On the morning of November 4, 1918, just a week before the end of World War I, the Second Manchesters Regiment took part in an attempt to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal in Northern France. British Engineers tied floats together into makeshift bridges under a rain of German fire, and infantry lined up to run across the flimsy floats into the teeth of it. It was as Tennyson wrote in "The Charge of the Light Brigade": "Their's not to reason why/ Their's but to do and die." Standing on the west bank heading a raiding party was a young English officer named Wilfred Owen. Before the battle ended, he was shot and killed. He would become one of the more celebrated poets of the 20th century.
At a time when accounts of war were heavily romanticized, Owen's poetry was blunt and real. Having been swayed to volunteer in part by the glory of war, Owen, along with his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (pulled from the front after being shot in the head), felt it was his duty to relay the harsher truth, writing in a letter to his mother: "All a poet can do today is warn." And warn he did. His best known poem: "Dulce et Decorum Est," a vivid account of a poisoned gas attack, is brutal even by today's standards. Here's an excerpt:
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling.
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The poem ends with a bitter recrimination of its title, a famed line from the Roman poet Horace that translates to: "It is sweet and fitting, to die for your native land."
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
While Owen takes an anti-war stance in this poem, his other poems and his hundreds of letters home reveal a more complex view. Owen wanted to see battle: "I hate washy pacifists," he wrote his mother, "Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation for gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles." He was a good soldier who had captured a machine gun post a month before and turned it on the enemy--an action that posthumously won him the Military Cross.
As he spent time in battle, he described his senses being "cauterized" until he could "laugh among the dying unconcerned." Less than a week before his death, he wrote in an almost joyful tone about the background of battle and the strong brotherhood of war: "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. . . Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."
The tradition of soldier poets dates back at least as far as Ancient Greece and spans the globe. The great 8th century Chinese poet Li Po wrote in "Nefarious War": "So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,/ And the generals have accomplished nothing." Randall Jarrell, known for harsh poems about World War II such as "Eighth Air Force" and "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner," vehemently condemned what he saw as misconceptions about war and soldiering. Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It" is a moving account of coping with the memory of war told through a visit to the Vietnam Memorial:
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
The current war in Iraq has brought its own soldier poets. Brian Turner, an infantry team leader with the 2nd Infantry Division, recently published Here, Bullet with Alice James Books. He wrote almost the entire book while stationed in Iraq. For Turner, poetry was in part a way to cope with war. In the book's title poem, he taunts death: "If a body is what you want/ then here is bone and gristle and flesh." Whereas Owen felt it was his duty to warn, Turner takes the stance of a witness--thereby allowing us to witness.
In a PBS interview he said "I didn't try to superimpose a lot of political beliefs. I didn't try to make my poems a pulpit. I really wanted to just share the events themselves as much as possible..." Turner keeps the focus off political debate and on the soldier:
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started...because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more