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 as that literary war fatefully rooted in the First World War: the modernist revolution. Whether one chooses to survey American poetry or English, a world of difference separates most of the poems of the First World War from the poems of the Second—a transformation of outlook not to be explained away or accounted for purely in historical terms.
If much of Poets of World War II probably couldn’t have been written without various modernist poems of the Twenties and Thirties, most of which had little explicitly to do with war, it may well be that foremost among the book’s attendant spirits is a prose writer—though one who originally aspired to be a poet. Many of the poems on display here borrow a dark coloration from the shadow of Ernest Hemingway. Frederic Henry’s celebrated repudiation of wartime rhetoric in A Farewell to Arms might well have supplied the epigraph to Poets of World War II:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through…. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Shapiro advises us that his is “not a book of celebration, unless it is to celebrate man’s ability, indeed his compulsion, to turn terror into art.” Yet if terror serves as the book’s hidden mainspring, a cooler variant of terror—distrust—continually ratchets up the tension. The poets’ skepticism tinctures nearly every depiction of the war effort, from the very top (the commanding officers, with their highhanded ways, and the politicians, with their empty oratory) to the very bottom (fellow soldiers and the often enigmatic people they were charged with “liberating”). Although in this particular war there was no disputing the implacable malevolence of the enemy, especially in Europe, and the necessity of victory, the poets find little nobility in their forced undertaking. In the end, the pervasive distrust encompasses, as in Frederic Henry’s revulsion at “obscene” abstractions, language itself—or at least the use of traditional martial rhetoric to reflect the reality of something so catastrophic, so transmogrifying, ultimately so unreal, as world warfare.
Contributors to Poets of World War II can be divided into two camps: combatants and noncombatants. Not surprisingly, the most affecting poems by those who didn’t see combat are often less about the Second World War than about war generally. Vladimir Na-bokov’s sole, untitled entry is a perfect example: the rueful irony it unfurls is applicable to all wars universally. The poem, short enough to be printed here in its entirety, is also an illustration of how tellingly that Russian-American master of a rococo diction could assume a bare-bones, Housman-like simplicity:
When he was small, when he would fall,
on sand or carpet he would lie
quite flat and still until he knew
what he would do: get up or cry.
After the battle, flat and still
upon a hillside now he lies—
but there is nothing to decide,
for he can neither cry nor rise.
Other poems by noncombatants that movingly address war in timeless fashion include Stanley Kunitz’s “Careless Love,” Winfield Townley Scott’s “Three American Women and a German Bayonet,” and Yvor Winters’s “Night of Battle,” where the soldiers might well be assembling on the plains of Marathon:
Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.
The combatants are often at their most effective when creating poems tied to a specific place and moment in a specific war. Alfred Hayes’s “The City of Beggars” may speak comprehensively about captured towns and collapsed dreams of a reborn imperium, but it is also a vivid evocation of the particular state of Italy after Mussolini’s collapse:
And American and Britisher
Who’d shelled her vias
And mined her waters
Hung on the pitted walls of their quarters
Their bulging aphrodites,
Rinsing their loneliness with cheap wine….
The second empire
From Tunis to the Nile
Had triumphed so:
The kids flopping in soldier shoes,
A cigarette picked out of the mud,
The bread depots and the water doles
In the tin cup,
The garibaldian cape shot full of bullet holes.
Stepping back from this anthology to a historically broader survey—to Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, for example, whose contents extend to the ancient Greeks—it grows clear that war poetry of every age characteristically employs a dynamic tension between swiftness and slowness. Battles have always presented transformations too rapid to encompass: one moment, a powerful warrior stands formidably armed; in the next, he lies in the dust. By contrast, the events of a poem unfold in a steadily measured, line-by-line fashion. (One might almost say that war is all about speed, and war poetry all about mulling over the harrowing implications of that speed.) The greatest of all war poems, the Iliad, repeatedly exploits this tension, as Homer holds up in suspension, for a few glittering instants, the physical prowess or distinguished lineage of some doomed warrior. If death on the battlefield is often bewilderingly quick, on the page it is often elongated, as we pay the only homage we can pay—a few moments of consideration—to somebody whose life is about to be truncated.
While the Iliad is a confirmation of eternal verities—and severities—Poets of World War II offers a useful reminder of how thoroughly warfare has been altered over the centuries and the decades. The engines of death keep growing bigger and faster, bigger and faster, until whole multitudes of victims can disappear in one incendiary instant. As Shapiro points out, the poets’ governing metaphors shifted from World War I to World War II. Poets suddenly took to the air, both literally (a number of the book’s contributors, including Hayden Carruth and John Ciardi, served in the Air Force) and metaphorically (increasingly, in contemplating the larger combat they were engaged in, poets stepped not only backward but upward, as though levitating over the field).
Ciardi is amply represented in Shapiro’s anthology, but it’s in a poem regrettably omitted, “Saipan,” that he most acutely conveys the unassimilable strangeness of a world in which aerial bombardment is an everyday event:
Where cloud rained fire, and we were in the cloud—
Its climate, dark, and deluge. And we spread
Simple as rain.
That pregnant phrase—“and we were in the cloud”—rumbles all the more powerfully for its understated rendering of the minatory miracle of aerial warfare.
