WAR POEMS: THE SPONTANEOUS OVERFLOW OF POWERFUL FEELINGS

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4875e365af8c65e7af86745bef98b6cfTo mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, a new edition of Jon Stallworthy’s acclaimed anthology, the New Oxford Book of War Poetry, was issued.

In his presentation (in The Guardian) of what he considers the TOP 10 WAR POEMS, Stallworth begins by saying that:

“Poetry”, Wordsworth reminds us, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, and there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred – not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war-profiteers; love – for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally).”

I think that his introduction is perfect. It has certainly moved me to dedicate the next few postings here, at the POETRY CORNER, to war poetry.

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In the West, John Mc Crae’s iconic In Flanders Fields (1915) has come to overshadow all other war poems, with its forlorn call of duty: to country and to fallen comrades.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In his Top 10 list, Stallworthy includes Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies”, a poem celebrating the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as poems by Thomas c12762Hardy and Alfred Lord Tennyson. But most of the Guardian selections of the erudite editor are of the 20th century, which suggests to me that in matters of war, at least, the poetry of recent history continues to have immense resonance and urgency.

And yet…

uqekudhufzt0eq0zdatt_thumbWhile gathering information about The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, I came upon David Willson’s review of the anthology. Willson, a college educated veteran of the Viet Nam War (born in 1942)  is critical of Stallworthy’s editorial choices, lamenting the scarcity of younger poetic voices speaking about more recent wars, like Viet Nam and Iraq.

Taking issue with what he considers Stallworthy’s editorial biases, Willson makes a passionate and forceful case for the inclusion of more late 20th century war poetry:

“Since I wrote poetry while I was in Vietnam—just as many World War I poets wrote poetry during their war—I accuse Stallworthy of either not doing enough research or not reading enough Vietnam War poetry. Tens of thousands of university-educated men and women served in Vietnam. What’s more, many other men and women who took part in the war and who did and did not have university educations wrote worthy poetry after coming home from Vietnam.”

 I’m ashamed to say that I know nothing of the poetry of the late 20th century’s wars; I can only imagine the overflow of powerful feelings and words emanating from such areas as Korea, the Balkans, the Middle-East, Africa or Central and South America.

Following the thread of names dropped by Willson in his blog piece, I discovered the following two poems, by W.D. Ehrhart. They are so true and stark and real, that I vow to uncover many more such voices.

Here then are Beautiful Wreckage and The Last Time I Dreamed about the War, by W.D. Ehrhart:

 

Beautiful Wreckage

By W.D. Ehrhart

 

What if I didn’t shoot the old lady

running away from our patrol,

or the old man in the back of the head,

or the boy in the marketplace?

 

Or what if the boy—but he didn’t

have a grenade, and the woman in Hue

didn’t lie in the rain in a mortar pit

with seven Marines just for food,

 

Gaffney didn’t get hit in the knee,

Ames didn’t die in the river, Ski

didn’t die in a medevac chopper

between Con Thien and Da Nang.

 

In Vietnamese, Con Thien means

place of angels. What if it really was

instead of the place of rotting sandbags,

incoming heavy artillery, rats and mud.

 

What if the angels were Ames and Ski,

or the lady, the man, and the boy,

and they lifted Gaffney out of the mud

and healed his shattered knee?

 

What if none of it happened the way I said?

Would it all be a lie?

Would the wreckage be suddenly beautiful?

Would the dead rise up and walk?

 

The Last Time I Dreamed About the War

Ruth and I were sitting in the kitchen
ten years after Vietnam. She was six-feet-two
and carried every inch of it with style,
didn’t care a fig that I was seven
inches shorter. “You’ve got seven inches
where it counts,” she’d laugh, then lift her chin
and smile as if the sun had just come out.

But she didn’t want to hear about the war.
I heard the sound of breaking glass
coming from my bedroom, went to look:
VC rats were jumping through the window.
They looked like rats, but they were Viet Cong.
Don’t ask me how I knew. You don’t forget
what tried to kill you.

I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen.
“Now look, Ruth,” I said so loud the woman
sleeping next to me woke up and did
what Ruthie in my dream refused to do:
she listened to me call the name
of someone she had never heard of,
anger in my voice, my body hard.

The woman I was sleeping with
would be my wife, but wasn’t yet. I was
still a stranger with a stranger’s secrets
and a tattoo on my arm. She’d never known a man
who’d fought in Vietnam, put naked women
on the wall, smoked marijuana, drank gin straight.
And here I was in bed with her,
calling someone else’s name in anger.

She wanted to run, she told me later,
but she didn’t. She married me instead.
Don’t ask me why. I only know
you never know what’s going to save you
and I’ve never dreamed again about the war.

Is there a poem about war or its aftermath that you can share with us?

Bill-comp

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