The Tyranny of Silence

Doug Anderson (bottom left, top right) Jay Wenk (bottom right)

Doug Anderson (bottom left, top right) Jay Wenk (bottom right)

Flower Power: The Poetry of War and Healing, a workshop at the Poetry Barn led by Doug Anderson, who has written about his experiences in the Vietnam War in both poetry (The Moon Reflected Fire, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award) and nonfiction (Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties, and a Journey of Self-Discovery), at once placed me in a rightfully uncomfortable space while freeing me from the idea that I could not engage with the subject matter. Doug and workshop participant Jay Wenk, a veteran of WWII who liberated three concentration camps including Dachau, discussed with each other the necessity of silence in combat.

The necessity of silence in the face of ambush or patrol. The sacrifice of rubber bands in gas masks to keep dog tags from jingling. The need to keep canteens full or empty so as to have no sloshing. Among these details came the commonality of war, and I noticed, as I was reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, that silence seems always to be a prerequisite for totalitarianism and the violence it is associated with. Whether this is the silence of equipment on the battlefield or silence among civilians. The idea that in silence we “obey in advance” seemed to underline the lessons of Doug Anderson’s workshop—at least for a civilian.

This workshop transcended a didacticism which might have accompanied a workshop meant to teach those unfamiliar with combat. Instead I came away with an awareness of the interconnectivity between social norms and violence. Especially in our current culture of defamation and pre authoritarian culture, workshops like Flower Power: The Poetry of War and Healing become links between history and the present, and foreshadow what the present might render in the future.

In many ways this was the most striking workshop I have attended at the Poetry Barn, for the generative poetry we shared, and for the lessons and connections I came away with. Ultimately, I boil down my experience in this workshop to this: Beware of silence and write on!

Ryan Clinesmith