Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans
While I was, this December, writing this review of poems by Vietnam veterans about their participation in the war on the ground, B-52s were unloading their bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. Winning Hearts and Minds (an anthology of poems by several hands) and Obscenities, by Michael Casey, coming from a period predating Nixon’s Christmas, seem therefore to belong to a remote past—the guilt-ridden shouting era of President Johnson. They are written by men who, being involved in the fighting on the ground, were made to think about themselves and to care for what was being done to the Vietnamese. Today’s indifference to the suffering they saw and experienced must seem to some of them like the transformation of man’s normal inhumanity to man into something mechanical and more dehumanizing.
In their introduction, the editors (Larry Rottmann, Jan Barry, and Basil Paquet) explain very movingly the effect on them of contact with Vietnam:
What distinguishes the voices in this volume is their progression toward an active identification of themselves as agents of pain and war—as “agent-victims” of their own atrocities. This recognition came quickly to some and haltingly to others, but it always came with pain and the conviction that there is no return to innocence.
They experienced the war as individuals, yet there is in these poems strikingly little insistence on each poet’s individuality. They are poems written by men made more aware of their humanity but rather less aware of themselves as persons, still less as “personalities.” It is a situation—an American one—which has found its several voices in them: “This poetry is an attempt to grapple with a nightmare, a national madness. It is poetry written out of fire and under fire.”
The poignantly experienced American-Vietnamese situation results in the paradox that the poem seems the best means of expressing the attitudes of the writers while, at the same time, nearly every quality that makes it “poetry” is thrown out. The poem is necessary because it provides the most concentrated way of fusing the elements of the situation within the minute particular drama of a confrontation. At the same time it is of the nature of this confrontation that it has to be stripped of poetic conventions. And when I say this I mean conventions of modern as well as of past poetry.
In his excellent introduction to Obscenities, Stanley Kunitz raises the question of the relation of this poetry of the war in Vietnam to that of Wilfred Owen, written in the First World War, and of Sidney Keyes and Randall Jarrell, written in the Second. He points to the “elevation of style” which, in Owen’s poetry, “exalts his agonists-in-khaki,” and he contrasts with this (and with Keyes and Jarrell) Casey’s “anti-poetry that befits a kind of war empty of any kind of glory.”
Personally, I do not care for the phrase “anti-poetry.” It would be truer perhaps to say that Casey and some of the other writers in Vietnam were “anti-poets” than that their work is “anti-poetry.” For what it really shows is that almost every preconception of what a poem should be can be thrown out and yet the result be poetry. The most obvious difference between Michael Casey and the poets of the two world wars is that Owen, Sassoon, and the others were extremely conscious of being poets. They carried their poems with them into the trenches and loaded their kit-bags with romantics or classics. Owen’s irony consisted of turning Romanticism on its head while retaining the idiom of Keats:
Heart, you were never hot Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot….
Your slender attitude Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed….
Michael Casey, while demonstrably interested in language, does not carry with him any inheritance of vocabulary or poetic subject matter toward which he has to take an attitude in his own poetry. It is significant that on the one occasion when he writes about literature it is to pay homage to the barest prose writing in the European tradition, Caesar’s Gallic War:
I like learning useless things
I really enjoyed Latin
Caesar and the Gallic Wars
Enjoyed his fighting
The Helvetians and Germans
I enjoyed Vietnamese too
Its five intonations
Its no conjugations
A good language to learn
Vietnam is divided in
Three parts too
It makes me wonder
Who will write their book
In these poems, literary language, influences of other poetry, metaphor, imagery, and, above all, the presence of the writer himself as “poet” felt in his poem, are abjured. They are therefore difficult, by the standards of most past poetry, to judge as poems. They are rarely memorable, though they will certainly be footnoted as part of the history of this war. They are extremely committed, but committed to a phase of the fighting already superseded, to a place already nearly wiped off the face of the earth, and to a society transformed by neocolonialism. What makes them moving is indeed the self-abnegation of these writers who seem to care for nothing except giving voice to a particular infinite agony packed into a transitional moment.
W. B. Yeats complained about certain English poets during the First World War (he meant Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon) that they wrote as officers identifying their own feelings with the suffering of their men. He condemned their work as the poetry of “passive suffering.” Probably it is true that Owen and Sassoon interpreted into the English army on the Western front the drama, raised to an intense degree of suffering, of an English class relationship. There was perhaps a certain morbidity about this expression of the secret love of some middle-class English for the workers whom they saw as Christs of the trenches.
These American writers are quite free of this form of sentimentality, yet their poetry still does not attain to the condition to which Yeats wished war poetry to aspire (but he had never been in a modern war), of “dancing on the graves of the dead.” The poets of Winning Hearts and Minds scarcely feel a class barrier separating them from other Americans in Vietnam. If they identify with any group across the barrier of difference, it is with the Vietnamese peasants. “The poems,” as the editors write, “chronicle the GI’s growing emotional and moral involvement with the people and the land.”
Poetic fame then is not what most of these poets want. They wish to be “brief chroniclers” and objective witnesses. One or two, nevertheless, stand out from the others as having greater literary self-consciousness. One such is Basil Paquet, who is an exception in having ambitions which derive from an idea of poetry based on past examples and which exercise claims on the future. He employs similes, and the word “like” occurs often in his poetry. The words which he puts into the mouths of his Vietnamese peasants contain the kind of imagery we find in the poems of Lorca. Any reader of modern poetry would find them poetic, and they are so perhaps because the lives and deaths of these Asian victims are of revealed beauty and pathos. In “Graves Registration,” Paquet contrasts the scientific attitude of the American disposers of the dead with the primitive poetic thinking of the peasants. The American graves registrar addresses the corpses:
The land cannot hold you all,
it is filling with debris.
