Poets of World War II

Buy this book at Amazon.comEdited by Harvey Shapiro
The Library of America ($20)

by Jeffrey Alfier

This anthology is one in a new series called the American Poets Project, an effort intended to produce a "compact national library of American poetry." Editor Harvey Shapiro—himself a veteran of 35 combat missions as a B-17 tail gunner—sets a solemn tone for the volume in his introduction, stating at the outset "We were victorious, but the sight of dead bodies is scattered among these poems about World War II the way bodies were washed up on the shores of invasion beaches." The 62 poets he has selected form a credible collection: "There are Objectivists here, Imagists, followers of the Southern school of formal verse and dense rhetoric," etc. About two-thirds of the contributors are veterans, the others non-veterans; thus the volume includes works by conscientious objectors and other war-resisters such as Robinson Jeffers and William Stafford. All his selections serve his stated purpose: "to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence."

Shapiro undoubtedly gathers some of the best poetry of the war. Included are majestically poignant air war poems by John Ciardi, James Dickey, Richard Eberhart, Richard Hugo (though his magnum opus, "Mission to Linz," does not appear here), Randall Jarrell, and Howard Nemerov. Some of the best poems of ground combat are by Louis Simpson, George Oppen, and Anthony Hecht. Several poems are quite moving, such as James Tate's "The Lost Pilot," written for his father who was killed in action when Tate was five months old, and Peter Viereck's "Vale from Carthage," which Viereck wrote on the occasion of his brother's death in the European theater. There are sublime elegies like Vladimir Nabokov's "When he was small, when he would fall" and Richard Eberhart's "A Ceremony by the Sea." Many poets achieve a powerful austerity through just a few lines, as Samuel Menashe does in his 18-syllable, 5-line poem, "Beachhead":

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds
From a skull
Sea gulls peck

Yet the poems here are not solely about combat and its effects, for they also inform the wider ontology of war, emerging into the foreground of military victory to ask the unanswered questions of race and class. Compelling examples are Witter Bynner's "Defeat" and Gwendolyn Brook's "Negro Hero."

Ever since Plato's Cratylus (ca. 360 BC) critics have debated whether poetry can close the aesthetic space between the reader's expectations and the poet's ability to meet them. The work in this exemplary and diverse collection accomplishes that closure quite effectively, despite the decades that have passed since the end of the Second World War.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004