Poetry wars

A controversial poem slated for inclusion in the new WNC Veterans Memorial will probably be modified or replaced. The city’s Public Art Board postponed a final decision on the matter during its Nov. 29 meeting to allow time for alternatives to emerge. Board members plan to revisit the issue during a Dec. 28 retreat.

Memorialized: A planned bas relief for the WNC Veterans Memorial. A poem planned as part of the memorial is under scrutiny.

After an Xpress article called attention to the controversy surrounding Charles M. Province‘s poem “It is the Veteran,” Public Art Board Chair Barbara Cary says she received multiple complaints about its content. (See “The Writing on the Wall,” Nov. 7 Xpress.)

“A lot of people felt it was negative and took cheap shots at the other professions mentioned—who, while not veterans, have their own dignity and have also made important contributions to our freedoms,” Cary told Xpress. “We asked the veterans to come back to us with another poem—one more recent, more positive and more in harmony with the surroundings. This is a public project.”

Written at the height of the Vietnam War protests, the poem (originally titled “It is the Soldier”) credits veterans, rather than other members of society, with securing various basic constitutional rights (see box, “The Controversial Poem”).

The memorial is part of an ambitious overhaul of City/County Plaza that’s being carried out under the aegis of the nonprofit Pack Square Conservancy. Funding for that $20 million-plus project is coming from Asheville, Buncombe County, federal funds, grants and private donors. The city, county and the town of Woodfin have also made specific contributions for the $450,000 memorial. Another nonprofit, the WNC Veterans Memorial, is in charge of fundraising and design for the project, subject to approval by the art board and the conservancy. The veterans’ group has raised most of the money from private sources.

Cary, an art instructor at Mars Hill College, also feels the poem is “a little dated.” After reading it to some of her students, she says, “they thought a campus organizer was someone who organized dances or social events.”

One possibility, said Cary, would be commissioning a poem by a local veteran. “I think we’d be willing to put money into that—finding a poem that reflected the unique contributions of WNC’s veterans.”

Another proposal raised by art board members at the meeting calls for changing the wording (with the author’s approval) to give it a more positive spin. Cary said the art board had tabled the issue “so they’d have time to do the research and come back to us.”

Different drummers

The controversial poem

Here’s the version of the poem originally proposed by the veterans:

It is the Veteran
by Charles M. Province

It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech
It is the VETERAN, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote
It is the VETERAN
Who salutes the flag
Who serves under the flag
Whose coffin is draped by the flag.
Thank you Veterans.


The idea to use the poem came from area resident Walter Plaue, who heard it read at a patriotic event. A member of the board of directors for the memorial, he brought it to the group for approval. Plaue did not respond to requests for comment.

Public Art Board member Bill Fishburne, a veteran who is senior editor of The Asheville Tribune, defended the poem at the meeting, though he found himself in the minority. “There’s a lot of strong support for this … among the veterans,” he told Xpress. “There’s a feeling that it has to be this poem.”

The veterans who serve on the memorial’s board of directors represent many other groups around the region, he added. “This isn’t just a few guys pushing for this—they represent thousands of veterans.”

But Fishburne also said “it’s clear [that] in its current form it can’t get the number of votes it would need,” so he favors modifying it. Finding another poem—especially an original composition—would take too long, he asserts, as bidding for construction began Nov. 6 and work is scheduled to start sometime in the coming months.

Province holds the copyright to the poem—a fact the veterans’ group only recently discovered. The author has given permission for his work to be used and says he’s open to modifications “as long as they retain the message that the soldier is to be admired and respected.” Plaue, he said, had already called him to talk about possible modifications.

An Army veteran who founded and heads the George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society, Province says he wrote the poem after seeing how soldiers returning from Vietnam were received.

“I was sick and tired of it. Here were soldiers that, whether you thought the war was right or wrong, were coming back after having been shot at by communist a**holes, and they were coming home to be spit on,” Province told Xpress. “So I put some thoughts down.”

But the poem, he says, was “absolutely not” meant to be derogatory to any of the other professions mentioned. “It’s a reminder that soldiers have given up a lot—sacrificed their very lives, in some cases—so that we can enjoy the lives and freedoms we have here in the U.S.,” Province explains. “Liberals need to realize that these are the people that give them the right to complain, to protest.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Province’s words have ended up carved in stone. A Korean War memorial in North Dakota carries a version of the poem as well, he notes. The author also dismissed criticisms of his creation, which he feels is still relevant today, saying, “It absolutely is: We’re still fighting to spread freedom around the world, to bring other countries the freedoms we enjoy. No other country’s spent billions on that like we have.”

This isn’t the first time the monument has been the subject of debate on the art board. When the group first submitted its proposed design two years ago, there were concerns about the specifics. After significant changes, the art board finally signed off on the design this spring.


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7 thoughts on “Poetry wars

  1. lokel

    I do believe that THE CONSTITUTION and Bill of Rights provide us the freedoms listed in the “poem.”

    I do not think that the “poem” is appropriate for a public memorial.

  2. Sean

    I think the issue is not to controversial nature of the poem at all. To say that veterans have done more for the country and it’s safety than firefighters, doctors, police, social workers, political leaders, religious leaders and others is ludicrous and short-sighted, or course, but the real issue is this – the poem isn’t even a poem. There’s no meter, no attention to rhythmic composition, poor diction, and could most accurately be described as a rant laiden with line breaks. If the committee wishes to include a poem on the memorial, let them find a poet to write one.

  3. michael parker

    To all you who oppose this poem,

    This is the Veterans’ memorial. The Veterans’. Not yours. Their point of view about the measure of their service should be respected, and if this is the statement they want to make, then let them make it. What’s it to you? Is your visit to the park really going to be spoiled if this isn’t worded to your liking?

    It is highly arrogant of members of a public arts board and of the rest of you nit-pickers to say that a statement by the vets, for the vets may possibly offend people who teach, preach, fight fires, or heave-ho sandbags during a time of crisis.

    What an irony all this is: they claim credit for protecting your free speech, and you want to use that freedom to censor theirs.

  4. Barry Summers

    Michael –

    If this were on your front lawn, paid for out of your own pocket, go for it. If someone tried to stop you from exhibiting it, I’d be there standing up for your rights.

    But this is not just a statement “by the vets, for the vets” as you state. This is using a piece of our public square to proclaim to the world that veterans are more important than non-veterans.

    And, it’s offensive to the memory of those preachers, poets, reporters, campus organizers, and politicians here and abroad that have been slain over the years for doing what is important to them, and to us. Not every sacrifice wears a uniform or is draped by a flag. Members of the military contribute a lot, but a society without these other people would be an empty shell guarded by men with guns.

    I know veterans that are as offended by this as I am. Please have the good sense to recognize that this poem and the sentiment behind it does damage to the America that you claim to love.

  5. michael parker

    OK then, so we need a “Universal Sacrifice” memorial.

    ..and my apologies to the preachers, poets, reporters, and campus organizers, and the women who sacrificed their primes to mother these fine people (every woman is a working woman, you know), but not the politicians. Certainly not the politicians. They do damage to the America I love.

    I look forward to the endless debate over including Jesus Christ in that memorial.

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