Shapiro’s penchant for a hard-boiled tone occasionally skews his selections. The Poets of World War II would be a richer anthology if he had included, in his generous selection of five Ciardi poems, the flagrantly romantic “Sea Burial,” whose final stanzas, following the blind progress of a corpse deposited into sliding oceanic currents, leap yearningly toward the light:
Glide, glide and fall. How lightly death goes down
Into the crushing fog, pale and refracted.
Seen dimly and then lost, like jellyfish
Flowering a tide, expanded, then contracted,
Once more expanded, and then closed forever
To make a stain on stone and liquefy
The memory that kissed a mountain girl
And ran on grass as if it could not die.
I would also have liked to see Marianne Moore’s unguarded “In Distrust of Merits,” with its broadcast condemnations of humanity so heartfelt they nearly sputter, and Peter Kane Dufault’s elegy to a childhood friend lost in the war, “A Letter for All-Hallows,” which attempts to locate, as few poems in the anthology do, the catastrophes of the Second World War within a greater tapestry of bloodshed and redemption:
I hope the monks treat you gently, shades,
galloping alongside the empty meadows—
from Concord and Lexington,
the fords of the Shenandoah,
forks of the Little Bighorn….
Surely they would not be unmerciful
and frighten away with signs and bells and torches
so young an old soldier….
And while Shapiro includes three poems by Anthony Hecht, the omission of “The Book of Yolek” (to me, the most powerful of all American poems about World War II and one of the few examples I know where that all-but-impossible prosodic form, the sestina, feels fully realized) is unfortunate. If there’s a little too much deadpan matter-of-factness and disengaged flippancy in Shapiro’s fine anthology, Hecht’s quietly insinuative, eventually shattering contemplation of the Holocaust would have served as a potent corrective:
The fifth of August, 1942.
It was morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.
How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn’t a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.
The anthology is perhaps a little too quick to accept poems by estimable poets whose imaginations were not, in fact, enkindled by the war. I’m a great admirer of Weldon Kees, but neither of the poems that represent him, “June 1940” and “The City as Hero,” displays anything like his poignant, glancing best. Robinson Jeffers wrote some distinctive and arresting poetry about war, but the selections here, “Pearl Harbor” and “The Bloody Sire,” catch him at his smug, blithely misanthropic worst.
All the more to be valued, then, are poets like Randall Jarrell, with five poems here, whose “Transient Barracks” captures something of the oddball domesticity of a military life exemplified by the dictum “Hurry up and wait”; or Edward Field, whose “World War II” recreates, with a tension that mounts steadily, even as it feels artless, the numbing horrors of a crash landing in the North Sea; or Peter Viereck, whose elegy for his brother, “‘Vale’ from Carthage,” manages to connect, with a remarkable lack of strain, a pair of graveyards separated by hundreds of miles and two millennia:
I saw an ancient Roman’s tomb and read
“Vale” in stone. Here two wars mix their dead:
Roman, my shipmate’s dream walks hand in hand
With yours tonight (“New York again” and “Rome”),
Like widowed sisters bearing water home
On tired heads through hot Tunisian sand
In good cool urns….
All these poems ultimately embody a triumph of outlook—a peering past both those venerable pieties that Wilfred Owen recoiled at a few decades earlier (“dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”) and the later, equally unreflective notion that tragedy is meaningless in the face of warfare’s colossal absurdities. There’s a freshness to the language of the best of these poems that finally speaks to the freshness of the combatants themselves—a haunted recognition that the corpses requiring contemplation were not men but boys, many of them still in their teens. Here were souls unfamiliar with the Homeric parallels their hacked, contorted bodies evoked. On the Normandy beaches and at Anzio, at Corregidor and Leyte, they spilled blood of men far older than they were.
The biographical notes at the end of the book turn out to be far more suggestive than such notes usually are. When they are read in conjunction with the poems, portraits of overwhelming loneliness and isolation emerge. William Meredith, stationed out in the Aleutians, composing “Love Letter from an Impossible Land”; Karl Shapiro in the South Pacific, contemplating a firmament lit by unfamiliar constellations in “Full Moon: New Guinea”; James Dickey high over the Japanese archipelago, bound on a night raid on Beppu in the long poem “The Firebombing”—these were young men who understandably felt themselves at the perilous edge of the earth, deracinated from everything that mattered to them.
Reflections of houses catch;
Fire shuttles from pond to pond
In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.
With this in the dark of the mind,
Death will not be what it should;
Will not, even now, even when
My exhaled face in the mirror
Of bars, dilates in a cloud like Japan.
And yet, all but unbeknownst to themselves, they were less isolated than they plausibly imagined: they were initiates into a fellowship of poets that finally recognizes no boundaries of time and place. Poets of World War II reminds us that these young men were fated to be survivors in a double sense: soldiers who, unlike thousands of their less fortunate comrades, were destined to outlive the war, as well as poets who, sixty or so years after their trials by fire, would have their flights of lyricism lovingly gathered and restored.
While the poems in Poets of World War II are a variable lot, they all but unanimously suggest that the wounds of that distant war remain unhealed. They recall for us, in the wake of our speedy and blazing victory in Iraq, that there’s no such thing as a quick war. The cannons go on echoing, and for a long while voices are lost in the din. Poets of World War II may well be the first anthology adequately to reflect the range of responses—and ultimately the depth of the hurt—of a war whose surviving veterans are now old men. It seems the smoke will sometimes take decades to clear, and the saddest of all human tragedies may be that, when it does, it too often reveals only the robust, rising clouds of another war.
December 4, 2003