How should poets respond to war? During the first year of World War I, while German U-boats swarmed the Atlantic and ground fighting intensified in Europe, William Butler Yeats articulated one side of the debate in “On Being Asked for a War Poem” (1915):
I think it better that in times like these
We poets keep our mouths shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
Yet even this proclamation against agitprop calls for a collective response, if a quiet one. And just a year later, Yeats himself would attempt to “set statesmen right” with his famous war poem “Easter 1916.”
Poets have long expressed contradictory ideas about their role in wartime, and Poetry’s editorial engagement with war has reflected such clashing tendencies. In the century since the magazine’s inception, some editors have asked for war poems, while others have pointedly refrained from doing so; some writers have submitted swarms of contributions, while others have attacked the staff for according war poetry any power or purpose. The publication’s shifting attitudes toward war poetry reflect the tensions that beset poets who are called on to be “political,” as well as the changing relationship between poetry and politics in the 20th century.
Harriet Monroe laid the groundwork for Poetry in 1911, on the eve of World War I. Springboarding off Shelley’s notion that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Monroe felt so confident that poets could “set a statesman right” that she blamed them when politicians went wrong:
What is the fundamental, the essential and psychological cause of war? The feeling in men's hearts that it is beautiful. And who have created this feeling? Partly, it is true, kings and their “armies with banners”; but, far more, poets with their war-songs and epics, sculptors with their statues—the assembled arts which have taken their orders from kings, their inspiration from battles. … the feeling that war is beautiful still lingers in men’s hearts, a feeling founded on world-old savageries—love of power, of torture, of murder, love of big stakes in a big game. This feeling must be destroyed, as it was created, through the imagination. It is work for a poet.
Monroe wrote these words for an editorial called “The Poetry of War,” which appeared in the September 1914 issue of the magazine—the first of many special war numbers Poetry would produce over the decades. (The magazine would also seek war poems for its general issues, however frustrating such labor could be: Monroe mused in 1917, “A magic magnet would pick up out of the mass only a small percentage of pure metal, and that often from hidden or humble sources.”)
The editors’ ongoing interest in war stemmed at least partly from personal connections. Several of Monroe’s friends, relatives, and former colleagues were working for the Allies in France and updating her regularly on their experiences, according to Liesl Olson, director of the Newberry Library's Scholl Center. Monroe had invited Rupert Brooke home for dinner when he visited Chicago in 1914, and after his death in 1915, she wrote: “He is archetypal of the millions upon millions of proud young men who have gone singing to their death on the world’s battlefields, obscure pawns in mighty games played for ends they never questioned.”
Yet the September 1914 issue wasn’t Monroe’s idea: on returning from a Colorado camping trip, she discovered that her assistant editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, had initiated a contest for the best poem “based on the present European situation.” Monroe went along with the plan despite some vociferous objections. On September 15, 1914, Ezra Pound—the magazine’s “European correspondent”—wrote her: “I am VERY glad that you had nothing to do with that ‘War Poem’ prize offer. After trying for two years to make the point that poetry is an art, it is rather disheartening to have the magazine burst out with a high school folly….”
What was the result of the folly? No fewer than 738 submissions, from which the editors culled a handful of pieces, including Richard Aldington’s “War Yawp” and Amy Lowell’s “The Bombardment”—which, true to form, batters us with the refrain “Boom!” Contemporary readers might find such work overstated; D.H. Lawrence had critiques of his own: “It put me in such a rage—how dare Amy [Lowell] talk about Bohemian glass and stalks of flame! ... I hate, and hate, and hate, the glib irreverence of some of your contributors.” Whether glib, irreverent, or neither, the contributors organized themselves around a serious point—the horror of war—and in so doing, they matched the editors’ own sentiments.
