The Absent Poetry of World War II

It’s been sometime since I’ve posted here. Having fewer blocks of uninterrupted time to compose and record the audio pieces for this Project, I’ve spent time instead with that proudly designed to be a time-waster Twitter in the past week or so. Twitter* has its own news stories this week — but that’s not my subject today.

I have a tiny number of followers there, and what I tend to talk about on Twitter is poetry, and then less-popular types of music. Really, not unlike what I do here on this blog, but more cut-up and off-the-cuff — and with more typos from typing on a small tablet screen and screen-keyboard. While working with poetry and music might cross-train you to fit things into constrained spaces, the Twitter short post-length limits challenge even this fan of compressed verse and sub-1000-word essays.

I came upon this Tweet this morning though that brought to mind something I’ve not revisited here on the blog for a while. One of the regular Twitter poetry-posters put up the devastating Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,”  and I once more thought of how powerfully the soldier-poets of World War I wrote about their war from the front lines — how to this day England recalls what they said combined with their presence as example casualties from that war, and in the sum, the tragedy all that entails. Long-time readers of this blog will know how thoroughly I’ve extracted poetry from WWI for presentation here.

War Poets in Poets Corner Westminster Abbey

Here’s a picture of a specific memorial to WWI poets in the Poet’s Corner of Britain’s Westminster Abbey

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Perhaps it’s the Public Domain limitations of what can be freely reused in a Project like this, which puts my attention on pre-1927 work — but I was caused again to wonder, why don’t we have dozens of effective poems about WWII, many of which will be commonly anthologized and recalled by the general audience poetry retains? If called to find examples I might start (as would many others) with Auden’s “September 1, 1939” — but this isn’t a first-person “report from the front lines” poem like Owen, Sassoon, or T. E. Hulme presented back then. It’s not even as close to harms way as the incisive poems of Edward Thomas who wrote about his approach to volunteering for the British Army that led to his death in the conflict, or Apollinaire’s equivalent to Auden’s poem about the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car.”  It’s not that poets or writers didn’t serve, and a great many novelists who served had a war book in them it seems.**  So, we can easily think of the novels about WWII written from frontline experience. But poems?

Was WWI poetic and WWII novelistic? I can’t make that case. Maybe you can. Is it down to the changes in the literary marketplace? Plausible, though within poetry’s more limited audience in the second half of the 20th century you think there’d be room for poetry as vivid as those of the WWI soldier-poets. Here’s a short list of a few of the notable American poets who did serve in WWII: James Dickey (Air Corps airborne navigator, though some reports say fighter pilot), Richard Wilbur (Army Signal Corps in Europe), Frank O’Hara (sailor on a destroyer in the Pacific), Richard Eberhart (gunnery trainer), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Captain of a submarine chaser), Karl Shapiro (medical corps clerk in the Pacific theater), Kenneth Koch (infantryman in the Philippines), Randall Jarrell (“Celestial navigation tower operator,” which he claimed was the most poetic job in the Air Force).***

Of that list only Shapiro and Jarrell wrote what might be called “from the front” poems. Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner”  may be the  example of an anthologized WWII poem, and Shapiro had his first book about his overseas, but not exactly in front line combat, V-Letter,  published as the war was still ongoing.

What happened? Why didn’t more of these poets write more about the details and moments of their service? My general observation is that instead they wrote consciously and unconsciously about how the war changed their outlook on the world. David Haven Blake wrote a short journal article on Wilbur’s World War II poetry, but instead makes the case more for this theory. He quotes Wilbur as saying “The war challenged me to organize a disordered sense of things, and so prepared me to write a poetry of maximum awareness and acknowledgement.” I’ve seen another quote from Wilbur circling the same thought “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

This non-scholar will now generalize wildly, but the WWI war poets used poetry, often structured metrical/rhyming poetry, to demonstrate the world out of joint, a genteel form container for barbarity and chaos. The WWII poets muted all that as unspeakable (or even over-spoken?) and sought to portray in poetry (that wasn’t always as formal) the values and observations of a peacetime more precious, however ambivalent and imperfect, from the militarized brutality of combat.

Let me dedicate this little essay to Robert Tallant Laudon. Laudon sought out the Lake Street Writers Group early this century as an 80-something veteran who had served in a logistical role in England during WWII. Though he became a music professor after the war, he seemed not completely sure of his skills as a poet, but he wanted to use poetry to portray something of his experiences during the war. By the time he was 86 he published a small chapbook “Among the Displaced — World War II”  with the resulting poems. I now view the younger me who heard him workshopping drafts of these poems as a much younger man than I thought I was then. Such is the progression of age! His poetry, like much good poetry, was written in an immediate present while depicting the 1940s, and I’ll always treasure that experience.

I mentioned at the start no new music, but here’s a piece, a “found poem” I created out of a recorded interview with another music professor, Weston Noble, who had served in WWII and which I set to my own music early in this Project. The voice you’ll hear in this must-listen-to piece is Noble’s. He commanded a tank in Europe during that war. In other parts of that interview, he recalled that when under fire, another member of his crew would ask him to sing. Inside that steel turtle shell the war outside existed mostly audibly, and the fate of those vibrating inside was unsure. The voice of Noble somehow calmed his crew. And this person now, here, who writes this? I’m still afraid to sing, worried that the unpleasant sounds that I too-often utter will embarrass me and displease any listeners. When I hear this man, now far in age from the war he fought in, decades from the interior of that tank, speak to the recorder of “The Garden of Trust”  claiming that it can be found in music, I invariably start to mist up.

Listen to this two-minute audio piece with the player below — or if you don’t see it, with this highlighted link provided as a backup.

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*A new sole-proprietor owner has led many — who have through long activity and posting on this online service built up it’s usefulness for themselves and others — to worry about its continued existence.

**Kurt Vonnegut did two WWII novels . One, Slaughterhouse Five,  is one of the last first-person-experience-informed WWII novels, and another, Mother Night,  is a personal favorite, and includes this WWII poem that this Project performed.

***I was able to start this list from an article on the Poetry Foundation’s web site linked here.