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 …