April is National Poetry Month…and since much of our focus here at West Point is on war, taking a look at war poetry resources in our collection is a good way to close out the month that celebrates poetry. War has long been a source of inspiration for writers, prompting recognition of the bravery and patriotism involved in service to a cause, or reacting to the damage and destruction to life and property that often result from such conflicts. Poems about war often reflect both points of view, as can be seen in the poem quoted to introduce this article. That’s part of what makes war poetry – and in fact, all poetry – so difficult and rewarding to read: the conflict between the head and the heart, the ideas of duty and the fear of death, the thoughts of victory and the reality of loss are often all wrapped up in one poem, capturing the range of human emotion in an economy of words, and making the experiences of the individual universal.
One way to approach reading the poetry of war is to choose a specific conflict and find an anthology or collection of poems that arose from that particular war. Here in the USMA Library, we have several excellent anthologies covering various wars, and the first one we’ll feature collects works that arose from a conflict we spend a lot of time studying here at West Point: the Civil War.
Words for the Hour: a New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry edited by Faith Barrett and Christanne Miller, brings together poems from the entire Civil War era, highlighting antebellum poetry, writings leading up to the war, poems from the years of battle, and poetry written during the aftermath of the conflict. In addition, the editors have provided a section for collections of poems by individual authors, including Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman. Their arrangement of poetry in chronological order, along with a Civil War timeline and a list of source collections from which they obtained many of the included poems, helps the reader understand the context and impact of the works showcased in this excellent collection.
With The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, editor George Walter has collected poems by both well-known and unknown writers and arranged them together in themes to provide readers with differing perspectives on common experiences. Women writing about the home front and anonymous soldiers’ songs round out the collection. The introduction discusses the role and scope of First World War poetry anthologies and looks at how these works have been viewed and understood over time. With a notes section that includes context and explanations for the poems, Walter has prepared a collection that provides an excellent overview of the genre.
In the Cambridge Poets of the Great War: An Anthology, editor Michael Copp has arranged selected poetry of the First World War era into sections such as “Early Days,” “Over There,” “Comradeship,” and “Loss and Remembrance,” to highlight the themes explored by the writers of the time. The volume includes a lengthy introduction, in which Copp provides biographical information about the authors, details of the incidents described in many of the poems, and commentary and criticism of several of the featured poems. The balance of the book is given over to the poems themselves, thematically grouped, and includes indexes of authors, titles and first lines for ease of reference.
In The War Poets: an Anthology of the War Poetry of the 20th Century edited by Oscar Williams, in addition to poetry by well-known poets (some of whom served in the military), a large section of the book is devoted to the poems of soldiers of the armed forces of England and America. Thus, the experiences of those who served – in the trenches, in the planes, in the ranks – during both the First and Second World Wars, are represented with poems about daily life in the service, memories of home, and the consequences of battle. The book also includes a section of “Comments by the Poets,” in which various authors provide their observations on war and poetry, and the connection between the two.
Poetry of the World Wars, edited by Michael Foss, includes but a brief introduction, and lets the poems of two World Wars stand on their own, interspersed with small but affecting illustrations (most without credit). Poems from each conflict are gathered into thematic chapters, and many well-known poets are represented in this volume.
Of course, readers often have favorite poets, or poets who they know have written about a specific topic, and that’s a great starting point for reading poetry – and in the USMA Library, looking up a poet using the “Author” search option in Scout or in our catalog is the easiest way to find books written by poets whose work you admire. The USMA Library has countless books of poetry by a wide variety of poets; here we’ll look at just one that is relevant to our current topic.
Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton by John Borling MAJ GEN USAF, Ret. is an example of a collection of poems by a single author in a single volume. Borling was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over six years, and the poetry in this book is a record of the way he survived, and helped others to do the same, under brutal and often hopeless conditions. Tapping in code on the walls of their cells, he and his fellow prisoners tapped out their own names and the names of their family members, messages of hope and strength, jokes and prayers…and poems. The poems he has set forth in this book are his memories and experiences from that time, forty years ago, when poetry helped keep him and his comrades alive. With an introduction by his fellow POW (and now Senator) John McCain, this book is a testament to the ways that poetry can help and heal.
Another way to explore the poetry of war is to take an academic approach, and read literary criticism written about either a single poet’s work or about a selection of thematically-related poems by different authors. As with any academic library, the USMA library collection includes probably thousands of volumes that provide literary criticism of prose and poetry; what follows is a small selection of criticism on the poems of war.
Survivors’ Songs: from Maldon to the Somme by Jon Stallworthy – this book is an exploration of poetic encounters with war, including essays on such writers as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Stallworthy, a poet himself and a Fellow of the British Academy, sets the poetry and prose of the First World War in a wider context, examining the meaning these poems have for survivors of warfare – both past and future.
Spirit Above Wars: a Study of the English Poetry of the Two World Wars by A. Banerjee takes its title from a quote in a letter from Robert Graves to Wilfred Owen in 1917 (‘For God’s sake cheer up and write more optimistically – The war’s not ended yet but a poet should have a spirit above wars.’). In keeping with that dictate, Banerjee has given us a volume in which the poems of war have been re-examined and connected to the larger traditions of poetry, showing the ways in which “war poetry” enlarges all poetic traditions.
Modern English War Poetry by Tim Kendall focuses on a number of well-known poets who wrote on war, including Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, and Ted Hughes. Each chapter is an in-depth exploration of the poet and his or her war writing, covering many different eras, with the exception of two notable chapters. In one, “Sky-Conscious: Poetry of the Blitz,” Kendall examines the widespread references in war poetry to airborne attacks and their effects, addressing poems by a wide selection of authors; in “The Few to Profit: Poets Against War,” he again expands beyond the well-known poets covered in depth in his book to look at how many different writers have given us poems that protest against war, across a multitude of conflicts and cultures.
With Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War, author and critic Subarno Chattarji introduces us to poems written during and after the conflict in Vietnam, predominantly by veterans, but including other voices as well. Beginning with “Politics and Poetry,” continuing through “Veteran Poetry: Combat Experience,” and “The Aftermath,” and ending with “The Other: Vietnamese Poetic representations,” Chattarji collects poems that address the Vietnam War from diverse perspectives, giving the reader exposure to a wide range of experiences and examining the multitude of emotions that continue to affect both those who participated and those who protested the war.
American War Poetry is a contribution to the field of war poetry criticism by USMA alumni and former Superintendent William J. Lennox, Jr. (USMA 1971). In this, the dissertation he completed to obtain his PhD, Lennox examines poetry written by Americans during and about five separate wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Vietnam War. Observing in his introduction that “the first extant poetic work of Western literature, the Illiad, addresses…war,” Lennox goes on to describe how poems on the different wars are an important sub-genre of American poetry, with trends and themes that relate to each other and to contemporary and traditional American culture and thought – even over vast distances of time and geography.
You don’t need the excuse of a poetry month to pick up a book of poetry – or to delve into the world of literary criticism to help you understand and appreciate the poems of your favorite writers. Even though National Poetry Month has come to a close, all of the war poetry resources referenced in this article – and many more! – are available here in the USMA Library. Come on in and check one out!
Contents contributed by Laura Mosher, Reference & Liaison Librarian