Amid the issue’s noise lurks a quiet triumph: the first poem Wallace Stevens published in Poetry, “Phases.” In accordance with Monroe’s wishes, it “strips the glory” from war: a World War I battle scene, Stevens writes, is “not / like Agamemnon’s story, / Only, an eyeball in the mud, / And Hopkins, / Flat and pale and gory!” Yet its most exquisite section soars high above the unfortunate soldier Hopkins:
But the bugles, in the night,
Were wings that bore
To where our comfort was;
Arabesques of candle beams,
Through our heavy dreams;
Winds that blew
Where the bending iris grew;
Birds of intermitted bliss,
Singing in the night's abyss;
Vines with yellow fruit,
Along the walls
That bordered Hell.
After “flat,” “pale” Hopkins, Stevens provides us with light and lift—candles and wings, arabesques and winds—and in an act of merciful metamorphosis, he transforms the soldier’s eyeball into an iris. Pantomiming the delicate motions it describes, the poem itself acquires a loping, looping quality by varying its rhyme scheme and line lengths. Then it “falls” back down to earth from the Eden of dreaming.
In addition to poems, the editors published remarkable letters from friends and writers at the front. Richard Aldington’s “CORIKOS” had preceded the war by two years but prompted a note from an American soldier that Monroe printed in the April 1918 issue of Poetry:
Certain poems, like the Choricos of Aldington, have shuddered with me along night roads, and through their bold beauty have saved me from terror at moments when one of the great shocks—the explosion of an enemy shell, the sudden presence of pain or awful agony, the nearness of death—fell without preface upon me.
I remember once particularly, in the drab light of a cloudy dawning, when I saw near the edge of a road a poilu [French soldier] quietly lying. I should have fainted, I think, from the sheer tragedy of the incident, had I not heard, singing in my head, Aldington's invocation to death.
Wrote Monroe: “Such a letter proves, more sharply than any review, the value of a poet's work.” Aldington would articulate a similar sentiment. Presumably in response to the letter, he wrote Monroe in June 1918: “This is really the first justification of my work that has ever reached me.”
Its successes notwithstanding, the magazine did not entirely escape the tantrums and truisms that so often constitute war poetry (and other sorts of poetry, for that matter). Its editors, who reviewed war poems regularly, were well aware of stale verse coming from the trenches. A rueful Alice Corbin Henderson wrote: “The war itself is not responsible for the many bad poems of which it is the occasion, even as love is not to blame for the many indiscretions in verse committed in its name.” (Tellingly, she titled this 1918 review “War Poetry Again.”)
Undaunted, the editors continued seeking original and powerful war poems even after Armistice Day, and in 1928 their “magic magnet” attracted this flinty elegy by Jessie St. John. In “A War Bride,” she depicts the long aftermath of battle in strikingly realistic, Modernist terms:
What shall I do today
To use the hours up?
It takes so short a time
To wash a plate and cup.
A neighbor might run in
To pass the time of day—
But after that was said
What would there be to say?
I could go out to walk
Like any foolish bride—
But what if the dog he loved
Ran searching at my side?
A suite of unanswered questions, the poem is an act of speech that enacts speechlessness, down to the dash that stands in for neighborly conversation. Its simple, repetitive language—“today” and “day,” “said” and “say,” “run” and “ran”—indicate the predictability of its speaker’s life, as does its tick-tock meter, which runs as regularly as a clock. And the poem’s psychological maneuvers lend it special magnetism. The man missing from the speaker’s life is missing from the poem, too: he’s mentioned only in the final stanza, and then indirectly, once the dog enters as a symbol for the speaker. Through all it leaves unsaid, the poem seems to sigh: “What would there be to say?”
In the 1940s, Poetry’s editors adopted a stance that the 1915 Yeats would likely have nodded along with. Unlike Alice Corbin Henderson, they didn’t ask anyone for war poems. “No special pains whatever have been taken in planning and compiling this number,” they wrote at the conclusion of a war issue that appeared in August 1943. “We simply took from our files of poems those by servicemen and put them together.”
In a remarkable essay, the editors explained why some readers wrongly expect war to give rise to good poetry: our “tenacious romanticism about war despite what we protest to the contrary” and “our saturation in journalism,” which has convinced us that poets are merely enraptured reporters, capable of producing a sonnet a second. And they explain the flaws of such expectations: “the skein of life is too involved, the raw materials of esthetic production too complex, to expect that war will suddenly make all poets ‘occasional’ poets. … All the weathers of all the years a man has lived press upon an instant, to make a poem.”
That attitude didn’t prevent them from publishing a provocative essay by the Scottish critic David Daiches, who—like Monroe—emphasized poetry’s potential to effect political change. But if Monroe encouraged poets to strip glamour from battle, Daiches seemed to feel poets should dress war up in its best uniform: “To maintain his integrity the contemporary artist must be a propagandist,” Daiches wrote in his essay “Poets and the War.” For Daiches, writing poetry in wartime was as practical and as patriotic as riveting bolts. He approvingly quotes a group of British writers: “Experience of two years of war has shown to writers that their function is to write a good book about the war now.” Daiches continues:
The poet, in producing poetry in wartime, is demonstrating the vitality of the civilization we are defending and thus helping to renew its vigor, sustain its morale, and increase its effectiveness. … The poet, therefore, need not be afraid that in turning in times like these to his own art he is shirking his duty or letting his country down. On the contrary, he is doing his duty more effectively than he would in any other way.
In the meantime, Poetry’s staff was doing its patriotic duty in print and in person, at home and abroad. “We publish this number,” the editors wrote in the August 1943 war issue, “out of that affectionate interest all of us continue to have for those who are working and fighting for us, wherever they are.” Soldier-poets who came by the Poetry office were taken out for meals and entertainment. Editor George Dillon spent much of the war in Africa; he announced the liberation of Paris from his Eiffel Tower radio post. During his breaks, Dillon collected the works of French poets and translated them “while waiting around in jeeps,” he wrote editor Peter De Vries. In October 1945, the magazine compiled Dillon’s discoveries in an issue dedicated to “Poets of the French Occupation and Resistance.” De Vries himself had been drafted in 1943 but never made it to the front because of medical afflictions. He took that setback in stride, writing the staff: “I am at least moderately capable of facing the fact that no great blow is being dealt the Allied cause by the removal of one lank and sore-throated ghost stumbling and sniffling his way through the dank dawns of Arkansas under a full field pack.” In 1949, De Vries was briefly succeeded by Hayden Carruth, who had fought in Italy. Karl Shapiro took over in March 1950; he had won the 1945 Pulitzer for V-Letter, a book of war poems.
Throughout the war, Randall Jarrell contributed his polyphonic and ghostly poetry; dead civilians and soldiers seemed to speak through him as through an Ouija board. In “Losses,” Jarrell narrates from the perspective of men killed in various ways and at various times—during training, during combat. Always the men survive their deaths to tell us that, for instance, “When we lasted long enough they gave us medals; / When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’” In “Come to the Stone…” a child implores: “Come to the stone and tell me why I died.” And the speaker of “Gunner” observes: “How easy it was to die!”
Those who die so easily live without notice. In a particularly devastating poem, Jarrell threatens to withdraw his interest from his own character:
… in the crowded room you rubbed your cheek
Against your wife’s thin elbow like a pony.
But you are something there are millions of.
How can I care about you much, or pick you out
From all the others other people loved
And sent away to die for them?
The addressee in this poem, “The Sick Nought,” is just that: a nothing, a man dead even as he lives—the inverse of Jarrell’s other characters, who live to tell us how they died. In Jarrell’s poems, as on the battlefield, life and death grow terrifyingly proximate.
