service related health and wellbeing issues. This pilot has now become a five year Defence program known as Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills (ARRTS) (See Gilmore 2016) with UC contracted to run the Creative Writing and Visual Arts streams. Between 20 and 30 participants are supported by a creative team and a large support team and I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in all three programs so far—twice as convener of the Creative Writing stream. Meeting these people, some very young indeed, hearing their stories and seeing them working to express themselves through the arts, it wasn’t possible to retain the luxury of philosophical distance from the things that brought them to the program. One of those things was their participation in conflict ranging from deployments in Iraq and peacekeeping missions in various countries.

After meeting the AWM staff I became very interested in how to respond to the history of war through poetry when one has not oneself been a combatant, and I chose to spend part of my 2015 sabbatical at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and at IWM North in Manchester. This work with the AWM and IWM built on a long term interest in working with archival material to make poetry. Beginning to work with their collections, one of the key issues that emerged was the ethical challenge of dealing with war for an audience many of whom feel very differently about war than I do. Two projects are explored here to illustrate the ethical and creative issues that arise in the process of communicating the experience of conflict to diverse audiences using poetry.


Ethical poetry at the AWM

The AWM feels, for the most part, like a solemn space because of it’s architecture, it’s place opposite Parliament House, its massive commemorative courtyard with the names of Australians who’ve died in service and particularly its Hall of Memory which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The overall tone is reverent.


Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial — Source: AWM (


I was invited, along with other UC poets, to present a reading in one of the public galleries in the AWM during 2014. Other than asking me to respond to a particular conflict represented in the collection, I could respond as I saw fit reading my own poetry or the work of other poets. Now I believe that it’s my right, my duty, my personal ethical imperative to present work that engages with my committed belief that war can’t be the answer, no matter what the question. But working with these institutions, working with serving military personnel, I was also very aware that it’s a personal ethical imperative that the poet should ‘do no harm’. I don’t want to offend the audience at these institutions, although I absolutely hope to make them think. As Auden wrote:

Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate. (cited in Oneill 1994)

Disenchanting and disintoxicating about war was what I sought to do.

Gerald Bruns (2009) in ‘Should poetry be ethical or otherwise’ describes the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical position as being:

that the claims other people have on me are in advance or whatever reasons might be used to decide or justify my conduct. I am responsible for the good of the other, come what may – which means, among other things, that my relation to others is not one of knowing, but one of proximity, as of skin exposed to the touch. It is about the other and not about what decision I arrive at in my head. (Bruns 2009: 73)

For this reason, I wanted to engage through these poems, to establish a relation of proximity with the ‘reader’, in the case of the AWM invitation, people listening in gallery. It should also be said that Levinas casts doubt on the ability of poetry to be ethical and he does this in several works in many different (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) ways (Robbins 1999). However, this notion of the link between saying and listening and ethics serves to provide a confirmation beyond my own internal compass regarding what constitutes an ethical balance between saying and caring in this poetry.

In thinking through the ethics of writing poems for this reading, the responsibility to ‘others’ that weighed most heavily was to the service men and women themselves who had served as the Peacekeepers I’d chosen as my focus (More than 70,000 Australian men and women have participated in Peacekeeping missions around the world and some have lost their lives in the process. One strategy for finding my way through the various moral and ethical challenges of writing about war has been to choose subjects and related archival material that are less well covered.)

The AWM has available a large collection of images, audio recordings, home video, diaries and other sources to do with Peacekeeping missions. A significant number of these are made by the Peacekeepers themselves. Bearing in mind the significance that Levinas’ places on listening rather than speaking as ethical being, I determined to use the words of the Peacekeepers to make the poems. Of course this does not guarantee that readers will hear the ‘authentic’ voice of Peacekeeper ‘authentically’—as Wallace Stevens wrote,

             … Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.

(Stevens 2011: 90)

For instance, while the words were those of the participants, they are not all of the words, and they are arranged by the poet to suggest a meaning of the poet’s choosing. Are they adequate to represent what was intended by their authors, what is the ethical position vis a vis ownership of the words and so on? However, this strategy of using the actual words of the authors of the archival sources rather than put words into their mouths is closer to ‘listening’ to them than reading what they say and then composing my own versions.

These works sit squarely in the tradition of ‘found’ poetry. One striking example of found poetry, Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative, takes testimony from 30 years of court cases in the United States and make individual ‘poems’ from them:

The child, about six, thin and feeble
and sick of a disorder of its bowels,
was whipped by its father
for befouling its bed:
twenty or more “licks” with a switch
as thick as its father’s finger,
and large “whelks” left on its body.
And then, on a cold and rainy December day,
sent to its grandfather’s
in another county—
where it died in a few days.

(cited in Simic 2015)

Interestingly, after submitting my drafts to the AWM prior to the reading, I was asked to remove the following lines which were taken directly from an archival source:

Huge white-tiled walls
Smeared with human faeces.
Footpaths smeared with faeces.

(Williams 2014, using AWM source S02208)

These lines, it was suggested by my AWM liaison, could be offensive to some visitors, yet they are freely available digitally and they are the actual words of an officer.

Here is the final version of that poem:

East Timor – 1999 - 2000

I know where we’ve come from.
I know where I am.
I know where I have to go.
I know what to do.
I know you can do it.
No fear.

He watches from the flight deck
As they approach Comoro,
Smoke rising from ruins,
And heat haze all around.
They glance at the hills
Fearing the flare
Of guns
But no shots fired for now.

On the ground:
Smoke, red dust and
The smell of something gone wrong.
The thunder of plane after plane landing,

The heat and smoke are intense
As they look for a base in what’s left
Of the town.

