War Poetry

The combination of poetry and war seems oxymoronic, a type of water and oil mix. When we think of poetry, we think of beauty — images so lovely or stunning they take our breath away. When we think of war, other images come to mind — destruction, sacrifice. Death. And yet war poetry remains one of the earliest categories of verse in Western literature. Perhaps only poetry about nature and love — two aspects of humanity that war often consumes— are more popular in the annals. Our greatest poetic masterpieces— from Homer's Iliad to several of Shakespeare's plays — are, essentially, war poems.

War poetry is universal. War is war, pain is pain, loss is loss; the topics and themes seldom change —only the names of battles, casualties and weapons do. Consider the essence of this excerpt translated by Michael Alexander from Beowulf (c. 1000), whose content deals with historical battles of the sixth century (along with a few fire-breathing dragons):

There were melting heads and bursting wounds, as the blood sprang out from weapon-bitten bodies. Blazing fire, most insatiable of spirits, swallowed the remains of the victims of both nations. Their valour was no more.

Those lines could apply to any war, Anglo-Saxon to Gulf. Nonetheless, defining what constitutes war poetry is not as simple as it may seem. The category is broad because war affects so many people: the combatants, of course, but also their families, loved ones, civilians, activists, clerics, medical personnel, and peace- and policymakers.

"Most war poetry deals with the extremes of human behavior," says Bruce Weigl, author of the collection Song of Napalm (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988). "In a war writers are/were able to see their fellow human beings at their very best and at their worst. War poetry has a tendency to be more politically based than poetry in general

(though I see this as a mixed blessing, depending on the poet). And war poetry has a tendency to define and describe a historical period, which I see as a major and important characteristic."

Kevin Bowen, poet and codirector of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, says war poetry (like other kinds of poetry) focuses on conflict, pain and suffering. "The experience of war is so far outside the range of normal experience that the heart and spirit feel split and betrayed — no one is a victor, there are only survivors. So in many ways such poetry is a reaffirmation of the physical and spiritual horrors of war and a commitment to the act of bearing witness."

Lady Borton, a nationally known author and columnist whose poems appear in the anthology Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of Women in the Vietnam War (Warner, 1991), observes, "War is the world gone insane: explosions and wailing, rubble and the smell of burnt flesh. Soldiers — often emotionally mailable teenagers — are forced to break immutable commandments ('Thou shall not kill'). In the process, they fracture their own souls. Forgetting becomes impossible; hiding, a delusion. There rises an urgency to speak, but what must be said is unspeakable. And to comfortable listeners expecting tales of glory, the unspeakable becomes heresy.

"As a poet," she concludes, "what greater challenge could you greet?"

Let's see how poets through the ages have greeted that challenge.

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