Smoke yields to further smoke. As the skies clear over Iraq, the smoldering images are gradually absorbed into memory’s archives, where other, earlier, likewise indelible images of combat are stored; the nation’s latest war brings closer its every previous war.
Hence, Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro, arrives at an opportune moment. It contains one hundred and twenty poems by sixty-two American poets. While some of the poems were written from the Home Front, most reflect firsthand experience: nearly two thirds of the sixty-two poets saw military service in the war. The book is one of the first of four volumes in a new series, the American Poets Project, published by the Library of America and designed to create a “compact national library of American poetry.” (The other three inaugural volumes are selected poems of Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Karl Shapiro.) While the war that Poets of World War II commemorates opened roughly two thirds of a century ago, and the majority of its poems were composed in the first half of the twentieth century, most of its voices are still vigorous and immediate. The anthology vindicates Shapiro’s ambition, expressed in his introduction, “to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence.”
The anthology’s prosodic methods are diverse—everything from the tightly iambic, allusion-strewn stanzas of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell to the smooth-rolling ribbons of free verse of Richard Hugo and Lucien Stryk—but united in a tone of removal, of wary irony. The opening lines of Lincoln Kirstein’s “P.O.E.,” which stands for Point of Embarkation, encapsulates this avoidance of anything sounding like glib patriotism:
THIS IS IT and so: so long.
We’re soldiers now, all set to sail.
We may not sing one sad old song
Herded within a dark dock-rail.
There are few poems that carry, in anything like a direct fashion, those two traditional burdens of war poetry: exhortation and consolation. Few of them aim, that is, either to steel the spirit or to soothe the heart.
This distinctive tone, of course, reflects an ongoing series of decisions by editors at work throughout the decades and only culminating in Mr. Shapiro. Over time, a diverse group of readers and editors have rightfully concluded that irony is the musical key in which most of the best poetry of the Second World War was written. Had he wished to, Shapiro surely could have collected, from magazines of the period, war poems espousing another spirit entirely—reams of verse of more earnest urgings and less ambivalent assessments.
It may be that poets, too, no less than generals, tend to fight the last war—even if their field of battle is a blank page and their weapons a panoply of metaphors, cadences, rhetorical devices. The “last war” in this case may be not so much the First World War …