AMERICAN POETRY DURING THE VIETNAM WAR takes as its subject-matter the humanity of the poet, and this coincides with outrage against the prevailing social and political order. In fact, a rejection of society's definition of what it means to be human and poets' explorations of that meaning—in poets like Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and many others—fueled each other. I cannot say yet which came first. Let us define this epoch as beginning with the dispatching of 3,000 military advisors to South Vietnam in 1961 by U.S. President Kennedy up to the last large withdrawal in 1973 by President Nixon. Poetry during Vietnam features American poets exploring their personal lives, emotions, and morals in terms in conflict with mainstream rules and norms. Whether outside those norms or in full-blown protest of them, most of era's prominent poets saw America as deeply unbalanced from any sense of health, justice, or ideals.
To cite just three examples, Robert Bly's 1967 book The Light Around the Body disparaged American's business culture compared to the humanist tradition, blamed the war on their greed, and won the National Book Award. Sylvia Plath in her 1967 book Ariel searched for individuality beyond gender roles in her famous poems "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," and embodied a mythical vision of her life beyond accepted social norms and roles throughout. Robert Lowell's famous poem "For the Union Dead" challenged the unjust treatment of African-Americans. Lowell notes at the end of the poem how those seeking equality face a sluggish conformity. He closes the poem with the lines: "Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease."
American poets of the 1960s seemed to be united in a perception that the world cannot be easily explained.
Vietnam era poets have something to tell us today. This partially is true because U.S. literary journals at the dawn of the 21st century rarely publish verse of any relevance to our era's social and political upheavals. Reading a typical journal, one might think the stolen 2000 presidential election never occurred, (a theft which challenges the very essence of democracy and America); that Iraq war did not begin on March 19, 2003; that Hurricane Katrina did not flood New Orleans while the federal government was slow to respond; and that global warming is not being discussed. Unfortunately, recent American poetry mirrors the bulk of most American lifestyles. Most Americans live beyond the reach of the Iraq war. A volunteer U.S. army fights overseas, unlike the draft of the Vietnam war era.
Only in 2008 with the doubling of gas prices has the entire country become impacted by one of this decade's dilemmas. If high energy prices last, maybe a reinvigorated environmental consciousness—a championing of sustainability—will appear in contemporary verse. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato said all knowledge is remembering what has been forgotten.
American poets of the 1960s seemed to be united in a perception that the world cannot be easily explained. Louis Simpson in his 1963 Pulitzer-Prize winning book At the End of the Open Road calls for American poetry to recognize this modern heterogeneity. His poem "American Poetry" goes:
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
Some might call this poem surrealism. Rather, It recognizes a surrealist quality to life in the nuclear age. In the third line, people must navigate items of industry and commerce, scientific discovery, the natural world, and their own emotions sometimes put into songs and "poems." He captures all this in the list: "[r]ubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems." In the poem "American Dreams" from a later 1971 book, Simpson notes how his own ability to dream "slender" and lovely things becomes monstrous when look on society's scale. Simpson writes:
In dreams my life came toward me
My loves that were slender as gazelles.
But American also has dreams. . . .
Dream, you are flying over Russia,
dream, you are falling in Asia.
As I look down the street
on a typical sunny day in California
it is my house that is burning
and my dear ones that lie in the gutter
as the American army enters.
Everyday I wake far away
from my life, in a foreign country.
Those people are speaking a strange language.
it is strange to me
and strange, I think, even to themselves.
America dreams are "flying over Russia," possibly with surveillance planes, in fear of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They are "falling in Asia," as bombs as well as ideals fall to the ground in the Vietnam War. Or maybe Simpson also is sending his human dreams there, sending them like blessings to Russia and Asia, across so-called 'enemy lines'.
Among voices calling for change, W.S. Merwin was exploring his emotional world and while innovating free verse and stripping his verse of punctuation in order to better express himself.
Nikki Giovanni's first book Black Feeling Black Talk
(1967) articulated political goals and means for achieving "Black Power," to quote a title of one of her poems. Privately published, the book offers a personal journey through politics rather than just political poetry. This distinction may have eluded most critics at the time, points out Virginia Tech professor Virginia Fowler. As an African American woman, Giovanni had to be political if she wanted to see herself (and those like her) as first-class citizens. In one poem, she indicts the U.S. war effort for using African-Americans rather than defending them. She writes:
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed Europe . . .
We kill in Viet Nam
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
Among voices calling for change, W.S. Merwin was exploring his emotional world and while innovating free verse and stripping his verse of punctuation in order to better express himself. His books The Moving Target (1963) and The Lice (1967) embrace a free verse line, without any punctuation, to intriguing effect. The Lice (1967) explores a painful and intense inner world mostly, and touches upon the equally-troubled outer one. Merwin writes about human arrogance in "For a Coming Extinction":
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
That it is we who are important.
