The Poetry of World War II
By its conclusion in 1945, World War II had become the single deadliest conflict in history. Over 25 million soldiers had lost their lives, as well as 55 million civilians, including 11 million killed in concentration camps. To mark the 75th anniversary of the United States’ declaration of war, we have assembled a selection of poems written in English during and after the Second World War. Many of these poems first appeared in the pages of Poetry magazine and were written by former soldiers such as Randall Jarrell, as well as conscientious objectors such as Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell. Still others were written by civilians, editors, and journalists working at home. These poems demonstrate an acute attention to the horror, sacrifice, and sublime reckoning of the conflict.
In order to contextualize these works, we have listed the poems by year, along with a selection of historical markers. In addition, we have provided a separate list of poets and volunteers who served in the War, many of whose work features on this list.
The poems here are broad and various. You may notice that earlier poems demonstrate a disbelief at the scope of the conflict, while later poems express a mournful acceptance and a turn toward individual voice and empathy. Anticipating the movements of postmodernism, the poetry of World War II as a whole marks a deciding change in how many poets would view violence, sacrifice, and our responses to historical atrocities and trauma. To suggest additions, contact us. Also be sure to take a look at our sampler of World War II Poets.
Hitler invades Poland on September 1. Britain and France declare war on Germany. The British ship “Athenia” is sunk by German U-Boats. Russia invades Finland.
“Involuntary Spies” by Marion Strobel
“Death That Need Not Have Been” by Flora Hendricks
“On the Summer Sky the Airship Hangs” by Oscar Williams
“After the Bombing of Barcelona” by Norman Macleod
“In the Shadow of Great Times” by Helen Goldbaum
“Lutany at Brink of Armageddon” by James Daly
“The Watcher” by Ridgeley Torrence
“September 2, 1939” by M. Jean Prussing
Churchill becomes Prime Minister of Britain. Germany bombards England, British victory in Battle of Britain. Germany invades Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. France occupied and divided. Nazis seal Warsaw ghetto.
“9.19.1939” by Robinson Jeffers
“The Bloody Sire” by Robinson Jeffers
“To Napoleon, in an Evil Time” by Babette Deutsch
“Victory” by Arthur J. Kramer
“Foamy Sky” by Miklós Radnóti
“Guernica” by James Johnson Sweeney
“On a Photograph of a German Soldier Dead in Poland” by John Ciardi
“Address to the Refugees” by John Malcolm Brinnin
“End of a Year” by Julian Symons
“Now That the War is Here” by R.N. Currey
“For Wilfred Owen” by Josephine Jacobsen
“Midnight Air Raid” by J.F. Hendry
Germany invades Russia, begins siege on Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Allies take Tobruk in North Africa. Nazis order Jews to wear yellow stars for identification. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor (December 7). U.K. and U.S. declare war on Japan.
“Sierran Aftermath” by Ewart Milne
“Refugees” by Harry Roskolenko
“Soliloquy in an Air-Raid” by Roy Fuller
“The Invaded Field” by E.J. Pratt
[“When I see the falling bombs...”] by F.R. Scott
“Memorial for 1940” by John Gould Fletcher
“The Error of the Tyrant” by Jeremy Ingalls
“Ditty for Departing Troops” by Eve Merriam
“Prelude to War” by Carleton Ford Shaw
“Scyros” by Karl Shapiro
Singapore falls to the Japanese. U.S. victory at Battle of Midway. Mass murder at Auschwitz begins. U.S. forces relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans. Britain attacks German army in North Africa. U.S. defeats Japan at Guadalcanal.
“Sonnet (‘I saw men’s homes burst...’)” by John Buxton
“Interval of Peace” by Katherine Garrison Chapin
“A Dirge” by Thomas James Merton
“Going to the War” by Karl Shapiro
“For the Bombed Cities” by Margaret Stanley-Wrench
“Return to Sender: Died of Wounds” by Marion Strobel
“Soliloquy by a Parachute Jumper” by Mary E. Bulkley
“Apocalypse” by John Frederick Nims
“The Forgotten Soldier” by E.L. Mayo
“The Liberators” by H.R. Hays
“A Spring Memorandum” by Robert Duncan
Germany surrenders at Stalingrad. Allied forces take Tunisia, ending war in North Africa. Italy invaded by Allies. Italy surrenders. British and Indian forces fight Japanese in Burma.
