ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



We will read poems of the Vietnam War without much help from interpretive sources, most of which, in my opinion, do little more than point out the obvious. At this writing, I am still choosing secondary readings for these three weeks. Among those I am considering: a summary of the ingredients of severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a bit of Joseph Campbell on the hero archetype, some reportage from the height of the war...

Whatever I do or don’t choose, however, you will reach this point in the semester equipped with more interpretive tools and models than you will have time to use in a mere three weeks. For example, below are some questions raised by the reading you have already done. Keep them in mind – some of them at least – as you read poems of the Vietnam era. Some will apply more to combatants' poems than to civilians'.

Before you come to class, formulate at least two specific critical questions or ideas about the poetry of the Vietnam war, using critical frameworks from earlier in the semester. By "specific" I mean that both the critical source(s) from which you've drawn and the target poet or poems you want to think about should be specified, and the question or idea you formulate should be relatively narrow.

  • Does the speaker present himself/herself as a participant or as an observer?
  • Is the poem "spoken" during or after the war? Is it spoken from within the experience of war, or from outside?
  • Are events in the poem current? far past? ongoing?
  • Is there a split between poet/speaker and poet/actor in the events narrated?
  • Who seems to be the poem’s intended or imagined audience?
  • Is its purpose to shock? To conjure shared experience? To confess? To explain? To blame?
  • If the poem is ironic, does the irony place the reader on the same side as the speaker, or does it divide audience from speaker?
  • As reader, do you identify with the speaker? with someone else in the poem?

  • Does the poem invite you to pay attention to its own enunciation (its form, sound, structure, the poem as poem)? or does it encourage you to pay attention to the enounced (often referred to as "content") and pretend the act of enunciation doesn't matter so much?
  • Is the poem interested in an individual psyche or a collective one? If both, how are they related? Can this question be answered in any way by answering the previous questions about enunciation? 
  • Does the poem use or allude to conventions of pastoral? Which and how?
  • Is the poem documentary? Lyrical? Confessional? Are there inconsistencies or shifts of voice that make it hard to answer that question?
  • All poems make an explicit or implicit statement about what a poem is. In this case, what is a poem?
  • Is this poem claiming a literary tradition? Repudiating one? Pretending there is no such thing?
  • Is language reliable?
  • Is poetic form linked to social or metaphysical order? disorder?
  • Is this antipoetry?

  • Is the poem primarily concerned with particular events, myth, character, or politics? How does it rank the importance of these?
  • Is the poem concerned with innocence? If so, is it individual or national innocence?
  • Is the war “in parentheses?”
  • Are things rotten at the bottom, rotten at the top, or both?
  • How are bodies (alive or dead, whole or mutilated) portrayed?
  • How are machines, weapons, & airplanes portrayed?
  • How does the poem represent the representation of war? (e.g. the news, letters, oral tales, press releases, etc.)
  • What is a comrade? Who are comrades?
  • What is a hero? Who are heroes?
  • Who is the enemy? How is the enemy portrayed? Is the enemy also a brother?
  • What, if anything, is eroticized?

  • What is memory?
  • Who is responsible?
  • What is Nature?
  • What is Civilization?
  • What is a civilian?
  • What is a woman?
  • What is a child?
  • What is the imagination?


If this were a Cultural Studies course, we could structure a week's discussion on how anthologies of war related poetry "tell the war" through arrangement, sequence, and selection. We will use three books, all retrospective. One was first published in 1985, the others in 1997 and 1998. The earliest book arranges its poets alphabetically. (Does this make it more "literary" than the others?) The others have sequences that create a narrative of the war and its aftermath. As you read these three books, think about their various arrangements of poems versus a scheme that might place the poems in their own historical time -- poems written in 1965, in 1968, in 1972, in 1990. Date of composition is difficult to discover, but date of publication can be noted in the credits for each anthology. Poems in the Ehrhart collection were written either during the war or within a decade of the fall of Saigon. The Mahony anthology was published almost 15 years later, in 1998, and draws on work from several decades. Most of the poems in the Bowen & Weigl anthology were published long after the war, many in the 1990s. Pay attention to these dates when constructing arguments about the poems.

We begin with "protest poems" because they began to be written and published before poetry by veterans.

