ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005




This week we'll concentrate on Veteran poets and on poems depicting or directly addressing the experience of combatants. I've provided a list of poems designed to supply some range in your reading. The list also enforces my own ideas on what make a good poem. I have included only a few of the countless poems by veterans in which scenes of war with obvious themes and messages are depicted in the relatively formless free verse narrative-lyric that was typical of the 1970s. I do recommend, however, that you read some of those poems -- partly because you may disagree with me about their value as literature and partly because they provide a snapshot of the contemporary poetic backdrop. In Phillip Mahony's anthology, poems are arranged thematically and work by American and Vietnamese civilians and veterans is intermingled. This makes it easy to browse. Though most are outside the scope of this course, we'll read a few Vietnamese poems next week.

Ehrhart: poems by John Balaban*, Jan Barry, R.L. Barth, D.C. Berry, D.F. Brown, Ron Carter, Horace Coleman, Frank Cross, Steve Denning, W.D. Ehrhart, Brian Alec Floyd, Steve Hassett, Christopher Howell, David Huddle, Yusef Komunyakaa, Herbert Krohn, Basil T. Paquet, Bruce Weigl.
*John Balaban was a Conscientious Objector who spent several years in alternative service in Vietnam and was wounded in the fighting at Can Tho University during the Tet Offensive. I include him with veteran poets because his experience parallels theirs more than that of other American civilians.

Mahony: RL Barth 27, Jan Barry 28, Bruce Weigl 31, Walter McDonald 33, 41, 190, David Huddle 41, 95, 136, Dale Ritterbusch 58, 68, 79, 95, Danis Knight 64, Yusef Komunyakaa 66, 77, 143, 150, David Connolly 60, Gerald McCarthy 70, 189, Kevin Bowen 82, David Vancil 83, Doug Anderson 84, 160, 163, 219, Lamont Steptoe 86, Bill Jones 144, Herbert Kohn 152, Horace Coleman/Shaka Aku Shango 158, Bryan Alec Floyd 167, Linda Williamson 183, L.L. Case 184, Balaban 227.

Bowen & Weigl: Leroy Quintana 40-41, Fred Marchant 72, Bruce Weigl 93.

Bookstore photocopies: Stephen Hidalgo: Agendas for Vietnam War Poetry: Reading the War as Art, History, Therapy, and Politics

A Few Notes on the Critical Discussion of Vietnam War Poetry:

Readers of Vietnam veteran poetry often place emphasis on poetry as therapeutic or cathartic. In "Bearing War in Mind," a 1978 review of an anthology of veteran poetry (
Parnassus: Poetry in Review 6:2 (Sp 78) 30-37), John Felsteiner linked the "spent rhythms and cynical tone of the verse" to combat experience, bitterness, and a lack of post-war emotion. (31) He went on to suggest that "at least verse affords a measured, sequential release of impacted scenes and sensations." (32) He notes that the poems "make no attempt at expressing the central things, fear and loss and death, which were omni-present in Vietnam and did not need looking into or talking about," (34) and wonders why the poems are not more angry.

In her Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (Cambridge UP, 1996), Kali Tal makes a cultural-political inquiry into the literary representation of three traumatic experiences that have become symbolically and politically charged in our culture: the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and sexual abuse of women and children. She examines three strategies of personal and cultural assimilation of traumatic experience: mythologization, medicalization, and disappearance, and includes a chapter on the veteran poet W.D. Ehrhart. She tells us that survival literature "tends to appear at least a decade after the traumatic experience in question" (125). She argues that trauma removes meaning from the world, and that lost meaning is gradually replaced by new stories created about the past until a new personal mythology of meaning is constructed. (125) One of her theses is that "[b]earing witness is an aggressive act," (7) part of a larger struggle over the meaning of a traumatic event. Bearing witness is also a move toward embracing conflict rather than conformity.

