Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Poetry of War

Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin
How can something as horrific as war be expressed in poetic language?  It seems like an impossible challenge and yet war is a profound, deeply awful and unfortunately constant human experience.  War Poetry…"Theirs not to reason why…theirs but to do and die…into the valley of death rode the six hundred."  These lines from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" rise to my conscious mind from the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  I read that poem in high school and apparently it has stayed lodged in my memory bank. On rereading "Charge” yesterday, I think Tennyson has captured something of the power and insanity of war.  Ironically, he wrote the poem from his flat in London after reading a report about a battle in Crimea in 1854 in “The Times".  He wasn't even there. (Historical aside---the Crimean War was waged between the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France against Russia. Russia was defeated.  Eerily topical.)

So war inspires poetry or is it that war necessitates poetry.  Homer wrote poetically about war and war poetry endures to the present day.  Is it one attempt of the survivors to make something heroic out of power lust or simply to make sense out of that which is beyond understanding?  A struggle to stay sane. 

James Anderson Winn has written a book called "The Poetry of War" a collection of war poems (published in 2008). He suggests that very early war poetry spoke to the theme of honor and as we move to later wars, including the war to end all wars (World War l which produced a lot of war poetry) and the Second World War, liberty became the theme. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan moves toward an expression of waste and even shame by the war poets. He singles out Phillip Appleman and his poem "Waiting for Fire”.

I cannot leave this topic without calling attention to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the USA" and "Lost in the Flood".  Anti-war perhaps, but they also record poignantly the plight of the returning Vietnam Vet adrift in a country he loves, which mainly ignores him.

War was a topic which I wasn't eager to explore, but now that I have begun, it has become important for me to read the poetry of war. It is a significant part of the human experience.

Lessons Learned
Kathleen Tyler Conklin