Wars find their poets. When the Greeks clashed with the Trojans, poets would take it all in, striving to capture the whole of it. The dead bodies, the gnashing fear.
Here is Virgil describing a battle's aftermath during the invasion of Troy:
What tongue can tell the slaughter of that night?
What eyes can weep the sorrows and affright?
An ancient and imperial city falls:
The streets are filled with frequent funerals;
Houses and holy temples float in blood,
And hostile nations make a common flood.
Virgil, like Homer before him, would turn conflicts into classic poetry, the words enduring to take the measure of war. Who knows what kind of poetry might emerge from America's conflict with Iraq? What verses, threaded together, will be read by future generations? Regardless, its creation should surprise few. For the poet -- from Homer to Whitman, from Thomas Hardy to Langston Hughes, from Randall Jarrell to Robert Bly -- has found the soil of war quite a rich ground to traverse. The soldier fights. The poet seeks to explain what the soldier cannot.
From such wars, of course, sprang Homer's Odyssey:
That was the way our death came, Agamemnon.
Now in Odysseus's hall untended still
our bodies lie, unknown to friends or kinsmen
who should have laid us out and washed our wounds
free of the clotted blood, and mourned our passing.
So much is due the dead.
David Citino, a poet and professor of literature at Ohio State University, sees in Homer's work a man, a poet, a singer, bewitched by war. "Even though he's praising the great heroes, he's [recognizing] the great loss of life," Citino says.
It was an American war, between North and South, between brother and brother, that produced one of the greatest English-speaking poets. Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York. He worked as a printer, a newspaperman, a freelance journalist. He journeyed to the Civil War front in Virginia and the experience seared him. Moving to Washington, Whitman visited wounded soldiers in hospitals. The poet had found his war.
Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was first published in 1855. But he would tinker with it, add to it, over the years. There would be poems about the Civil War. In "Drum Taps," Whitman writes of dazed soldiers returning to the nation's capital:
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are
Whitman realized that what the soldier didn't leave on the battlefield, he brought home. Things jangle inside soldiers forevermore. "Whitman would identify with the soldier who was wounded, who was dying," says Citino.
Whitman was deeply affected by the assassination of President Lincoln. He sensed the pain of others. A stanza taken from "Hush'd Be the Camps To-day," a memorial poem for the president, from the "Leaves of Grass" collection, tells of grief:
As they invault the coffin there,
Sing -- as they close the doors of earth upon him -- one
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.
World War I was a horrendous undertaking, but a boon to poetry. It was trench warfare, nasty and often eyeball to eyeball, kneecap to kneecap. Names would emerge from that war -- Archibald MacLeish, John Peale Bishop, Robert Graves, Alan Seeger, Wilfred Owen. Those are not the names of soldiers -- though some of that group did go to war -- but poets.
"The poets of World War I were much more interesting than the poets of World War II," says Peter Davison, poetry editor of the Atlantic magazine. "That was a war that nobody won. They hated the war so much that it inspired them to write great poetry. People didn't hate World War II so much.
"What was happening in World War I," says Davison, "is the massacres upon massacres in the trenches. Someone was gone in a second who was standing next to you. Gone."
Sometime in 1917 or 1918, Owen wrote "Disabled," a tender poem about a veteran.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
Perhaps Owen had been inspired by someone he had seen in one of the hospitals he recuperated in during the war. Owen returned to the front in August 1918. A poet and his war.
"The World War I poetry came out of the trenches," says Harvey Shapiro, a poet who has just edited "Poets of World War II." Shapiro himself was an Air Force gunner in World War II. "The feeling was that they were a part of a generation picked out for great things. That changed with the Battle of the Somme. . . . The carnage. And American poets read that poetry."
In his youth, Shapiro had no plans to become a poet. "Facing death is clarifying," he says. "Before the war I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I had been a freshman at Yale when Pearl Harbor came."