John Ciardi also fired war poems at Poetry with some frequency, and his work—like Jarrell’s—reads in aggregate like a kind of wartime diary. Yet his most magnificent war effort, “Elegy for a Cave Full of Bones,” appeared in 1988, nearly four decades after the conflict ended. This funeral march of a poem pounds forward in four-beat lines: “Tibia, tarsal, skull, and shin. / Bones come out where the guns go in.” It provides a bitter twist on Ariel’s “sea-change / Into something rich and strange”: in Ciardi’s “brine of sea and weather / Shredded flesh transfers to leather”:
Death is lastly a debris
Folding on the folding sea:
Blankets, boxes, belts, and bones,
And a jelly on the stones.
The magazine also featured lyricists of the home front, many of whom were women. Writers such as Muriel Rukeyser and Eve Merriam contributed powerful meditations on the conflict; Josephine Miles published, among other poems, a work nearly as brief as its title. Her subtle, troubling “Ad” proposes the complicity of readers in warfare:
Harper’s and many magazines contain
A dead soldier, spilt and unshaven.
A ponderous corpse of shell and possible pain
He has struck that printed haven.
There not to rest. He dies there the months over
In the causes of debate.
Waiting as at a trench, at the inside cover,
The burial before which we hesitate.
Since Poetry is as much a magazine as Harper’s, Miles asserts our intimacy with the distancing she describes: from the “havens” of our periodicals, the soldier’s pain seems not certain but merely “possible.” The binding of the open magazine becomes a sort of trench, or even a grave—each time we close it we bury the soldier afresh. Miles thus connects our advertisements, articles, and arguments with their consequences: it is due to debate on home soil that American soldiers live and die. We would be right to hesitate.
By the time of the Vietnam War, the magazine’s approach had shifted yet again. In May 1972, after Nixon ordered a shipping blockade to North Vietnam, Daryl Hine started preparing a special issue of Poetry “as a gesture, however futile, of disgust with the latest carnage and disapproval toward the new ‘strategy,’” according to Between the Lines: A History of Poetry in Letters. Mirroring Henderson’s strategy at the beginning of World War I, editor Daryl Hine sent the following note to 200 potential contributors:
I wish to publish a special issue of Poetry protesting the acceleration of the undeclared Indo-Chinese War and shall be grateful to consider any poem on this terrible and topical subject that you might wish to contribute, as soon as possible.
I am not an American citizen, but this is not an American issue. It is of global importance.
Poetry is a matter of life and death.
This activist sentiment—an echo of Monroe’s and Daiches’s as well as Henderson’s—prompted a curious special issue whose prose section often seems at war with its poems. Hine printed a number of his correspondents’ responses, and many were encouraging. “God knows I agree with your premise,” wrote William Meredith. “I feel very much as you do (as I hope you’d expect),” wrote W.S. Merwin. Yet some of Hine’s correspondents couldn’t have felt more differently than he did. Like Poetry’s editors a generation before, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor argued that such poems would mark a descent into journalism “from the lofty tone I would wish for Poetry magazine.” Others expressed a more general doubt about poetry’s ability to effect change. Wrote Michael Hamburger: “In recent years I have come to feel that protest poems as such are a dubious or questionable medium—because they aren’t even read by the people whom one wants to affect, and because protest demands action or, failing that, very clear prose.” Chester Kallman cited similar concerns, offering, instead of writing a poem, to “sign an appeal, march in a parade or what-you-will,” and opining that such a poem as Hine sought was “usually bad, and worst of all, does no good.” Basil Bunting also chimed in, with his usual acerbity:
There’s not a soul who cares twopence what I or any other poet thinks about the war, Nixon, Wallace, marijuana, pills, oil spills, detergent advertisements or the fog from Gary. We are experts on nothing but the arrangements and patterns of vowels and consonants, and every time we shout about something else we increase the contempt the public has for us. We are entitled to the same voice as anybody else with the vote, no more. To claim more is arrogant.
So I won’t be contributing to your special issue.
