Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book Review: American War Poetry

A Timeline of Suffering
Review by Jared Frederick
Reviewed work(s): American War Poetry by Lorrie Goldensohn
American War Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Lorrie Goldensohn, Columbia University Press, 2006, $27.95 cloth, ISBN 0231133103

Ex-slave Lucy Terry was sixteen years of age when she witnessed Massachusetts frontier families be slaughtered by Indians in 1746. In what is believed to be one of the first poems by an African American, the uninhibited “Bars Fight” strikes the chords of fear and foretells the 250 years of native wars that would follow:

Eunice Allen sees the Indians coming,
And hopes to save herself by running,
And had not her petticoats stopped her,
The awful creatures had not catched her,
Nor tommy hawked her on the head,
And left her on the ground for dead (3).

So opens Lorrie Goldensohn’s anthology American War Poetry. In perhaps the most comprehensive poetic collection accounting America’s many conflicts, Goldensohn effectively weaves primary accounts of battle intertwined with works composed long after the fact. At the beginning of each chapter, the editor describes how poetry was utilized for different purposes and written for ever-evolving reasons. Through this emotional timeline of suffering, we also learn how perceptions of warfare have been altered throughout the ages. As those early poems of the colonial period dwell on combat more as a necessity for survival, later works sometimes reveal near-hunger for conflict and conquest. But nearly all of the selected poems express one common element: the ardent desire of survival.

The anthology successfully combines prominent writings of famed poets in addition to largely anonymous frontline combatants. A prime example of the former is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” This long-fabled poem all but cemented Revere’s fame as a leading revolutionary while simultaneously revealing the cultural importance such popular poetry held throughout the 19th Century. Although fellow patriots William Dawes and Samuel Prescott rode farther distances to warn the countryside of British aggression, how many Americans are aware of their tales? Their omission from the widely read poem left them in the historical dust while Revere’s celebrity was enhanced through Longfellow’s mythical verse:

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear,
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere (22).

Through such poems as John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Angels of Buena Vista,” readers may come to realize not the devastation of war, but the compassion that it can evoke. After observing the charitable deeds of a peasant Mexican woman caring for both wounded Americans and Mexicans following the Battle of Buena Vista, he wrote:

Through that long, dark night of sorrow,
Worn and faint and lacking food.
Over weak and suffering brothers, with a
Tender care they hung,
And the dying foemen blessed them in a
Strange and Northern tongue (49).

Amongst the most compelling of American Civil War poems is Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser.” In a work which he describes himself, Whitman goes to great pains to illustrate the very pain he attempted to sooth in Civil War hospitals. Beginning in late 1862, Whitman became engulfed in the effort to save lives in Washington’s many military hospitals. He noted that to truly witness the sacrifices of the war, one would not have to travel to a battlefield, but a hospital packed full of maimed young men. “The Wound Dresser” exemplifies Whitman’s sentiments and experiences in graphic detail.

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,...
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again (75).

A more vivid picture of a Civil War hospital could not be mustered unless photographed. Through Whitman’s words, one can almost smell the putrid odor of open wounds and stuffy hospital wards. There is a pain, a sorrow, in Whitman’s words. Not only are the many wounded veterans in agony, but so is Whitman in taking care of them.

In a far more simplified poem, an anonymous writer composed “Last Song of Sitting Bull,” likely after they had seen him slain by tribal police attempting to arrest him at the Standing Rock Agency in 1890. Despite the poem’s utter simplicity, it speaks volumes about the entire Sioux struggle to the point that it requires no further explanation:

A warrior
I have been.
It is all over.
A hard time
I have (122).

In Ezra Pound’s lengthy World War I poem, “From Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” outrage and bitterness is exclaimed in denouncing the greedy and power hungry society that sends its finest young men to die in a war to preserve a deteriorating civilization. In what could be considered one of the great anti-war poems, Pound states:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid (160-161).

A different nature of remorse can be seen James Dickey’s World War II poem, “The Firebombing,” regarding the aerial attacks on Japan and numerous islands in the Pacific Campaign. He writes:

To where Okinawa burns,
Pure gold, on the radar screen,
Beholding, beneath, the actual island form
In the vast water-silver poured just above the solid ground,
And inch of water extending for thousands of miles
Above flat ploughland. Say “down” and it is done.

All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.
But it may be that I could not (232).

In this particular stanza, Dickey expresses a concern shared by numerous soldiers of that war. The great disconnect felt between those fighting on the ground and those in the air gave the illusion of two entirely different conflicts being waged. Those pilots and bombardiers involved in firebombing heavily populated cities had relatively little human connection to their enemy. Unlike those infantrymen in the streets or jungles, such airmen never really saw their enemy or their impact on them. For some, this was a gift, for Dickey, it may have been a curse of curiosity.

In Brian Turner’s Iraq War poem, “Here, Bullet,” the Army veteran seemingly taunts incoming rounds of ammunition. By describing the anatomies and susceptibilities of soldiers in Iraq, his work makes for a grizzly and compelling poem that will make the reader come to realize the graphic realizations and costs of war:

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
The aorta’s open valves...
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time (366).


  1. By the way, I met veteran Brian Turner when he came to speak at my university some years ago. Very interesting guy.

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