So a young man became a gunner. A gunner became a poet. Shapiro would write:
From target to target he rode.
The images froze, the flak hardly mattered.
Europe rode to its murderous knees
Under the sex of guns and cannon.
The British poets may have distinguished themselves during World War I, but Americans managed to catch up with their output during World War II, says Shapiro. But the degree of emotion was different. The World War II poets seemed less sentimental. The poems were muscular. "We were partly schooled by Hemingway," says Shapiro. "We tended to stress big words like 'glory' and 'country.' We tended to be tight-lipped and low key."
And yet, there is nothing tight-lipped about a brief Randall Jarrell poem about the war that seems to have flowed into the canon:
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 dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
It's called "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," and it would become one of Tennessee-born Jarrell's more renowned poems.
Jarrell was in the Army Air Force, but he didn't fight. Still, a poet had found his war. "He just listened to veterans alongside him teaching" during the war, says Shapiro. "He reimagined their experiences and was able to make poetry out of it."
Shapiro says there was a need to gather memorable poetry that came out of World War II. "People really don't know about it," he says. "They might know a poem or two. Whenever you talk to people about war poetry -- even people who know poetry -- they think you're talking about the English poetry of the First World War."
World War II was also the moment of the Negro soldier. Of the Tuskeegee Airmen. Of the battles inside the battles against segregation. Witter Bynner wrote a poem called "Defeat," of which a portion reads:
On a train in Texas, German prisoners eat
With white American soldiers, seat by seat,
While black American soldiers sit apart,
The white men eating meat, the black men heart.
During Vietnam, poetry rode waves of protest. Robert Bly would receive the National Book Award for poetry in 1969. "You have given me an award that has many poems in it against the war," he said at the presentation ceremony. "I thank you for the award. As for the thousand-dollar check, I am turning it over to the draft-resistance movement."
But despite Bly's sentiments at that ceremony, he realized the limitations of the poet as a political voice. "Some poets try to write political poems impelled by hatred or fear," he would write in the Nation. "But those emotions are stiff-jointed, rock-like, and are seldom able to escape from the gravity of the body. What the poet needs to get up that far and bring back something are great leaps of the imagination."
Bly lives in Minnesota these days. He has a theory as to why poets are sometimes drawn to war: "I think people have a tendency to lie about war -- saying that war is going to be a good thing. Poets are led to war when there's a lot of lying going on in the language. During the Vietnam War, you could hear the lies coming day after day."
During Vietnam many poets would recall the words of Rudyard Kipling:
If any questioned why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
The formation of Poets Against the War earlier this year prompted the White House's cancellation of a poetry event. The group has brought together hundreds of poets who have protested against Bush administration policies in Iraq. Thousands of poems have been written. Most of them will not last -- they've been written upon the flames of politics.
"Great poetry is hard to write," says Bly. "It's hard to stand up beyond five years, 10 years. Beauty is difficult. If you write about war, it's even more difficult."
One poem referring to the Iraqi war has garnered attention in readings around the country, and that is W.S. Merwin's "Ogres." While it attacks the "frauds in office," it ends with the poet himself turning a light on his own soul:
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame.
"He admits that he may have darkness in him that the war makers have in them," says Davison of the Merwin poem.
Still, it is far too soon to say if the war in Iraq will produce poetry that endures. From Virgil to Whitman, from Thomas Hardy to Randall Jarrell, Shapiro says the poet who goes to war -- either in body or on the page -- is simply trying to figure out a way to turn "terror into art."
Wilfred Owen wrote a letter home to his mother during a pause in battle. He sounded like a man who had tamed any terror he might have had. "I got out of this year a poet, my dear mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet's poet. I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon."
Owen's bravery could never be doubted. He had been wounded in battle, only to recuperate and go back to the front lines. His mother never saw her 25-year-old son again, his blood spilling from German machine-gun fire one week before war's end.
But while he was still a breathing poet in 1918, Owen's imagination leaped ahead:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .