American War Poetry, Part VI

In light of the near-universal consensus about the justice of the Allies’ cause in “The Good War,” I’m a little surprised at the tone of the World War II poetry I found. Is there, for instance, no poem that triumphantly celebrates the achievement at Normandy despite the horrific loss of life? Has no poet dared to attempt in words what the famous photo on Iwo Jima captured for the world?

Louis Simpson’s “Carentan O Carentan” focuses more on the other side of the equation:

Carentan O Carentan

by Louis Simpson (b. 1923)

Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.

This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.

The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.

The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.

Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.

The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.

I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.

Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.

I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.

There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.

Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.

O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.

Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.

Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.

John Ciardi seems to say that memorials for the dead place burdens on the living. That sounds about right to me. Thanks to all the veterans out there.

A Box Comes Home

by John Ciardi (1916-1986)

I remember the United States of America
As a flag-draped box with Arthur in it
And six marines to bear it on their shoulders.

I wonder how someone once came to remember
The Empire of the East and the Empire of the West.
As an urn maybe delivered by chariot.

You could bring Germany back on a shield once
And France in a plume. England, I suppose,
Kept coming back a long time as a letter.

Once I saw Arthur dressed as the United States
of America. Now I see the United States
of America as Arthur in flag-sealed domino.

And I would pray more good of Arthur
Than I can wholly believe. I would pray
An agreement with the United States of America

To equal Arthur’s living as it equals his dying
At the red-taped grave in Woodmere
By the rain and oakleaves on the domino.

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4 Responses to “American War Poetry, Part VI”

  1. Judy Evans Says:

    I think this is entirely consistent with the demeanor and attitude of the returning WWII vets. Tom Brokaw had to seek them out and persuade many to tell their stories. They just wanted to come home, go to work, and raise families. But they are not ashamed of what they did, either. If you saw the PBS special yesterday at the WWII Memorial, many of the vets were there – and younger people kept coming up to them, shaking their hands and thanking them for the service they did for the country. And they were smiling. Now they can see their service in the perspective of history, and it would seem to me that some poets ought to reflect on that, rather than only on the “other side”.

  2. Rob Gittings Says:

    Not being much of a memorizer, poetry has always fascinated me because each poem is new to me no matter how many times I’ve read it. Except for a few poems, that is. One is the Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, by Randall Jarrell which I’ve copied below (with the author’s explanatory note.) As high school aged boys often do (I guess…I’ll find out again in a few years), I had read much that glorified war. (It’s funny to think that WWII had not been over for 25 years when I started grade school. Vietnam ended over 30 years ago.) Anyway, this poem was immediately burned into my brain. (Thanks also to Mark for posting Dulce Et Decorum Est – another of my favorites!)

    The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

    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.

    “A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.” — Jarrell’s note.

  3. American War Poetry, Part VIII « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] blog may recall a seven-part series on American war poetry in the run-up to Memorial Day 2007. In one installment, I asked, “Has no poet dared to attempt in words what the famous photo on Iwo Jima captured […]

  4. Fred Harwell Says:

    Today, when I heard the Actor Charles Durning, a WWII combat veteran himself, read Dr Simpson’s “Carentan O Carentan” today on The Military Channel, it impressed me what we owe our Soldiers… and I wrote this one:

    Man of Letters-Armed

    The Soldiers that defend us… are not all just simple brutes
    Some come ashore in landing craft…some come on parachutes

    And some are Men of Letters…even as they trudge along
    In their first battle…young…alert…and “Army strong.”

    Carrying a Garand, bayonet…some grenades…an ammo bandoleer…

    And the heaviest thing a Soldier ever carries forward……..
    FEAR.

    GOD Bless ALL AMERICAN Soldiers


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