“Small Soldiers with Drum in Large Landscape” by Robert Penn Warren
“Reflections on War as Art” by Helen Goldbaum
“War Poem” by Oscar Williams
“Military Camp” by Patrick Anderson
“Killed in Action” by Doris Bailey
“For My Pupils in the War Years” by John Malcolm Brinnin
“For Those Fighting” by Clarence Weinstock
“Poem for a Soldier's Girl” by John Ciardi
“Paris” by Karl Shapiro
“Ode to England” by Julia Garcia Games
“Soldier Boy” by Selwyn S. Schwartz
“Shot Down at Night” by John Frederick Nims
“Poem (“Lord, I have seen…”) by Karl Shapiro
“Strength to War” by Stephen Stepanchev
“This Day This World” by Stanley Kunitz
“War Poem for Britain” by David Daiches
“War Time” by Josephine Miles
“Absent with Official Leave” by Randall Jarrell
“Poem in Time of War” by William Abrahams
[“what if a much of a which of a wind”] by E.E. Cummings
“Reflection by a Mailbox” by Stanley Kunitz
Soviets liberate Leningrad, ending 900-day German siege. Allies bomb Monte Cassino Abbey in Italy. D Day: Allied forces storm Normandy beaches on June 6. Guam is liberated. Iwo Jima bombed. Gandhi released from prison. The Battle of the Bulge. Assassination attempt on Hitler fails.
“Galileo Goes to War” by Preston Newman
“Concert, in Wartime” by Eve Merriam
“Ten-Day Leave” by William Meredith
“For R. A. S. (1925-1943) ” by F.R. Scott
from “Epitaphs” by Abraham Sutzkever
“Old Men at Air Base” by Le Garde S. Doughty
“Poem near Pearl Harbor” by William Jay Smith
“Letter to My Wife” by Miklós Radnóti
“Field Hospital” by Robert Wistrand
“Reflections while Oiling a Machine Gun” by John Ciardi
“Days and Battles Go On” by David Cornel De Jong
“A Front” by Randall Jarrell
“Love Letter from an Impossible Land” by William Meredith
“An Epitaph for the American Dead” by Yvor Winters
“The Children's Elegy” by Muriel Rukeyser
“Moonlight Alert” by Yvor Winters
“Losses” by Randall Jarrell
“Navy Field” by William Meredith
“Troop Train” by Karl Shapiro
“Notes for an Elegy” by William Meredith
Auschwitz and Dachau are liberated. Hitler retreats to a bunker where he commits suicide. Germany surrenders. Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders.
“Leave of Absence” by James E. Schevill
“Aubade: Chant of the Innocents” by Alan Dugan
“Death of U-Boat” by John Morton Poole
“It's Me, Oh Lord, Standing with a Gun” by Hubert Creekmore
“Song for War” by W.R. Rodgers
“Casualty” by Edwin Rolfe
“Octaves in Wartime” by Ray Smith
“A Pilot from the Carrier” by Randall Jarrell
“Gunner” by Randall Jarrell
“Landscape with Bayonets” by Ephim G. Fogel
“Ritual for the Night” by Harold Heifetz
“For Alun Lewis” by Brenda Chamberlain
“The Siege of Leningrad” by James E. Schevill
1946 and After
United Nations charter ratified. Nuremberg trials. U.S. closes Japanese internment camps. End of war declared. Postwar Europe's new boundaries drawn. The Marshall Plan aids European reconstruction. Truman signs Displaced Persons Act, allowing 200,000 refugees to settle in the U.S.