Passed out in class: additional poems by Denise Levertov & Robert Bly, two of the most visible and prolific anti-war poets of the 1960s and 70s.

: poems by Robert Bly, Christopher Bursk, Marylin Butler, Joseph Cady, Hayden Carruth, Samuel Hazo, James Laughlin, Thomas McGrath, James Moore, Simon Ortiz, Vern Rutsala, William Stafford, Michael Stephens, Frank Stewart, Bill Tremblay. Poets in this book are arranged alphabetically. The list I've given you is selective, not exhaustive of protest poems in this anthology.

Mahony: civilian poems appear on pages 34, 100-113, 139-142, 149, 180, 184-188. Be sure to read poems by Glover Davis 34, Daniel Berrigan 100-101, Robert Bly 102, Denise Levertov 104, Sharon Olds 105, Hayden Carruth 109, Philip Levine 110, Ginsberg 65, Richard Hugo 113, W.S Merwin 139, Lewis Turco 140, Margaret Atwood 141, Paul Martin 142, Clarence Major 149, Herbert Woodward Martin 151, Richard Ryan 172, Grace Paley 180, L.L. Case 184, George Hitchcock 187. Acknowledgments (beginning on page 293) list poets & their poems alphabetically, but do not provide page numbers. Contributors' notes and Acknowledgments provide publication dates, though these are not always first publication.

Bookstore photocopies: H. Bruce Franklin: "The Antiwar Movement We Are Supposed to Forget."

More Resources:

The impressive Wellesley College page of Vietnam War Internet Links

Modern American Poetry site, entries on the Vietnam War. Please look at the Photo Essay and read "Poetry and Vietnam." If you don't know much of the war's history, please also read "The Military and Diplomatic Course of the War." "African Americans in the Vietnam War" and the Vietnam timeline may also be helpful. Many other resources may be found on line.

Discussion of Levertov's Vietnam War Poetry
This will take you to the Levertov page on the same site. Links here include James Mersmann on Levertov's war poetry, explication of two of her war poems, a speech she gave in 1970, and general information on the war. This site also has information on Bly, Komunyakaa, and several other poets who wrote about the war. She is heavily stressed on this site, though she need not be so in our discussion.p

Discussion of W.S. Merwin's "The Asians Dying"
This will take you to the Merwin page on the same site. Please read the discussion of this, his most famous and most direct poem on the war.

Music: "I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag" by Country Joe McDonald. Go to the Country Joe web site linked here, click on Musical Notes (or scroll down to it), then click on "I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag". Listen to the song in Real Audio, then listen to the Pete Seeger version. Lyrics are on the sheet music, in the index of song lyrics, and also (bizarrely) in the transcript of Country Joe McDonald's testimony at the trial of the Chicago 7, which you can click on just above, in the Who Am I list of links. Other Vietnam songs can be heard on  Joe's Jukebox, including "Kiss My Ass" (an anti-draft song) and "Superbird" (about LBJ). Just below Musical Notes is a list called Next Stop Vietnam. If you are interested in War Music, choose that link and read an interesting list of recordings and folk archive projects.

Music/On-site Recordings:

Joan Baez' "Where Are You Now, My Son?" a spoken poem collaged with voice and music recordings made during the Christmas 1972 bombings of Hanoi. This recording will be available in class. See the Optional Reading, below, for Baez's narrative of her weeks in Hanoi.

Subarno Chattarji on Robert Bly, from Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War.  Clarendon Press, 2001. pages 60-63. This rehearses the standard criticisms of Bly and of his mode of protest poetry. It rests (partially) on an unexamined assumption that all good poetry, especially 'protest' or 'political' poetry, must be ironic. As you read Bly and other "protest" poets of the era, think about how each poet theorizes the unconscious. Is it individual? collective? historical? linguistic? Is the unconscious a source of renewal or of threat?

