Wednesday, February 15, 2012

War Poets

The good war, WWII, produced relatively little soldier poetry, although individual poems live on in contemporary memory. In sharp contrast, Vietnam, the war most would like to forget, yielded numerous soldier-poets and many volumes of verse, some highly acclaimed. In both wars, poets sang of violence, death, and survival. In addition, Vietnam War poetry has another dimension.
After WWII, men who had served for the duration returned home triumphantly with their units, were feted, and honored for their victory over dark forces. Their sons who marched off to Vietnam did so for only 12 months (13 for Marines). They’d arrive at a so-called repo depot—a soldier replacement system—as individuals and, if they survived their tour intact, would be released a year later, put on a plane, and returned to civilian life. Re-entry was as a lone individual, unheralded and even scorned, and for many of the Vietnam soldier-poets these sad, lonely, and often bitter experiences also became subjects of their verse.

America’s two great armies, no more than a few decades apart, fought very different wars as reflected in the poetry. Karl Shapiro, a WWII combat infantryman, described his unit moving along the Australian coast in Troop Train. Slowing, the train passed through a town heading for the ships and combat in the South Pacific. Townsfolk stopped to look:
And women standing at their dumbstruck door
More slowly wave and seem to warn us back,
As if a tear blinding the course of war
Might once dissolve our iron in their sweet wish. 
Louis Simpson of the 101st Airborne spoke of battle and surviving in Europe:
Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat
Marched through a forest. …
Most clearly of that battle I remember
The tiredness in eyes, how hands looked thin
Around a cigarette, and the bright ember
Would pulse with all the life there was within.
And for another soldier-poet, Anthony Hecht, the death of A Friend Killed in the War combined dark and vivid images of nature and fantasy: 

           Night, the fat serpent, slipped among the plants
           In the clean brightness of magnesium
           Flares, there were seven angels by a tree. ...
           And his flesh opened like a peony,
           Red at the heart, white petals furling out.

And finally, there was Randall Jarrell’s poem of air combat memorializing death in the maw of war, perhaps the most memorable lines of WWII:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dreams of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The early poetry of the Vietnam War brought forth equally graphic, but more literal images of a very different kind of war, one fought among civilians indistinguishable from the enemy, one fought not for terrain but for attrition. In WWII men died for ground gained, giving the whole endeavor a sense of linear progress, while Americans in Vietnam exchanged their lives for the enemy’s, only to withdraw, post the body count, and return to fight and die over the same ground another day.

The most notorious instance was the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill in which the 101st Airborne assaulted a hill held by North Vietnamese forces (NVA) numerous times during a 10-day engagement, finally taking the summit at the cost of dozens killed and hundreds wounded only to withdraw a few weeks later. In effect, individual survival in Vietnam meant eluding the circle of death.

Apropos, one of the most distinguished soldier-poets of the war, W.D. Ehrhart, a former Marine rifleman, wrote that most of them “were not really poets at all,” just soldiers so angry about the war that silence was no longer an option. He added that most of their poems were driven by “emotion rather than craft.”* Jan Barry, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), a former associate editor of brother Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI), and a poet himself, is credited as the most important force behind the emergence of Vietnam GI poetry.*

Cpl Ehrhart filling sandbags, Quang Tri, ‘67
Credit: W.D. Ehrhart

Given the nature of the war as a counter-insurgency against an elusive enemy, GI poetry rarely describes pitched battles – there were few – and instead focuses on shadowy encounters with small groups of enemy troops and sometimes, tragically, South Vietnamese civilians mistaken for Viet Cong (VC). Other topics were fears and survival strategies, coming home, and haunting memories.

