Letter to the Editor
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions.
from DON JUAN
Operation Homecoming reminds me that we had our soldierpoets in Vietnam also; and for the most part, they penned what I call "the boondock doggerel of blood and guts" which was printed by the Stars and Stripes. Of course, this was aimed at boosting the morale of the troops. War means to kill or be killed. The more immediate soldiers are to their acts of violence, the less creditable they are as witnesses. (Hell, we have veterans who are now dying, and they are still defending Lt. Calley's actions at My Lai, caught in the freemasonry of violence). It seems that Homer knew this, and that is why The Iliad is a tragedy, as most full-hearted renderings of war are. He shows the blood and guts of war and revenge. After Achilles makes his speech to the soldiers of Achaea, Homer gives us a passage that says almost everything about war, about what occurs after Hector's death:
The next thing that Achilles did was to subject
the fallen prince to shameful outrage. He slit
the tendons at the back of both his feet from heel
to ankle, inserted leather straps, and made them
fast to his chariot, leaving the head to drag.
The above passage isn't a visual prototype of a chase scene in Hollywood. Indeed, such a graphic description of rage and revenge is the bounty of war, and only an experienced voice can capture its horror and terror through retrospection. We need our young men and women, soldiers and civilians, to read good literature, to come across a voice like Yehuda Amichai's in "What Did I Learn in the War":
To march in a row and be alone in the middle,
To dig into pillows, featherbeds, the body of a beloved woman,
And to yell "Mama," when she cannot hear,
And to yell "God," when I don't believe in Him,
And even if I did believe in Him
I wouldn't have told Him about the war
As you don't tell a child about grown-ups' horrors.
Writing poetry has hardly anything to do with therapy. If the need is there, the would-be poet will find the craft, a way to shape his or her version through honest language. One doesn't want to grow bull-headed and recalcitrant about Operation Homecoming, but we writers (artists) cannot forget that we are responsible for what we conjure and embrace through language, whether in essays, novels, plays, poems, or songs. I doubt if many people remember Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Beret." The first verse says:
Fighting soldiers from the sky,
Fearless men who jump and die.
Men who mean just what they say,
The brave men of the Green Beret.
This song was a commercial success, selling more than seven million copies. It wasn't just RCA that put energy and money behind Sadler's inane words: there were articles in Life, Newsweek, Time, and Variety; he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and the "Hollywood Palace" hosted by Martha Raye. And all this hype supported a song that ends with the following words to a future generation:
Put silver wings on my son's chest,
Make him one of America's best.
He'll be a man they'll test one day.
Have him win the Green Beret.
The song doesn't say anything about winning an early death. Sadler's lyric sounds so similar to the "boondock poems" published by soldiers in Vietnam. And it isn't surprising that the song was embraced by the US Army before its commercial success, as propaganda for war. Poetry cannot serve as an emotional bandage for the blood and guts of warfare; such an industry is doomed to dishonor the dead as well as the living.
At this time, art and music are usually the first programs axed in our elementary and high schools across America. Don't mention poetry! What happened to the Poetry-in-the- Schools Program? Did it disappear in the eighties under President Ronald Reagan, only to be reinvented at the beginning of the twenty-first century as a Poetry-in-the-Military Program? Do we now need to give soldiers ammo to fight the ghosts of those peaceniks from the seventies such as Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov?
If anything, the NEA should be leading the vanguard to put poetry back into our schools and the mouths of our citizens who may embrace life over death and destruction.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The son of a carpenter, Komunyakaa has said that he was first alerted to the power of language through his grandparents, who were church people: “the sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech,” Komunyakaa has stated. “It was my...