Back in the truck,
A gun points down through their windscreen
And he photographs the gunman
For posterity,
Knowing that panic will kill them.
They pretend to be calm and live.
The snap-crack of gunfire here and there
As the militia extract money and revenge

At Comoro field
The red dust conquers all.
She’s only nineteen,
A red figurine behind the desk.
And it’s not til she smiles he knows
She’s human – white teeth and the whites of her eyes.
Without a shower for two weeks
And she “can’t wait”, she laughs
And he’s in awe
Of every young person here.

Weeks later, he’s blown off his feet
And under a truck
By a UN plane, unloading
Displaced Persons.
His first thought is
Fear he can’t stay and finish
What he started.

The whole mission ends in a rush,
Green hats swapped for blue berets.

It’s hard to leave these people this place.

I know where we’ve come from.
I know where I am.
I know where I have to go.
I know what to do.
I know you can do it.
No fear.


Most of the words are from the audio interview with the officer, but linked together with my own words to form a somewhat conventional poetic arrangement suited to a somewhat conventional memorial audience.


Imperial War Museum: Munitionettes

Inspired by the experience working with AWM archives and working with members of the Defence forces, late 2015 found me in London to further pursue the composing of poetry related to war using archival sources as key components. I combed through photograph albums in the photographic archive of the IWM looking for something intriguing. Having worked with archives over the last 15 years, I am most interested in finding what Roland Barthes called the punctum—that intriguing aspect which connotes far more than it represents on its surface. In some ways, this is an indulgent way to go about research—looking for what intrigues rather than a forensic examination and analysis of a number of instances of a phenomenon. But a photograph’s punctum, as Barthes tells us, can also be an immediate way into what is unique or problematic about what is represented. Barthes chose this word for that characteristic which ‘rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’ (Barthes 1982: 26). Barthes describes it as a ‘wound, this prick, the mark made by a pointed instrument… sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice’. I found that with the photographs or women working in munitions factories in World War 1, colloquially known as Munitionettes.


IWM Q30010 — Women hanging from the rigging overlooking masse bombs. Very strange.


This photo is what first ‘got’ me. Then images like this:


IWM Q108454 — Women accompanying a hearse carrying the body of a colleague who died in a work explosion.


There were thousands of women in the UK who took jobs during WW1 working in munitions factories. While official reports indicated that the women had a jolly time in camp with their peers, there were aspects which were more like prison—women police who also policed moral standards, barbed wire fences, long hours, dangerous work. In diaries of women who worked there, mostly written by well educated middle class women who held better posts than those on the assembly lines, they talk of fun and hijinks. An interview with an 80-year-old woman declares that it was much more fun in the war than it now was being 80. But the factories were dangerous and hazardous: exposure to TNT and nitric acid had short and long term health consequences. Explosive accidents took lives.

As explained above in relation to the AWM project, an important way of not offending and engaging is by using the words and images of those who’ve actually served and fought in composing found poetry. And the combination of word and image in digital poetry (or a combination of words and images in print) has ethical weight in giving a voice to the less socially empowered munitions workers. Written archival accounts from participants can be heavily weighted towards the words of the better educated who have more cultural capital, better jobs, and less experience at the back end of production lines, in the trenches and so on. I’m also working with some IWM material on animals in WW1 and the need for using images there is obvious in order to give the animals themselves a ‘voice’ in addition to the men and women who wrote about their experiences of animals in WW1. So if I only use the written accounts to make found poetry, I risk eliding the presence of those who haven’t written. Images where the punctum is evident and where the lower level workers or combatants are featured is one way of juxtaposing their reality with other realities.

One poem from this work on the munitions factories is ‘Munitionettes’.


Munitionettes from Jordan Williams on Vimeo


The images speak for themselves. While many feature smiling women, even they are engaged in dangerous work. The words are from diaries and image captions. In this poem, unlike the AWM poem above, I did not add words to those harvested from first person accounts. However I’ve chosen the juxtapositions and this then raises questions about the ethics of using the words of those who are most likely now deceased. Nevertheless, it approximates the Levinasian ‘listening’ to a greater extent than merely responding to the thoughts of the women themselves. This is by no means a neutral outcome, though, devoid of the poet and the poetic. For example, the choice to employ the visual metaphor of the swirling ‘picric’ acid as it was then called reflects what appears in contemporaneous accounts by using visual metaphor made possible by screens. Likewise, the soundtrack of guns (or is it explosions in the factories?) was spoken about in the accounts but assumes greater significance in the digital poem.



Beginning from a position of doubting whether someone so opposed to war as myself could ever ethically engage with the collections of a war memorial, the direct ‘quotation’ of participants’ words and images has enabled me to represent the conflict experiences of individuals in a way that gives them a voice. This found poetry form makes it possible for those who sit outside of conflicts but empathise with those in the think of things to support them in a creative yet tangible way.


Works cited: 


Bruns, G 2009, ‘Should poetry be ethical or otherwise?’, in SubStance, 38 (3) Issue 120, 72-91

Dickinson, E 2013, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Heraklion Press (ebook)

Gilmore, N 2016, ‘Art therapy program for Defence personnel to continue twice-yearly in Canberra’, ABC News,, accessed 2 August 2016

O'Neill, M 1994 ‘Making and Faking in Some Poems by W. H. Auden’, in Critical Survey 6 (3), 343–50

Robbins, J. 1999. Altered reading: Levinas and literature, Chicago IL: Chicago University Press

Simic, C 2015 ‘A brutal American epic’, in The New York Review of Books,, accessed 2 August 2016

Stevens, W 2011 Selected poems, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Williams, J 2014 ‘East Timor – 1999 – 2000’, unpublished poem

Williams, J 2015 ‘Munitionettes’,, accessed 5 August 2016