An account of the confrontation at the Pentagon between the antiwar protesters and the military the day after [Lowell's reading at an antiwar rally], "The March" . . . describes Lowell's own ambivalence as a participant. The marchers listened to "the remorseless amplified harangues for peace" at the Lincoln Memorial, and then later at the Pentagon, at the end of their march, "heard, alas, more speeches." The political significance of the event lay less in the specific words anyone spoke through a microphone than in the very fact and size of the demonstration. The speakers, whatever they said, whatever the quality of their oratory, provided a focus for the crowd. Having gathered in part to display their numbers, they needed something to do, so they listened. Marching across the Potomac was something more pleasingly active to do, but more risky, since as they approached the Pentagon they would meet the lines of MPs guarding the building. In the poem, the marchers, "mostly white-haired, or bald, or women," appear weak, dwarfed by overstated state monuments on the mall, not to mention the Pentagon itself. In their submission to hearing still more speeches, the marchers appear weak even in the face of their own movement, which sends them "off like green Union Army recruits / for the first Bull Run." Lowell felt weak in body and spirit before this . . . . Weak as any of us, he offers a model of responsibility beyond hardly anyone's strength. His heart his cowardly and foolhardy as my own; his glasses, slick with the sweat of fear as my own would be, slip down his nose. In the "fear, glory, chaos, rout" of the confrontation, when the MPs "trampled us flat and back," he neither stood his ground nor escaped under his own power, but by the aid of "kind hands / that helped me stagger to my feet and flee."
The March I
The poet wryly mocks his activist self, the bespectacled, aging, nervous man of letters playing Union Recruit in his first engagement, not yet sure that Bull Run will be a defeat but vaguely hopeful that defeats may feel more glorious than victories anyway. Washington appears as a post-card version of itself, everything bigger and whiter than life; and the theatrical setting and melodramatized "sci-fi" enemy mock the poet's excitement at doing something "important" and exhilaratingly remote from his usual sense of himself. His distaste for the "amplified harangues" is reassuring but a little suspect even to himself -- is his the impatience of the would-be man of action, anxious to get on with it before his resolution cools? If this is a sketch, it nevertheless manages to show the poet seeing himself from outside even while honouring the inner feeling of the occasion.
. . . .
"The March" could have and no doubt was meant to confirm the value of a public gesture by admitting the ineptness of one's own part in it and finding that even irony doesn't spoil the whole significance. But as it stands the poem seems more concerned with the pathos of one's public impotence, the helpless realization that you have made a gesture your consciousness of weakness keeps you from trusting. . . . "The March," in short, inclines toward a familiar liberal situation, that of a mind aware of its "practical" ineffectuality trying to participate in a political act without believing that its participation matters -- which is, in effect, to doubt the reality of politics altogether. The poem dwells too much on the poet's ability to survive his humiliations and feel a decent compassion for all participants, admirable human achievements but not adequate ways of understanding a terrible public crisis.
Now who would be certain the shades of those Union dead were not ready to come on Lowell and Mailer as they strode through the grass up the long flat breast of hill at the base of the Washington Monument and looked down the length of the reflecting pool to Lincoln Memorial perhaps one-half mile away, "then to step off like green Union Army recruits for the first Bull Run, sped by photographers . . ." was what Lowell was to write about events a bit later that day, but although they said hardly a word now, Lowell and Mailer were thinking of the Civil War: it was hard not to.
. . . .
After hours of waiting, after the military exuberance of listening to a rallying trumpet had faded into hours of speeches, and the blanked-out unavoidable apathy of the Great Left Pall (troops up for battle, troops dropped down) now at last, two hours after the yeast of a happy beginning had been punched in (it was to rise again) -- the order to form into ranks was passed around the roped enclosure, and Lowell, MacDonald, and Mailer were requested to get up in the front row, where the notables were to lead the March, a row obviously to be consecrated by the mass media. Newsreel, still, and television cameras were clicking and rounding and snapping and zooming before the first rank was even formed.
. . . .
"Listen, Mailer said, "let's get arrested now." Stating the desire created it, and put a ligature across the rent in his nerve.
"Look, Norman," said Lowell, "if we're going to, shall we get away from here? I don't see any good that's going to be accomplished if we're all picked up right next to a Vietcong flag."
This was not to be contested. Mailer had never understood how demonstrating with an N.L.F. flag was going to spark a mass movement to end the war. He could not argue with Lowell. The remark was sensible, and yet he felt uneasy, as if one should never be too sensible in war. Still -- it was difficult enough for people to take him seriously without standing next to that flag.
So they moved on, looking for a line to cross, or a border, or a fence at the extremity of the parking lot, and came upon one in not time at all. To their left, perhaps fifty yards from where the attack had jammed, was a grassy field with United States MPs stationed in it. To their front was a low rope, not a foot off the ground. Protestors from the parking lot were standing behind this rope, two or three deep. Lowell, Mailer, and MacDonald worked into position until they had nothing in front of them but the rope, and the MPs.