We will have to ship some home
When the truck comes back
we will wrap you in plastic—zip! zip!
You brown-yellow guys
are going to get some whiteness,
you’re going home to Xuan Loc “passing,”
rotting into the earth in dusted rows,
seeping into the earth in chem- icals,
your moisture already lifting into the air
to rub the dark fin in night mists,
to cover us with your breath
while we lay drunken in our camps.
The corpses reply in their poetic peasant idiom:
“The brightness of sun
caught this morning
in his red fist
the smashed flowers
of our faces,
licked the wetness
the drying surprise
from our petal-eyes
and reeled on.”
When one says that this is too “literary” one means that, although beautiful and moving, it is not true in the way that Paquet’s interpretation of the American graves registrar is true. There is an element of “pathetic fallacy”—he is giving the dead peasants the voice which is really that of the conscious-stricken American who sees them as a kind of embodied (dead-bodied) poetry.
The attempt to avoid doing this explains or justifies the near-anonymity and factual terseness of poems by Don Receveur, W. D. Ehrhart, Serigo, Larry Rottmann, and Michael Casey. The most effective poems make their point without moving a millimeter from the kind of material which could be taped or photographed. For instance, here is Don Receveur’s “Cobra Pilot”:
Plastic blue eyes
the color of toggle switches.
He flies his cobra-shark
with the precision
of a god
or a gunfighter.
with a 38 in his armpit)
His Nebraska smile
is a mini-gun
and his bowels
are full of rockets.
in the Wild West
of his mind
The most successful writing in this volume is of this kind.
The editors are right that loss of an innocence that will never be recovered is the characteristic experience recorded by these poets. To an English reader this innocence needs describing. For it is an American innocence compounded of elements different from the English innocence. English innocence, while not being the attribute of any particular class, is nevertheless aristocratic. It seems to be the effect of some secret understanding between the most traditional aspects of the countryside and the English past in the life of the individual who has not been corrupted or vulgarized by the baser generalizing concerns of the society. In Owen’s poetry it is of this kind:
…His teeth seem for laughing round an apple
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple:
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
The emphasis is on the individual who has remained exempt from mechanizing processes and who retains his ancient naturalness.
With American innocence there is less emphasis on the idea of the individual as someone unscathed and untainted. Everyone is part of the democratic process, and there are very few places where people feel in contact with a nature that can be identified with a sacred and dedicated past. However, the democracy itself can be thought of as innocent, or at any rate to have an innocent side which is to be defended against surrounding corruption such as that encapsulated in the phrase “the military-industrial complex.”
There is an American innocence of expectation: that the American among his compatriots knows the sort of people he is dealing with, of whom a good many will be candid and reliable and not really wicked. The idea that the whole society is in the grip of really evil power and that in order to fight this you have to accept it—accept it in yourself as well as recognize it in others—leads to loss of the American innocence. The central experience in the lives of the authors represented in Winning Hearts and Minds is this loss and the recognition at the same time of an innocence murdered in the Vietnamese.
This is the central obscenity of Michael Casey’s book Obscenities: that life is not the reasonable friendly open decent American thing he thought it was, but rather what the Americans are doing in Vietnam. It is expressed in the horror of the poem entitled “On Death,” in which the wish expressed in the last lines, instead of being perfectly reasonable, as any young American might expect it to be, suddenly appears a hope only, and perhaps a selfish one at that. One feels that because the speaker retains this hope he is responsible for the murder to which he bears witness:
School children walk by
Some keep on walking
Some adults stare too
Over their nose
Sits on the pavement
And pounds her fists
Flies all over
It like made of wax
Out of the stomach
The penis in the air It won’t matter then to me but now
I don’t want in death to be a
Public obscenity like this
These poems give the impression of a dazed, stunned, almost stupefied consciousness which gives way to a bitter detached openness—like having the mind’s intestines split open. Michael Casey, in common with several other of the poets, has nothing to bring to the situation except the realization of it and a willingness to learn—not about literature but about America, about Vietnam, and about the well-catalogued criminality of the war. His poems stand out by their reduction of Vietnam to the hard core of the observed and the experienced. Feeling has been throttled down by observation to hard pellets of poems, leaving perhaps a bitter taste of irony, of hatred (especially for the military), and of a kind of gentleness toward the victims which communicates itself as objectively as it would even if seen through an instrument as detached as the lens of a camera. Out of this stony, gun-metallic, flesh-rotted, sun-parched, napalm-bombed, unpoetic material, a certain verbal passion arises. There is a wry kick-back of unpoetic things named. The names of vehicles refuse to become “symbols” and yet they acquire a quality like that of people and weapons in early ballads:
We were going single file
Through his rice paddies
And the farmer
Started hitting the lead track
With a rake
He wouldn’t stop
The TC went to talk to him
And the farmer
Tried to hit him too
So the tracks went sideways
Side by side
Through the guy’s fields
Instead of single file
Hard On, Proud Mary
Bummer, Wallace, Rosemary’s Baby
The Rutgers Road Runner
Go Get Em-Done Got Em
Went side by side
Through the fields If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home
The editors of Winning Hearts and Minds end with a “Note to the Reader” in which they advise him to use this book by reading it aloud, singing it to guitar or rock accompaniment, copying poems out on cards, etc. Their intention is propagandist—to influence hearts and minds regarding the war. I have of course a prejudice that poetry should survive as forms and words beyond any particular active use it may have in altering opinions. The question remains, if this is not what the poets want, should one think about their work as poetry in the sense of its being memorable beyond the occasion? I cannot really answer this. I do not even know whether it is praise of Michael Casey’s poems to say that they will, some of them, find their place in anthologies. Our combination of public crimes and private despair has got us to the stage where the aims of the literary may seem marginal to the crimes of life.