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War Poetry’s Power: Indelible Images

Exploring a body of work by veterans seeking to share and heal


(This article was previously published in November 2014.)

I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on a local radio station for a lively Veterans Day conversation about war, writing, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and healing.

I was joined by two brilliant young writers: novelist Erin Celello and poet William Schuth. The latter read a poem, What the Rabbit Sees, based on his post-9/11 military service and you could hear a pin drop, both inside the studio and around the world.

Here’s an excerpt:

A girl looks up from the okra
she is picking and listens to
the humming in the morning air
her eyes strain, scanning the blue sky

and then she sees it dropping down,
the wide, flat wings, the skinny legs,
the forked tail, the dull grey body
all grasped in a lonely instant

just before the fire erupts
and her grandmother vanishes
and the shadow of the insect
drones overhead, staining the sand
and she sees what the rabbit sees

The Power of Poetry

I’ve been thinking about Schuth’s lyrical lines and terrifying images ever since, reminders of the extraordinary power of war poetry, especially war poetry written by former soldiers.

And I’m mindful too of the heartbreaking reality that the poetry keeps coming because wars keep being waged. Not just once or twice, but over and over and over again.

One hundred years ago, the Germans invaded Belgium and, in the words of British foreign secretary Edward Grey, “the lamps went out all over Europe.”

I’d argue that the light hasn’t shown much since. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” But, we know all too well it wasn’t. My mom’s oldest brother fought in the “Great War,” as World War I was called, but she says he never talked about it.

Much like my father and my uncles didn’t talk about their World War II experiences. Nor do veterans of Korea and Vietnam talk much about theirs.

And now veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, unless you’re a poet like Schuth.

A Tradition of War Poetry

Looking back on the World War I history lessons of my boyhood, I can’t recall many of the names, and I remember even fewer of the battles. But I remember vividly the horrors of trench warfare. I can see young men trying to kill each other with bayonets and rifles. Or their bloody hands. I watch rats scurry over their bodies. I smell poison gas.

I witness all this because of the astonishing “Great War” poetry of Rupert Brooke and Julian Greenfell. The insightful lines of Arthur Graeme West and Isaac Rosenberg. The harrowing vision of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

The number and the output of these so-called soldier-poets are bewildering, but for me it always comes back to Owen’s ironic message in his poem, Dulce et decorum est.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
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
.

And to Sassoon’s rendering of the brutality, ugliness and hopelessness of war in poems like Suicide in the Trenches:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

Words That Call For An End

Luckily for us, an archive of Sassoon’s 23 World War I journals and two notebooks of poetry have been digitized by the Cambridge University Library. Unhappily, these World War I poets have their echoes in the gripping poetry of Vietnam veterans like Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Basil Paquet, Bruce Weigl and others.

And today, with post-9/11 vets like Brian Turner, Kevin Powers, Maurice Decaul and William Schuth, as war persists pretty much worldwide.

More than 50 years ago, President John Kennedy said in a speech at Amherst College: “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

I try to convince myself that JFK was right. But, regrettably, I see the same hurt written across generations. It seems our compulsion for waging war supersedes our inclination to heal. And while their verse may help the individual poets to express what they saw and its impact, the bigger picture remains unchanged.

I’m starting to believe that maybe the lyrics in the old Edwin Starr song said it best:

“War, what is it good for?
Absolutely nothing!”

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