The Eyewitness Method

For those who have experienced war firsthand, composing poems about it can be a catharsis. Initially at least, it can bring back suppressed memories that cause veterans pain —and writer's block. In some sense, the eyewitness method is much easier than the visionary one, when it comes to subject matter. Poets who have never been in a war have to understand how war has nevertheless affected them. However, those who have been in a war only have to recount their experiences to purge them, but that, of course, is the catch.

"The images —scenes, sights, sounds, smells —are all there, waiting," says Lady Borton. "Reaching their depths requires the endurance to dig through slag, the commitment to apply adult compassion to youth's anguish, and the courage to weep."

"Unfortunately," says Bruce Weigl, "suffering a trauma like war does not necessarily guarantee that one will be able to turn all that suffering and the effects of that trauma into art. My advice to vets has always been the same: You have a story to tell so tell it; write it down exactly the way you would tell it to a friend, a fellow vet, a spouse. Once one has told one's story and gotten the word on the page, the struggle becomes manageable."

Weigl adds that vets should be willing to do "revision after revision" until their accounts are true to the experience. Only then may they find some poetry. "Nothing will be lost in the process," he notes, "and you will only learn more about yourselves and your experiences."

One way to tell a war story is, ironically, to write a vignette —a self-contained prose passage — instead of a poem. Your challenge, simply, is to get the words on the page, as Weigl recommends, without worrying about the mechanical aspects of verse —line, stanza, title (and other tools covered later in this book).

Here is an example of a vignette by Bruce Weigl:

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