Humanity's penchant for violence exists because we "forgive nothing." As Merwin points out, people act without forgiveness despite the age-old religions and moralities that have "invented forgiveness." He sees humanity's arrogance as blinding. It is so blinding, the voice in the poem does not even feel empathy for the gray whale's destruction. As gray whales go extinct, that voice says, "it is we who are important."
Merwin's The Lice book does not offer the optimism inherent in most protests. He writes in an ironic 'everyman' voice in the poem "When the War is Over", quoted entirely:
When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will enlist again.
Published the same year, Robert Bly's The Light Around the Body offers substantial explanations for what he perceived as America's systematic commercial and military violence. Bly's poetry taps into American history and perceptions of society's emotional life to achieve insights. Bly opens in "The Executive's Death" with the line: "The merchants have multiplied more than the stars of heaven." Using the image of stars, Bly forges an image of business as having ascended over the natural world. He also implies these "merchants" are isolated and trapped in a way, like stars. The poem ends by implying a fear of death lies behind most human action. People seek out differences such as wealth as a way to blind themselves to universal mortality.
There is no consensus in America about helping the poor, Bly implies, and this becomes apparent with President Ronald Reagan's 1980 election partially on the philosophy of self-help and rejection of Great Society.
In the book's second poem "The Busy Man Speaks," a busy American business-person rejects compassion. Today that same busy person might be working 10 hour days to make ends meet, and dismiss thinking about U.S. oil policy because they cannot handle the overwhelming big picture. They have to go to work, fix dinner, pay the mortgage, etc. Likewise Bly's "Busy Man" resolves in his anger to "give myself to the father of righteousness." From this "righteousness," comes the endorsement of violence and war.
Robert Bly's poem "The Great Society" uses as its title the name of President Lyndon Johnson's vision of defeating poverty. However Bly uses it to write about what society really embraces: a universal desire "to water their lawns even in the rain," according to Bly. There is no consensus in America about helping the poor, Bly implies, and this becomes apparent with President Ronald Reagan's 1980 election partially on the philosophy of self-help and rejection of The Great Society. Bly's insight of the underlining tensions in the 1960s predicts the 1980s rise—of what became called—the "Me Decade."
Throughout The Light Around the Body people lash out through violence because they cannot reconcile their dreams with their waking lives. A book-length discussion could be devoted to this book. In one last comment, the poem "At a March against the Vietnam War" implies that people have within a widespread and deep hunger for violence. The poem ends:
We long to abase ourselves
We have carried around this cup of darkness
We have longed to pour it over our heads
We make war
Like a man anointing himself.
Two prominent poets who served in the Vietnam war are writing still in 2008—Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakka. Weigl served as an infantryman and Komunyakka as a war correspondent. Reading them, one finds the persistence of human emotions and relationships even in the most horrific settings. Both poets document war's ugliness—and the ability of people to create relationships and normalities regardless. Both use documentary techniques to offer a tonic to the jingoistic air-brushing of war as "clean" or "smart"—to use 21st century words—or "honorable" and "sweet," to use words rejected by World War I poet Wilfred Owen.
In that poem, called "Short-timer's Calendar," a friend tells him to beware of soldiers who are "short-timers." These short-timers tend to trip booby-traps and blow up everyone.
Weigl's writing, especially in The Monkey Wars
(1985), shows war as chaos. He "was barely in country" when on his way into the jungle, the commanding officer stops the vehicle to beat an old lady, a "mama san," with his "M-16" for what Weigl depicts as silent, unexplained "other reasons." Weigl hints he soon will understand. In Song of Napalm
(1988), Weigl notes in the introduction that "Wars are meant to be forgotten." The poem "The Way of Tet" describes events Weigl has survived, but remembering those events back in the United States, he notes that beyond surviving and remembering, "living is a darker thing."
In "Song for the Lost Private," Weigl shows a soldier sleeping with a prostitute who is badly scarred. At night, the soldier traces her scars. It is a tender reaching-out, and the soldier sees himself in her marred lines:
I couldn't sleep so I touched her
Small shoulders, traced the curve of her spine,
Traced the scars, the miles
We were all from home.
Komunyakka's jazz-influenced writing and creative imagery in Dien Cai Dau focuses more than Weigl on soldiers' internal chaos and emotions. A "world revolved / under each man's eyelid," Komunyakka notes in the book's opening poem. Soldiers offer cruelty and kindness—right and wrong entangles them. Of himself, the poet remembers back to "who I was / before I knew I could snap." In that poem, called "Short-timer's Calendar," a friend tells him to beware of soldiers who are "short-timers." These short-timers tend to trip booby-traps and blow up everyone. In the poem "The Edge," a lag in fighting allows people to live again, a living damaged by the fighting:
When guns fall silent for an hour
Or two, you can hear the cries
Of women making love to soldiers.