These reactions reflect the conflicting impulses that drove Yeats to compose “On Being Asked to Write a War Poem” one year and “Easter 1916” the next—impulses that poets and editors alike had continued to negotiate throughout the decades. But surely the responses also illustrate the downsizing of poetry in the American consciousness: an editor could no longer echo Shelley’s conviction that poetry wields political power without inciting a rebellion.
As if to subtly undercut Hine’s premises, the special issue’s prose is more interesting than its poetry, which sometimes feels floppy and obvious. One contributor was Denise Levertov, who would publish several anti-war poems in Poetry, including “The Distance” and “Life at War.” The personal dramas that resulted from her devotion to political poetry reflect the more general ambivalence around the genre. In her essay “Craft vs. Conscience,” poet-critic Ange Mlinko writes that Levertov’s war poetry soured her relationships with both her mentor, George Oppen, and her friend Robert Duncan, who considered the poems moralizing. “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” Duncan wrote her in a letter.
Some poems in the Vietnam issue imagine that evil well. Josephine Jacobsen’s “Ghosts at Khe Son,” resonant with the history of the American conquest of Indian tribes, also resounds with sound. And wartime vocabulary heats up May Swenson’s account of July 4 fireworks, which doubles as an indictment of American military might. Yet the best war poetry of that era exceeded the bounds of the special issue, suggesting that quality poetry rarely comes made-to-order. Take George Starbuck’s caustic, rhythmic “Of Late” (1966):
“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card.”
And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was a concentration of the enemy aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.
And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
This critique of quotation marks points to the failures of the American discourse during the Vietnam War. As if in retaliation for the media’s skepticism regarding Stephen Smith, Starbuck mentions Norman Morrison’s death four times in his poem, insisting on this fact as effectively as would any protest or petition.
Since Vietnam, war poetry has continued to surface in Poetry’s pages. In 2011, Stephen Yenser published “Hija for Emerson’s Birthday” in response to a remark by President George W. Bush: “I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” A hija is a digressive satire, and Yenser’s is a bitter joke of a poem that responds to Bush’s faux pas by playing repeatedly on the word “hand.”
More recently, poet and journalist Eliza Griswold joined the tradition of contributors on the front lines. Her haunting, multi-genre “Everyone Is an Immigrant” combines poetry with reportage and describes the overflow of African refugees onto the island of Lampedusa. At one point, Griswold asks a man named Luciforo—“whose last name means what it looks like”—what he’s seen that he can’t forget. He says: “One night, I watched mothers throw their babies into the sea. They popped up like corks.”
And the magazine has offered comprehensive, thoughtful essays on the role of the poet in the public sphere, such as David Orr’s “The Politics of Poetry” (2008) and David Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” (2010). In the latter, Biespiel asks:
Is contemporary poetry’s aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern? Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too?
In a magazine tradition stretching back to Harriet Monroe, Biespiel calls on poets to participate in civic life. And yet his appeal differs from the earlier ones. For him, as for many of the contributors who rebuffed Hine’s invitation, poems are not themselves pathways to politics; one must “leave the enclaves of poetry” to achieve anything of significance to the world at large.
The validity of Biespiel’s argument is, like poetry itself, a matter of interpretation. Are poets powerful enough to incite war—and conversely, to effect peace—as Monroe believed? Must they therefore work to stop it, as both she and Hine argued? Or does that power obligate them to serve as patriotic propagandists, as Daiches contended? As the century waxed, did the power of protest poetry wane?
War poetry asks us to consider a still larger question: what is poetry for? Should it bear witness? Create beauty? Inspire change? All of the above? Through their calls for war poems, editors such as Henderson and Hine hinted at the utility of such work; by avoiding such calls—and by publishing an issue of Resistance poems only after the war had ended—the World War II editors took a different tack. The most compelling of Poetry’s war work, from Stevens to Starbuck, has in common high artistry rather than hot argument; testaments to death, they have nonetheless outlived their century.