American Poetry and a Century of Wars

Many essays on twentieth-century poetry and war are likely not to mention any examples of American poetry. Nevertheless, American poets have fought in and responded to many of the major conflicts of the century, and a case can be made that war, and the subject of war poetry, has been a significant concern for a number of American poets.

The United States entered the First World War late, in 1917, and did not have such poets as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg on the front lines sending back to a naively patriotic public reports of the actual horrors of the war. The English war poets came out of the Georgian tradition, and its Romantic praise for the beauties of nature was capable of powerful effects when inverted to describe the nightmarish landscape of the trenches. The American poets associated with the First World War are not united by a common style. The foremost were Alan Seeger, John Peale Bishop, Archibald MacLeish, and E. E. Cummings, while writing in New York, Wallace Stevens responded to the war in his poem "Lettres d'Un Soldat." Seeger was the only one of these figures killed in the war, and nothing that these poets produced on the conflict equaled the achievement in prose of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or Cummings's The Enormous Room.

Ezra Pound, H.D., and T. S. Eliot, writing in London, present a different case. Pound saw a number of the artists that he regarded as essential to the modern movement going off to fight, some of them subsequently to be killed. The greatest loss, for Pound, was the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in France in 1915. Some of Pound's Chinese translations in his Cathay (1915) concern war themes and echo contemporary events, but sections IV and V of his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley contain his most overt denunciation of a war that he regarded as evidence of a degenerate culture - on both sides. For the modernists generally the war was not what it was for the English war poets, a terrible aberration that needed to be stopped; it was instead one further stage in a culture's broader cycle of self-destruction. H.D.'s "Fragment Sixty-Eight," about a loved one leaving for the war, evokes a larger context though its allusion to Sappho. The most famous poem of the modernist movement, The Waste Land, also puts its post-war landscape and contemporary allusions into a larger context of history and tradition. The degree to which these poems of Pound, H.D., and Eliot can be considered "war poetry" depends finally on the definitions applied, but they are among the most powerful responses to the war produced in the language.

As far as the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) is concerned, W. H. Auden wrote in support of the Republican cause in the early years of the war, before his move to the United States in 1939 and the famous declaration in his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" that "poetry makes nothing happen." And Spain Sings (1937), edited by Rolfe Humphries, was a significant book of translations of Spanish poets intended to raise funds for the Republican cause and including translations by Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and William Carlos Williams. But the most prominent literary work to come out of the war by an American was a prose work, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In the case of the Second World War, a conflict in which 400,000 Americans died, most of the poetry associated with the war is formalist in structure, reflecting the New Critical dicta of the time, the prominence of Auden, and perhaps a felt need to order what would otherwise seem a world of chaos. The style went out of favor to some extent in the decade that followed, but a case has recently been made for a re-examination of the poetry by Harvey Shapiro in his collection Poets of World War II (2003) published by the popular Library of America. Shapiro's anthology includes 62 poets, 40 of whom served in the army, navy, air force or merchant marine. For Shapiro, American poems coming out of the war are irreverent about military hierarchy, "often bawdy, bitchy," not glorying in brotherhood or patriotism. Shapiro's purpose, he argues in his introduction, is "to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence." Shapiro discovers a mythologizing perspective in many of the poems, alongside the documentary details. The last stanza of Karl Shapiro's "Troop Train" serves as a representative example:

Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains, And trains to death or trucks, and trucks to death, Or trucks lead to the march, the march to death, Or that survival which is all our hope; And death leads back to trucks and trains and ships,

But life leads to the march, O flag! at last The place of life found after trains and death -Nightfall of nations brilliant after war.

The best-known poem to come out of the war is Randall Jarrell's five-line "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," although Jarrell himself spent the war in the United States as a training instructor for the air force. Gwendolyn Brooks writes of the ironies of racial segregation in the armed forces in her "Negro Hero" (1945). Robert Lowell's retrospective "Memories of West Street and Lepke" from his 1959 volume Life Studies describes his confinement as a conscientious objector in West Street jail, where a fellow inmate was the notorious murderer Louis "Lepke" Buchalter. Lepke was jailed for killing and Lowell for refusing to kill, as Lowell pointed out later.

Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos (1948) represent the most sustained achievement by an American poet to come out of this war. This section of Pound's long poem, controversially awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, was written while he was in a military prison on a charge of making treasonous broadcasts in Italy against the allies.

Wallace Stevens, for many years viewed as a poet whose work made little reference to contemporary events, has been seen more recently as a much more engaged writer, and this has led to his wartime volume, Parts of a World (1942) - formerly often read as merely a transitional volume on the way to the achievement of his Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, written in the same year - as centrally informed by the war. In particular the book examines the idea of heroism and the possible role for poetry in a time of war. In a prose statement that concludes the book he argues that, "In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is a consciousness of fact." For Stevens, the poetry written during a war could not but reflect that war, and, he continues, the poetic imagination faces a particular challenge when writing of war because its power as fact can overpower the poem as an act of the imagination. Stevens's point raises the question of the degree to which war poetry can or should avoid becoming polemical. Later poetry upon such catastrophes can at any rate offer the perspective of time, as in the case of Caroline Forche's work on the Holocaust, and of Marc Kaminsky in his The Road from Hiroshima (1984), based upon the recollections of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

The second half of the century saw wars directly involving US forces in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and all have been the subject of poetry. For some readers these poems illustrate the issue raised by Stevens. Poetry that overtly takes sides can for some readers sacrifice too much of what poetry does so well, bringing a sensitive and nuanced response to events and surroundings, and using language to suggest levels, ambiguity, and a complex mood.

The Vietnam War produced the most protest. Many American poets were opposed to the war early on and an important early anthology of this opposition is Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond (1967). A later anthology, Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War, edited by W. D. Ehrhart (1985), also carries poems by veterans of the war. Its omission of representative women veterans is corrected in Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of Women in the Vietnam War (1991), edited by Lynda Van Devanter and Joan A. Furey. Among prominent poets, Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser were particularly to the fore in their protests, and both visited North Vietnam. Levertov's "What Were They Like?" decries the destruction of an ancient peasant culture by those oblivious to it, and her "Advent 1966" compares a Christian vision of the burning Christ-child to images of napalmed Vietnamese children. Muriel Rukeyser's earlier poetry, as noted above, had included work supporting the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Both poets lost many readers as a result of their anti-war commitment in the 1960s.

Robert Lowell protested the war, usually more through political activism than through his poetry. However his Notebook 1967-68 records his activities that year in the anti-war movement. In his well-known "Waking Early Sunday Morning," the war is put into the larger context of the decline of civilized values and the anonymous, dehumanizing forces of destruction -rather as he treats the Second World War in his "For the Union Dead." Deep Image poets such as Galway Kinnell also protested the war, and its presence is at the center of his The Book of Nightmares (1971). Opposition to the war is also a feature of Robert Duncan's work, for example Tribunals (1970), where it appears in the more visionary context that is characteristic of his poetry. In his From Sand Creek (1981) Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz uses a speaker who is a hospitalized Vietnam veteran to explore the wider subject of the history of violence between whites and Native Americans and its relationship to the Vietnam War.

Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) is considered by many to be the finest book of American poetry to emerge from the war. Portions of the volume were reprinted in Neon Vernacular (1993), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Komunyakaa spent 1969-70 as a war correspondent and editor for a US army newspaper, and was awarded a Bronze Star. He has said that it took him 14 years to be able to approach the topic of the war in his poetry. His Vietnam War poems record in detail the routine and pain of conflict which he saw when accompanying patrols: rape, death, burning, the fascination with and fear of an enemy glimpsed, troop shows, the city brothels, shadowy lines of prisoners emerging from helicopters, lucky escapes, the boat people, and enemy propaganda aimed at the black soldiers following the assassination of Martin Luther King. In "Facing It" the ghosts of lost companions mix with the living in the bright Washington morning when the poet visits the Vietnam Memorial.

The civil war in El Salvador is the subject of a major section of Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us (1982), and in subsequent volumes she has written of the war in Yugoslavia. While the poems on El Salvador come out of Forché's own experience, the poems in The Angel of History (1994) cross a broad span of time to speak with the voice of a quasi-religious collective memory. Public and private details make up the texture of the poems. Forché has also edited Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993), a volume which, along with her own poetry, is determined to make sure that the personal experiences behind a century of wars remain part of the record alongside the dates and names of more public, official histories.

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