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War Poetry: What Is It Good For?

SunflowerWith Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, war is back on the minds of the West––even though, as Syria, Yemen, and other sites of conflict should remind us, it never really left. A recent New York Times essay by the Ukranian poet Ilya Kaminsky meditates on the role of poetry in times like these. Kaminsky’s own poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” captures the uneasy, guilty luxury of turning away from war elsewhere.

That sense of helplessness and complicity Kaminsky conveys here also points to something about the condition of war poetry in the present day: feeling compelled to witness war’s atrocities, but haunted by poetry’s own history of glorifying war and despairing of its ability to make a difference. (Hence the post’s title: in addition to pointing you towards a classic song, I wanted to focus on how poetry has struggled with what role, if any, to play in modern war). Inspired by Kaminsky, I want to take a very brief tour of war poetry, looking at how it glorified war in the past and the role it has tried to carve out in recent times. This survey will necessarily leave a lot out, and I’m not an expert in any of the fields I touch on here, so my apologies for my own limitations!

War poetry is about as old as poetry itself. The Iliad is, of course, a war poem, and war features heavily in other ancient epics like the Mahabharata (which includes the famous Bhagavad Gita, a lengthy conversation between a prince and a god about the morality of war). Largely because of who was able to read and write, the vast majority of premodern war poetry focuses on the perspective of nobility, for whom war was a vocation. A favorite history blog of mine, written by the historian Bret Devereaux, offers a series of posts on medieval war poetry that are well worth your time, from the sixth-century Ethiopian-Arab poet ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad to the ninth-century and twelfth-century Occitan nobles of France. The late medieval period in Europe also sees the rise of romances or chansons de geste, long narrative poems that celebrate (and exaggerate) the deeds of historical figures like El Cid or Roland or mythical ones like King Arthur. For these poems, war is generally glorious, defined by the clash of aristocrats against one another or hordes of nameless enemies. The suffering of ordinary people, if it appears at all, is just a price that must be paid for this chance at glory.

Jumping ahead a bit (and jumping right over my own period, the eighteenth century!), readers at this point might be thinking of one of the most famous war poems of all time, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1854 “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” “When can their glory fade?/ Oh the wild charge they made!” Tennyson writes of a doomed British cavalry charge in the Crimean War. But here we can already see how modernity is making the classic style of war poetry from the mounted noble’s perspective obsolete. The cavalry charge he describes was sent by mistake at an active Turkish artillery battery, and was cut to pieces as a result; sword-wielding horsemen were increasingly outmatched by heavy guns, as the First World War would definitively prove sixty years later. Their gallantry, out of place in modern war, results in their decimation. And unlike the aristocratic heroes of old, who gave speeches and orders as well as fighting themselves, Tennyson’s cavalrymen are professional soldiers who must carry out instructions: “Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.” This is a far cry from the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita, in which heroes who are political as well as military leaders mull over whether to go to war or not––Tennyson’s cavalry are closer to common infantrymen, who must kill, die, and bear the cost of decisions made well above their heads.

The enormously destructive wars of the twentieth century left many poets and critics despairing about whether poetry could make any difference at all in modern war. Staring down a second World War after the devastation of the first, W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” describes the gloomy atmosphere of Europe bracing itself for the worst. He tries to grasp for some hopeful poetic insight, but has trouble finding one that he can trust; the most famous line in this poem, “We must love another or die,” never quite sat right with him, and after attempts to revise it in subsequent editions he disowned it entirely. Another poem of this period, Auden’s elegy to W.B. Yeats, observes that “Poetry makes nothing happen”; it’s hard not to feel the helplessness of that line in the context of a catastrophic war in the making. “In the nightmare of the dark/ All the dogs of Europe bark,/ And the living nations wait,/ Each sequestered in its hate,” Auden writes, the mindless, sing-song rhyme and meter capturing the insipid brutality of war that mocks poetry’s powerlessness with its monotonous drone. (Is it too much to observe that the mindless war-instruments of our own time are called drones?)

After World War Two, with the revelation of the full horror of the Nazi death camps, the critic Theodor Adorno declared that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This feeling of guilt in the face of atrocity haunts poetry, war poetry in particular: a sense that any attempt at lyric beauty will be exposed as a lie by the banal brutality of human suffering at a massive scale. A poem by Nobel laureate Wisława Symborska of Poland––Ukraine’s neighbor, and battleground for many of Europe’s most destructive wars––describes the forgetting that must take place for “normality,” and perhaps poetry, to return in the wake of war. “After every war/ someone has to clean up,” she writes, and then gradually the shock must fade from memory:

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
Poetry today often turns away from the scene of battle, reluctant to glorify it––and aware that in the era of modern war, the clash of armies in the field has often given way to devastating bombings and guerrilla warfare, both of which blur the line between combatants and civilians with horrifying results. (Yusef Komunyakaa, a Vietnam veteran, wrote a fascinating poem that attests to the “modern system” of warfare, based on cover and concealment; here figurative language becomes like camouflage itself, draping the soldiers in the imagery of the environment around them.) But I want to end on a poem that does look head-on at battle, and (in my opinion as a civilian) captures its horror rather than glorifying it: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” about a poison gas attack in the First World War. Readers should be advised that Owen’s poem is quite graphic, as it should be given the subject matter. If you feel up to it, try reading the poem aloud to feel how Owen’s language tries to approximate the terror of chemical weapons in sound as well as sense, with an undercurrent of hissing and choking consonants especially prominent in its final two stanzas:
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The final line comes from the Roman poet Horace, and translates to “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” Owen uses his own war poem to strip bare the illusions of previous war poetry, and to convey some notion of war’s horrors to those lucky enough not to have experienced it. As Russia threatens to use chemical weapons like those that Owen describes in Ukraine––as it has already in Syria––a poem like this can vividly remind us of the atrocity such a move would represent. It can’t turn back the tanks, but it can force us not to look away.
Many of my links here go to the Poetry Foundation, a wonderful resource for discovering new and old poetry (on war or any other topic).