Vince Gotera, in his Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans (U Georgia, 1994) examines the conflict between lyric and documentary modes in veterans' poetry. He assesses veteran poets according to how they negotiate that conflict, classifying them as Antipoetic, Aesthetic, or Cathartic -- the latter using techniques from the first two toward a confessional end. His book ends with chapters on Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa as poets who transcend his categories by encompassing the psychology and the aesthetics of all three. ...Which might be a way of saying that he considers Weigl and Komunyakaa to be the most complete and successful poets of the bunch.

Michael Bibby, in Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Rutgers UP, 1996), takes an approach more in accord with Kali Tal's emphasis on bearing witness. Informed by recent cultural and literary theory, this book examines the images, tropes, and symbols of the human body in activist poetry, including poetry coming from Black Liberation, Women's Liberation, and GI Resistance movements. Bibby brings our attention to the display of mutilated bodies as a tactic of anti-war veterans, who displayed not only their own damaged bodies but photos and documentation of mutilated Vietnamese. This display, he argues, subverted the authority of the military and of the "body politic" to control civilian access to dead and injured bodies. (156) (We can witness a replay of this struggle in recent controversies over attempts by the US government to restrict media access to the coffins and homecomings of military corpses returning from Iraq.)

Portrayal of U.S. soldiers as killers and as killed both played prominent parts in antiwar work. Both are are in conflict with portrayals of U.S. soldiers as heroes, and their use together kept the realities of war in the forefront of public discussion. It is significant that pro-war forces continually sought to keep the two images separate in public perception. In the years since the war, media portrayals also have tended to separate the two images, investing heavily in the MIA/POW myth, on the one hand, and in the prototype of the veteran as loser, on the other. Kali Tal has argued that constructing Vietnam veterans as victims depends on keeping their victims invisible, and this has tended to be true in media and popular literature representations, including film. The prototype veteran as dangerous maniac does keep alive, however covertly, the veteran as killer, but his victims have been (and, I would argue, must be) transformed into Americans. Their transformations into Americans is essential to keeping the actual victims of American violence in the war invisible. This dehistoricizes portrayals of the war, keeps debates about the war's meanings centered almost entirely in American issues, and allows hegemonic voices to retain control over the public debate.

Struggles over control of  images of the dead parallels the more general struggle over who is authorized to represent war experience -- a struggle carried out in literary anthologies as well as newspapers. The first book of poems by a veteran appeared in 1967, and by 1972 a small explosion of anthologies and individual volumes had appeared. In that year, Michael Casey's Obscenities won the Yale Younger Poets Series and John Balaban's After Our War won the Lamont Prize.  Contrasts between veteran and stateside poems have been drawn from the earliest years. Writing in 1978, Felsteiner contrasted work by veterans with that of stateside anti-war poets, who, he argued, had exactly what the vets did not yet have: distance, a time-lag in which shame or anger could develop, maneuvering space "between jargon and sane speech." (30) 

In the meantime, Subarno Chatterji, in what is perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of Vietnam War poetry,
Memories of a Lost War: American Poetic Responses to the Vietnam War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), has found ways to disempower both groups of poets. While faulting protesters like Bly and Ginsberg for "hysteria" and for focusing too much on elusive "first causes" of violence in American history, Chatterji criticizes veterans for attacking particular policy decisions and particular policy-makers, as if policy mistakes were aberrations unrelated to the violence of American history. Poets who describe the Vietnamese countryside are seen as pastoralizing and infantilizing the Vietnamese, while those who do not describe the Vietnamese are faulted for attending only to American realities. Chatterji takes as an unexamined assumption that all poets of the war should attempt essentially similar modes of irony and detachment. He finds a proper balance of such qualities in W.D. Ehrhart, but reserves his most unrestricted praise for a couple of Vietnam-era poems by Howard Nemerov and other World War II poets.