A Vietnam soldier-poet writes “all our fear/and hate/Poured from our rifles/Into/the man in black/As he lost his face/In the smoke/Of an exploding hand frag,” while elsewhere, describing a buddy randomly killing a farmer planting rice, he writes, “With a burst of sixteen. … I saw rice shoots/ Still clutched in one hand” (Frank Cross). On the death of his comrades, another poet sadly describes:
All the dead young men, some willing,
boys mostly, riding the knife of their youth and sex
to woo and conquer death, blown
away, splintered, wrapped in ponchos, and the lucky ones
saved by medics to serve as a memento (Steve Hassett)
Fear was ever-present. “When the M-16 rifle had a stoppage/ One could feel enemy eyes/Climbing/His/Bones/Like/Ivy” (MacAvoy Layne). A medic-poet writes “I sleep strapped to a ‘45/bleached into my fear” (D.F. Brown). And always survival was uppermost, but not for country or flag as another GI put it, “I fought Not for This Country Tis’/ of Thee/But for the next day I wanted to see” (C. Quick).

As for the unfortunate South Vietnamese peasantry caught between the VC and the Americans, wartime life was difficult and frequently fatal. Perhaps no soldier-poet spoke to the perils of farming in a war zone better than Michael Casey in the signature poem of his collection of Vietnam War verse, Obscenities, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for 1972.

Cultivating rice paddies, Vietnam
Credit W.D. Ehrhart

The scene is a column of armored personnel carriers, tracked vehicles, going single file through a farmer’s rice paddies, the irate farmer hitting the lead track with a rake. The track commander tries to reason with him and the farmer nearly hits him with the rake . So the column redeploys and continues through the fields “side by side,” leading Casey to suggest:
If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home
Another of the war poets was Jeff’s Vietnam buddy, Ed Smith, a fellow Vietnamese linguist. Just months before his death in ’03, Ed penned a long poem, published posthumously, invoking memories of a beautiful older Vietnamese woman with whom he’d been in love in Saigon in 1963; her name was Pham Thi Mui. Describing how she had been a young singer in an entertainment unit of the Viet Minh that performed for the troops closing in on the French at Dien Bien Phu in ’54, he writes,
with that catch
in your voice
you were all
the girls they’d left behind
in Nghe-An, up the river Da
A North Vietnamese soldier-poet has also written of a lost friend, a young woman soldier assigned to the Ho Chi Minh Trail who, at the cost of her life, had saved a convoy from a bombing attack. The poet, Lam Thi My Da, recalls, “We passed by the spot where you died/tried to picture the young girl you once had been.”*** The war memories of most of the American poets are not as gentle. “Willy” knew too much, writes a bard, “Staring/his eyes reflected/Exploding bombs and mangled bodies” (R. Lomell). For another, “Seven winters have slipped away/the war still follows me” (Gerald McCarthy). And then there’s the rice farmer the soldier wantonly shot who

On dark nights
In Kansas
… comes to
Mitch’s bed;
And plants rice shoots
all around.
(Frank Cross)

W.D. Ehrhart himself probably best expresses the feelings of his fellow poets and, for that matter, most returning Vietnam GIs who had been in harm’s way, in his poem Coming Home: “San Francisco airport -- … No brass bands/No flags/No girls/No cameramen/Only a small boy who asked me/What the ribbons on my jacket meant.”

There were also civilian poets who wrote on the long Vietnam War. One in particular was Lincoln Bergman, a radical antiwar activist who memorialized Jeff in a long verse published in The Movement, a national underground paper published in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s fitting to close with a few stanzas:

Seeds of Revolution

for Jeff Sharlet, editor of  Vietnam GI
who died in 1969 at the age of 27.
He knew and loved the men
Who write the letters home
And when he came home
He gave them something to believe in.

Not long ago he said:
“We felt a newspaper
Was the best way to begin…

To talk to the enlisted men
The guys on the bottom
Help bridge the gap between
The movement and the people.”
He was a quiet, vital guy
Who thought before he spoke,
Courage from his courage
Example of his deeds,
For Jeff is dead…

*W.D. Ehrhart, “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War, Virginia Quarterly Rev., Spring, 1987
**Jan Barry, co-editor of the first two anthologies of Vietnam War poetry, Winning Hearts and Minds (1972) and Demilitarized Zones (1976).
***Transl. by Ngo Vinh Hai and Kevin Bowen.

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