For as long as man has known war, he has been moved to capture its ghastly cadence in verse. From the front lines in the First World War came Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. From the Second World War, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas.
At least so far, this young war has brought us mostly dogfaces penning doggerel. The few poems sent back have been paired with pop tunes and marches -- mostly jejune slogans and jingoism.
Last month, this work by a Marine in Saudi Arabia was improbably entered in the Congressional Record. His poetic device was that the first letter of each new line spells out "OPERATION DESERT STORM," which is also the title of the work.
O ften I may wonder why
P erhaps it's just my fear
E ven when the war begins
R eality is near
A nd as I wither in the heat
T he desert wind blows on
I t's where I stand, here in the sand
O bserving what goes on
N othing to compare it to.
And so forth.
Perhaps the lack of poetic skill displayed so far reflects the fact that the dying part of this war is just two weeks old, and still relatively contained. Perhaps there is great work to come. Perhaps we shouldn't hope for this, the sort of creative arc inspired by The Great War.
The first works from the front lines were romantic, exhilarated. Rupert Brooke, a British poet, produced a set of dreamy, idealistic wartime sonnets like "The Soldier" from 1914, the year the war broke out.
If I should die, think only this of me,
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Brooke died of fever in Greece a year later. It's as though he knew.
Soldier John McCrae wrote this in 1918:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Strange, desolate landscapes, bombed earth, buried dead. As the losses of World War I mounted, the poetry hardened. Gloriousness and gallantry were replaced by bitterness, and horror. British poets like Isaac Rosenberg emerged, with vivid "trench poems." Here's a tidbit from his "Dead Man's Dump":
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched ...
In a 1942 poem, Sidney Keyes wrote:
I am the man who groped for word and found
An arrow in my hand.
Keith Douglas left Oxford in 1940 to join a cavalry regiment. Before going, he had his photograph taken, in uniform. Below it, sarcastically, he wrote a caption: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" -- the sweetness and glory of dying for one's country.
In "Gallantry," Douglas begins:
The Colonel in a casual voice
spoke into the microphone a joke
which through a hundred earphones broke
into the ears of a doomed race.
Into the ears of the doomed boy, the fool
whose perfectly mannered flesh fell
in opening the door for a shell
as he had learnt to do at school.
That was then. Now, there is poetic silence from the gulf, where there is a war that carries a specter of a special kind of horror unseen since World War I, when death could come on the wind.
We have to look to Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most promising British poet of his generation, for imagery of that. Here, about soldiers falling in a poison gas attack, is "Dulce Et Decorum Est" -- all of it.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen died a week before Armistice Day in 1918. Like McCrae, Rosenberg, Keyes and Douglas, he died in battle.