Setting aside judgments on the quality of individual poems, Chatterji's arguments strike me as essentially ahistorical.
While veteran poets of both generations may have shared the insight that when writing of combat and atrocity hyperbole can seem like understatement, their tactical responses differed, and these differences are not matters of aesthetics alone, but of the historical imbeddedness of aesthetics. The political disillusionment and intellectual mode of irony that characterized American veteran poets of the World War II generation were conditioned by their experience of 1930s politics and by their relatively older age: most of the best-known poets of that group were already practicing writers or academics before their military service. The poetic of late Modernist detachment permeated more than just war verse, and was, like all poetic practices the product of a time and place. By contrast, the Vietnam generation of veteran poets were younger, less educated, and more politically naive at the outset. They had no intellectual apparati by which to convert anger, bitterness, and frustration to formal distancing, nor did the dominant poetic of the 1970s encourage them to do so. Irony in their poems is more likely to be magnified into the Absurd, and the Absurd grafted seamlessly to the Real.

Chatterji's privileging of Nemerov and his generation is ahistorical in another way, for, as David Harris put it, the struggle over the war came down to this: the young versus everybody else. Harris was a prominent draft resistor, and as such he resisted the war at the level of access to the human body. More particularly, he resisted at the level of the young male human body, control of which is one of the fundamental political struggles in time of war. In recognizing the centrality of the soldier's body he was in perfect agreement with the veteran poets. Neither had access to Nemerov's position of detached observer. To propose Nemerov as a model of the successful Vietnam-era poet is to disempower an entire generation of poets, both combatant and civilian, and promote detachment (in experience and in style) as a transcendent poetic value.

As we move ever farther from the war years, however, the question of "detachment" may be transformed into a different textual issue, that of experience versus (or experience and) retrospective meditation. Evelyn Cobley's Representing War: Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives (U Toronto Press, 1993) is a deconstructive reading of the ideological implications of narrative form in WWI, but his essential arguments apply to more recent war writing as well. In most war literature, he argues, the notion of the "experiencing self" of the poet or speaker is privileged over the retrospective, narrating self. (87) For a reader, this tends to conceal what discourse theorists call the enunciation, that is, the actual writing and construction of the poem or narrative in the more recent historical time of its writing. Paul Fussell's analysis of World War I memoirs as constructed objects is one attempt to resist such reading. Our reading methods over the semester, with attention to poetic form and structure, are another. Neither is wholly successful, however. Many poems invite a reader to confuse the poem's words with "authentic utterance," to identify the enunciated speaker with the enunciating self of the poet, but these issues are especially acute in literature of trauma. Is confessional poetry "true?" Is war poetry "authentic?" Was this poet in combat or not? We ask these questions and the answers exert enormous influence over how we read the poems. When a poem is written out of "experience" that is less readily identifiable in biographical terms (as is generally the case with noncombatant "protest" poetry) we must find validation of the poem's authority within rather than outwith the text. Chatterji's proposal of Nemerov as a model of the successful Vietnam-era poet does at least resist the temptation to confuse authentic experience with authentic poetry.

In a 1983 essay, "Waiting for the Fire" (Poetry East 9 &10 (1983) 112-117), poet and editor W.D. Ehrhart has narrated his own discovery of the authenticity of non-veteran war poetry. "For a long time, in fact -- longer than I care to admit -- I really believed that you couldn't write about Vietnam unless you had been there. It was the credo of a sore loser, both as veteran and as poet, but I clung to it tenaciously." (112-113). The problem of excessively privileging individual experience, whether combat or otherwise, is ironically illustrated in the opening to this essay, which reads:
Just about the time Walter Lowenfels was gathering his anthology of anti-war protest poems, Where Is Vietnam?, I was going through Marine Corps boot camp. I didn't have to ask where Vietnam was; I knew fairly well that it was just down the road: a mile marker on the communist highway to San Diego. (112)
You might say that what the young Ehrhart didn't know about the Vietnam war could, and did, fill a book: Lowenfels'.

--Susan Tichy 27 October 2003