...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...
Thirty-six years ago, what has become known as the Kent State Massacre took place.
On May 4, 1970 members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The impact of the shootings was dramatic. The event triggered a nationwide student strike that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close. H. R. Haldeman, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, suggests the shootings had a direct impact on national politics. In The Ends of Power, Haldeman (1978) states that the shootings at Kent State began the slide into Watergate, eventually destroying the Nixon administration. Beyond the direct effects of the May 4th, the shootings have certainly come to symbolize the deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era.The most famous poetic response to the incident is of course Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio." Whenever I'm reminded of Kent State, it's Neil Young's opening guitar notes that immediately pop into my head. In the liner notes to the legendary compilation album Decade, Neil Young writes:
It's still hard to believe I had to write this song. It's ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. My best CSNY cut. . . . David Crosby cried after this take.Other musicians as diverse as Dave Brubeck, John Denver, Yes and the Beach Boys have all composed works inspired by the tragedy.
On the web, I found a couple of poems dedicated to the Kent State shootings. They range from the ironic to the angry. Allen Ginsberg references the incident in his poem "Hadda Be Playin' On A Jukebox," which was later set to music by Rage Against The Machine.
The most interesting poem to me was the one published immediately after the shooting in the Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda. Over on our side of the Iron Curtain, the event instilled greater momentum to the peace movement. But for most adherents, it always remained a peace movement, except for those on the radical fringe.
On the Soviet side, the incident seems to have been a call to arms, judging by the crazy warlike imagery in this propaganda poem. Also take note of the clumsy materialist stereotypes of American youth by the communist poet.
Flowers And Bullets
by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(English translation by Anthony Kahn)
Bullets don't like people
who love flowers,
They're jealous ladies, bullets,
short on kindness.
Allison Krause, nineteen years old,
for loving flowers.
When, thin and open as the pulse
you put a flower in a rifle's mouth
"Flowers are better than bullets,"
was pure hope speaking.
Give no flowers to a state
that outlaws truth;
such states reciprocate
with cynical, cruel gifts,
and your gift, Allison Krause,
was the bullet
that blasted the flower.
Let every apple orchard blossom black,
black in mourning.
Ah, how the lilac smells!
You're without feeling.
Nothing, Nixon said it:
"You're a bum."
All the dead are bums.
It's not their crime.
You lie in the grass,
a melting candy in your mouth,
done with dressing in new clothes,
done with books.
You used to be a student.
You studied fine arts.
But other arts exist,
of blood and terror,
and headsmen with a genuius for the axe.
Who was Hitler?
A cubist of gas chambers.
In the name of all flowers
I curse your works,
you architect of lies,
maestros of murder!
Mothers of the world whisper
"O God, God!"
and seers are afraid
to look ahead.
Death dances rock-and-roll upon the bones
of Vietnam, Cambodia -
On what stage is it booked to dance tomorrow?
Rise up, Tokyo girls,
take up your flowers
against the common foe.
Blow the world's dandelions up
into a blizzard!
Flowers, to war!
Punish the punishers!
Tulip after tulip,
carnation after carnation
rip out of your tidy beds in anger,
choke every lying throat
with earth and root!
You, jasmine, clog
the spinning blades of mine-layers.
block the cross-hair sights,
drive your sting into the lenses,
Rise up, lily of the Ganges,
lotus of the Nile,
stop the roaring props
of planes pregnant
with the death of chidren!
Roses, don't be proud
to find yourselves sold
at higher prices.
Nice as it is to touch a tender cheek,
thrust a sharper thorn a little deeper
into the fuel tanks of bombers.
Bullets are stronger than flowers.
Flowers aren't enough to overwhelm them.
Stems are too fragile,
petals are poor armor.
But a Vietnam girl of Allison's age,
taking a gun in her hands
is the armed flower
of the people's wrath!
If even flowers rise,
then we've had enough
of playing games with history.
tie up the killer's hands.
Let there be an escalation of truth
to overwhelm the escalating lie
crushing people's lives!
Flowers, make war!
Defend what's beautiful!
Drown the city streets and country roads
like the flood of an army advancing
and in the ranks of people and flowers
arise, murdered Allison Krause,
Immortal of the age,
Thorn-Flower of protest!
Correction: I must apologize and amend what I said up there regarding the poet. When I wrote this last night, I cut and pasted the name Yevgeny Yevtushenko without really thinking, although the name sounded familiar. This morning John's comment inspired me to look up his stuff, which I was able to do, since I have a very fine book of contemporary world poetry, which Shelly sent me last year.
The truth is, the poet was not some unknown communist hack for Pravda, which I thought at first. Yevtushenko is one of the best known and controversial Russian poets of the twentieth century. Here's his Wikipedia entry.
Reading "Flowers And Bullets" alongside Yevtushenko's more famous protest poems like "Babii Yar" (which laments the Nazi execution of 96,000 Jews near Kiev) or "The Heirs Of Stalin," I was able to place the above poem in better context. The poet had a history of using his art to condemn atrocity.
That's what happens when you critique the poet instead of the poem. A common mistake. But I still stand by my criticism of the poem, which really fails to understand the American "peace movement" of the '60s and '70s. And it really was a socialist propaganda piece, which urged violent retaliation against a capitalist enemy. Whether Yevtushenko really held the same sentiment, or whether he just knew how to market a poem, is an open question I suppose.