“The Conscientious Objector” by Karl Shapiro (1946)
“Homecoming” by Thomas McGrath (1946)
“Port of Aerial Embarkation” by John Ciardi (1947)
“Vale” from Carthage” by Peter Viereck (1947)
“The War in the Air” by Howard Nemerov (1947)
“Three Sonnets on the Necessity of Narrowly Escaping Death”
by Hayden Carruth (1948)
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell (1948)
“The Pilot in the Jungle” by Paul Ciardi (1949)
“Carentan O Carentan” by Louis Simpson (1949)
“Elegy, for Alun Lewis” by John Berryman (1950)
“Liberty” by Archibald MacLeish (1952)
“The Spool by Ben Belitt (1955)
“Eighth Air Force” by Randall Jarrell (1955)
“The Performance” by James Dickey (1959)
“Memories of West Street and Lepke” by Robert Lowell (1959)
“At the Bomb Testing Site” by William Stafford (1960)
“A Story About Chicken Soup” by Louis Simpson (1963)
“The Firebombing” by James Dickey (1964)
“The Stoic: For Laura Von Courten” by Edgar Bowers (1964)
“All the Dead Soldiers” by Thomas McGrath (1967)
“More Light! More Light!” by Anthony Hecht (1967)
“The Lost Pilot” by James Tate (1967)
from “Of Being Numerous” by George Oppen (1968)
“The Extermination of the Jews” by Marvin Bell (1968)
[During the Second World War…] by Charles Reznikoff (1969)
“Getting Lost in Nazi Germany” by Marvin Bell (1971)
“From Our Album” by Lawson Fusao Inada (1971)
“The Invocation to Kali” by May Sarton (1971)
“Stentor and Mourning” by Alan Dugan (1972)
“Rain in Leningrad” by William Heinesen (1976)
“Fable for a War” by Thomas James Merton (1977)
“Dr. Joseph Goebbels (22 April 1945)” by W.D. Snodgrass (1977)
“Magda Goebbels (30 April 1945)” by W.D. Snodgrass (1977)
“At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”
by William Stafford (1977)
“Hiroshima” by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1980)
“To Ariel Bloch, My Arabist Friend” by Stanley Moss (1987)
“Znamenskaya Square, Leningrad, 1941” by Sharon Olds (1989)
“Everything” by Lawson Fusao Inada (1993)
“My Father and Myself Facing the Sun” by Lawson Fusao Inada (1993)
“The Hiroshima Horse” by Jack Barrack (1994)
“World War II Watchtowers” by Elise Partridge (2005)
“During the War” by Philip Levine (2006)
“The Jews that We Are” by Richard Michelson (2006)
“Counting to Six Million” by Richard Michelson (2006)
Browse more War Poems
Oregon Poet Laureate Inada Reflects on Internment: Along with more than 100,000 other Japanese-Americans, Lawson Fusao Inada was sent to internment camps for the duration of World War II.
What we learned from the liberation of Nazi camps, 70 years later: Jeffrey Brown speaks with Mark Ludwig, editor of Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets, and Rita Dove, who contributed to the book.
Much Casual Death: Christopher Ricks discusses Anthony Hecht’s harrowing and unforgettable poem “More Light! More Light!” on Poetry Off the Shelf.
Without House and Ground: A PoemTalk Discussion of Two Poems by Charles Reznikoff.
The Doubter and the Saint: At a fateful moment, Czeslaw Miłosz crossed paths with a controversial Polish priest, later martyred in World War II.
“100 Years of Poetry: The Magazine and War”: A historical look at the role of poetry in wartime.
Of Strangeness That Wakes Us: On mother tongues, fatherlands, and Paul Celan.
“Are We All Monsters?”: Philip Schultz’s The Wherewithal grapples with the Holocaust, poverty, Vietnam, and then some.
Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors: A panel of poets discuss “Poems of Peace and War.”
Scraps of History: Anna Rabinowitz’s book-length poem Darkling reimagined as an opera.
ONLINE WWII RESOURCES