Although Bly writes poems of political protest, he does want to believe that the American ideals of peace and liberty were articulated in good faith and can be achieved. While peace and freedom are universal ideals, the pursuit of happiness and the ideals of equality have a particular political and moral resonance in America. The betrayal of these founding ideals creates an acute sense of loss and anger. 'When shall I have peace?' is similar to Ginsberg's appeal: 'America when will you be angelic?' The intrusion of the singular 'I' indicates a greater sense of a personal burden than in Ginsberg and, unlike him, Bly has a deep sense despair. As poet and seer, delving into personal and political consciousness, he can only see decay. The democratic vistas are clogged by 'ancient worms', the lies, evasions, and repression historical memory that Bly sees at the heart of the American darkness. The personal, historical, and political visions coalesce in the image of 'ancient worms eating up the sky'." As James F. Mersmann observes: 'Not only has he [Bly] succeeded in giving us the psyche of the nation, but he has articulated what our individual psyches feel -  our oppression, hysteria, and deep sadness have found a tongue."' Mersmann's observation is largely true, but needs to be qualified. Bly, like Ginsberg, is acutely aware of  the power of language (and the way it was wielded in the course of the war), the problem of truth (the emphasis on lies and lying in the poems discussed is evident), and the importance of poetic dissent. Within the poetics, however, Bly, like his more controversial fellow poet, is immersed in the role of prophet and truthteller. This self designated role exposes a particular problem in the poetry: the inability to be truly ironic. This lack leads to the hysterical, stilted tone and quality of some of the poems and arises out of a desire to emphasize the cultural centrality of the poet. In the process, both poets overstate the problems in terms of simplistic binary oppositions. They forget that they are ‘marginal’ and that their influence lies paradoxically in that very marginality. Ideally, this position would allow them the freedom to question the 'centre' without being contained by it. In campaigning for a more visible, public poetics they lose the voice of authentic private protest. The absence of irony creates a poetry that is often self obsessive, flat, and stilted. The result of the prophetic mode, occasionally, is poetry which consists of banal diatribe and has limited poetic value. For instance, Bly's 'Asian Peace Offers Rejected Without Publication' resembles a government handout: 'Men like Rusk are not men: / They are bombs waiting to be loaded in a darkened hangar' (The Light, 3o). These lines betray Bly's formulation of political poetry mentioned earlier. They express a particular opinion (with which one may or may not agree), but they do not involve 'the sudden drive by the poet inward'. They are totally bound by immediate political context, and there is no objective correlative in the poem that would explain why 'Men like Rusk are not men'. Both Ginsberg and Bly recognize the contingency of final vocabularies deployed by the state to justify America's involvement in Vietnam. Both of them relate that discourse to America's history of colonization and repression. However, while criticizing that vocabulary they tend to substitute vocabularies for it which desire to be interpreted as the voice of dissent. They find it difficult to debunk authority without claiming it for themselves, and are trapped in a self proclaimed prophetic mode .61 When they take on the role of moral arbiter, they articulate anti war representations which are as absolute and fundamental in their assertions as government speak.

In some of his interviews Bly seems aware of the problem, particularly the need to re-energize the language, but this is not always translated into his poetry. Responding to a question about The Teeth Mother, he said:
In one passage of 'The Teeth Mother' I mentioned that the pilots bomb 'huts', afterwards described as 'structures.' So in that line you can see that the technocrats have withdrawn energy from the word 'structures' in order to tell lies about what they're doing.... Since so many words have had their energy corrupted, it's very difficult to write poetry, and I'm not surprised that people work for five to six months on a single short poem, I do myself. 1
In an article titled ‘Whitman’s Line As a Public Form’, Bly aligns himself with the declarative Whitmanesque syntax and indicates the limitations of such a form: ‘The Smart-Blake-Whitman line belongs in general to declaration rather than inquiry, to prophecy rather than meditation, to public speech rather than the exchange of feelings, and in this last quality we see its major flaw.' This critical, theoretical position, juxtaposed with the earlier formulation that the 'true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves and the rhetoric is as harmful in that sort of poem as the personal poem', is a largely consistent development. In passing, we may note that Bly does simplify Whitman's syntactical strategies, and that Ginsberg is more finely attuned to the resonances and cadences of Whitman's poetry and vision. The problem lies in the inadequacy of some of the political poetry which fails to transcend the purely rhetorical mode, and in its assumption of absolute stances.

1 Robert Bly interview with Kevin Powers, Talking All Morning 229-30.

Optional Reading (highly recommended):

Joan Baez: "Where Are You Now My Son?", a narrative of Baez' Hanoi visit and the December 1972 bombings, including a meeting with American POWs, JC Reserve Desk.