They have an unmerciful memory
& know how to wear bright dresses
to draw a crowd, conversing
with a platoon of shadows
numbed by morphine. Their real feelings
make them break like April
into red blossoms.
Dien Cai Dau, did not come out until 1988—years after the war was over. Weigl did not publish his first book until 1976. Maybe most writers who experience war require distance to present the rawest experiences. Today we may have to wait to find out what similar soldiers have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. Iraq war veteran Brian Turner has published an excellent book, Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005).
The feminism of the Vietnam era made famous the phrase "the personal is political."
American poet Adrienne Rich may be America's most profound philosophical poet during the second half of the 20th century. Her career spans from 1950 to her most recent two books Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth
(2007) and the school among the ruins
(2004). These books tackle contemporary American culture through personal experience, ideas, and history, all within poems written as an open-process, unfolding across the page. In the 1960s, Rich wrote more personally. She wrote with clearer targets of protest. Looking at Rich's poetry from 1967 through 1973, one sees that she writes from the perspective of a committed political activist. At the same time these books—Leaflets, The Will to Change
, and Diving Into the Wreck
—also offer experimental and personal ways of writing. Her personal explorations journeyed beyond social norms, and so like others of the time, the personal became political. In the final analysis Rich's poetry is less about objection, and more about change.
In the 1972 poem "From a Survivor," Rich seems to perceive that the trajectory of her 1960s generation will not lead to utopia. If it does, there will be unexpected consequences. She writes:
Lucky or unlucky, we didn't know
The race had failures of that order
and that we were going to share them
Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special ...
In "Burning Oneself In" (1972), the armchair speculation of an intellectual is not enough. She writes:
in bookstores, in the parks
however we may scream we are
The feminism of the Vietnam era made famous the phrase "the personal is political." We can see this in Rich's work because she often locates the greatest change within. This internal work—I assume she hopes—can affect the world. In the 1972 poem "August" she stands in a summer field "[w]ith two horses in yellow light." She writes:
"If I am flesh sunning on rock
If I am brain burning in fluorescent light
if I am dream like a wire with fire
throbbing along it
if I am death to man
I have to know it
His mind is too simple, I cannot go on
sharing his nightmares
My own are becoming clearer, they open
which looks like a village lit with blood
where all the fathers are crying: My son is mine!"
With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan began a new conservative era (1980-2008), points out Republican political strategist and pollster Frank Lutz; meanwhile a governmental and social championing of individualism continues strong today.
If one looks back on the Vietnam era, one finds social changes sweeping across society reflected in the era's poetry. American poetry of the 1960s experienced the rise of a free-verse line attune to personal style. The subject-matter explored universal human traits and also individuality. Yet this personal focus also came hand-in-hand with social and political protest. This personalism
possessed a yearning for exploration and to go beyond boundaries. Stripped of this exploration, it remains the most lasting legacy of the era's poets. The political changes they championed or stumbled into embracing have suffered since 1980. With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan began a new conservative era (1980-2008), points out Republican political strategist and pollster Frank Lutz; meanwhile a governmental and social championing of individualism continues strong today.
This social trend is reflected in contemporary verse. American poetry today mostly explores personal biographies or engages in experimental play that can be liken to individually-important games. Still, recent books tackling the Iraq War and American culture include Robert Pinksy's Gulf Music (2007), Adrienne Rich's Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth (2007), Major Jackson's Hoops (W.W. Norton, 2006), Tony Hoagland's Hard Rain (2005), and Iraq Veteran Brian Turner's book, Here, Bullet (2005).
I edit a magazine Poems Against War that features contemporary political writers. The journal is online at www.poemsagainstwar.com, and the seventh volume, called Poems Against War: Ars Poetica, features two Vietnam veterans whose insights illuminate current events. James Smith served in Vietnam in 1969 with the 25th Infantry Division. He writes in "Washing the Wall," quoted in full:
Night passed without incident
as white-haired men moved in
wearing remnants of old uniforms,
bearing buckets, sponges, brushes.
The names were honored by bugles,
the names chiseled in granite,
sharp as a military salute,
sharp as jagged shrapnel.
The men scrubbed and scraped.
The men rubbed and cursed,
applied a ton of elbow grease,
strained their poor old backs.
Soap and water flew everywhere,
removed the caked red mud,
removed the traces of blood,
until the cleaning was done.
Dawn streamed over the ages.
Marble gleamed in the light,
reflected their worn-out faces,
dejected, disappointed, sad.
Despite all their efforts,
despite all their foolish notions,
not one single name
not one single name was erased.