I was born in England after WWII, and I still remember the paper red poppies, sold as the remembrance of Armistice Day, celebrated by Veterans Day in the U.S. I wrote this piece several years ago, and somehow, on this most recent Veterans Day, the realities of war seemed lost in the force of present events. Yet we should remember another force; the words of the soldier poets that speak to a connected individuality deep within us all.
Until WW I, poems glorified war. Minds at War, The Poetry and Experience of the First World War covers the change from the nationalistic enthusiasm of Rupert Brooke with the patriotic opening lines of Soldier, “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.”, to Wilfred Owen’s immortal Dulce et Decorum Est, an unbelievably horrific description of a young soldier too slow to put on his mask in a poison gas attack. The title and the Latin in the last lines come from an ode by the Roman poet, Horace
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(literally, “Sweet and honorable it is, to die for the fatherland”).
The American school of WW II poetry had been ignored until Harvey Shapiro, former editor of The New York Times Magazine, published Poets of World War II. Shapiro, who flew 35 missions in Italy in WWII, served as tail gunner in a B-17. The poems selected offer a wide range of perspectives. Defeat by Witter Bynner, describes how the German prisoners in Texas were treated with more respect than the black G.I.’s He gives us one of the few widely read and anthologized poems of the war, Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Jarrell’s notes on the poem; “A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.”
Perhaps no soldier poet anthology better captures the Vietnam war than Unaccustomed Mercy, Soldier Poets of the Vietnam War, edited by W.D. Ehrhart, which contains several works by Horace Coleman. However, Coleman’s hard to find collection of his own poems, In the Grass, is the most powerful as he speaks of combat, yet brings the war back to America in Still Life with Dead Hippie. Kent State, May 4, 1970. His poems also look to the future. Writing about an event in which protesters, including John Kerry, threw their medals back at the government and demanded better treatment for veterans, Coleman’s In the Grass gives us Notes for the Veteran’s War Protest
Ralph: concerning plans for the local march,
1. Saw the weary demonstration in Washington,
the burning faces of our sad boy warriors
throwing their medals at the president.
2. Think we should emulate but not copy, so:
when the delegation arrives at the state capitol
first read the petition:
“We are not afraid to kill. We are sorry we murdered
our souls. We did as told but we learned how to say NO!
Stop it. Or we will stop you. Don’t resist. You can’t stop
the ghosts you made of us.”
Next, have those who lost legs crawl forward and neatly
stack them. Then bowl the skull of your best killed buddy
down the aisle.
Finally, have the blind push the quadruplegics forward
(they will have knives in their teeth to give to the legislators
to use on themselves). We leave. If they don’t use them we
PS. Save the instructions for your grandkids. They’ll come in handy.
Iraq is producing its own poetry, personified in Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, who served a year as an infantry team leader in Iraq in 2003. One poem I simply couldn’t finish, as I knew where it was going. but here’s the title piece, which Turner wrote, put in a plastic bag, and carried in his breast pocket throughout his tour of duty.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
These books diverge completely from the war visions of politicians. In her essay, The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in a Media Age, Camille Paglia notes that it essential for the word and the book to mediate the never ending assault of new media advertising and propaganda so we can truly comprehend our world. The soldier poets’ words do just that.
Copyright reserved by the authors of the poems.
Minds at War Roberts (ed) ISBN 0 952 8969 0 7
Poems of World War II Shapiro (ed) ISBN-10: 1931082332
Unaccustomed Mercy Ehrhart (ed) ISBN-13: 978-0896721906
In the Grass Coleman , Horace ISBN: 1885215-14-2
Here, Bullet Turner, Brian ISBN: 1-882295-55-2