Deeply Dug In With A Long Preamble About Its Place In The History Of War Poetry
happened to war poetry? Poetry itself in our part of the world began
with it, and Homer's Iliad may still be the greatest as well
as the first of our poems. But in recent times the genre seems to have
slipped into evil days. War, after all, has become so utterly horrible,
hasn't it? It is horrible in Homer too, where "evil" is a frequent
epithet for it. But it had another epithet as well. War for Homer was
"man-ennobling." As Yeats has reminded us, propaganda is the attempt
to convince others, sentimentality, to convince ourselves; sensing
and resolving a struggle in ourselves, he said, is what stirs us to
poetry. Here's war, says Homer, and in his descriptions we feel the
complexity of its meaning.
The meaning of war changes from time to time, and when it has done
so, there has been great poetry about it. The First World War was such
a time. It began as Romantic War, a legacy of the French Revolution:
patriotism, sweet to die for your country, all that rubbish. In the
trenches it became machine war, utter degradation and meaningless horror.
There was wretched poetry with one attitude or the other and great poetry
that acknowledged and tried to resolve the conflicting feelings that
the change produced. I once gathered three little poems on a page to
illustrate this to students. First there was a famous bit of nonsense
by Rupert Brooke:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
After a remarkably uninspired list of things English, the poem ends
with the final absurdity of "hearts at peace, under an English heaven."
Brooke was a real poet; he sensed that he was lying, and the poet in
him couldn't resist sabotaging his own project.
When this Romantic attitude collapses and swings to its opposite,
we get poems like Siegfried Sassoon's "Does It Matter?" "Does it matter?
—losing your legs?" it begins, and for the second stanza goes on to
"Does it matter? —losing your sight?" The third and final stanza
brings the heavy sarcasm to a crescendo, undermined once again, this
time by the rollicking rhythm:
Do they matter? —those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you fought for your country,
An no one will worry a bit.
The struggle between these simplistic attitudes made possible the
wonderful poetry of Wilfred Owen:
Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France.
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clay of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, —still warm, —too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—Oh, what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
That first line —what an inspired way to tell us —make us feel
— that the man is dead, and to suggest the speaker's unwillingness
to accept the fact! Clearly Owen sides with Sassoon in the attempt to
define war's meaning. (Indeed, they were friends, admired —or
professed to admire —each other's work.) But in tone, diction,
and attitude, this poem, as others from this poet, gains immeasurably
by making us aware that it is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition
and, by implication, the Romantic view of war. In the Romantic manner,
the personal incident in a trench becomes the occasion for an impassioned
statement about life on earth. The man described is from the rural countryside.
He would never have used educated poetic phrases like "whispering of
fields unsown" to describe the sun that woke him each morning. This
ghostly presence of the older, gentler time in the mind of the poet
is what gives this poem much of its poignancy.
In comparison, the poetry of the Second World War is undistinguished. War
has become an obscene joke. Once the joke has been told, there is nothing
more to say. Of the large volume of Randall Jarrell's war poetry, for
example, all that seems to have remained is the magnificent epigram,
The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The young man has not only been killed; he has never lived. From his
mother's womb he fell, not into life, but into "the State," represented
by the bomber's turret, where he "hunched," a fetus still, until he
became a mess that had to be cleaned up.
Can war get any worse than this? Indeed it can. It seems to be changing
its meaning once more. The Second World War was horrible enough and
much of the dying pointless and silly as well, but no one doubted that
it had to be fought. The aggressions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan
had to be resisted. Even the Germans and the Japanese now believe that.
(In deference, apparently, to the wholesomeness of the War, there was
a journalistic rule that only whole dead bodies could be displayed
in photographs of it. Body parts were forbidden.)
The Korean interlude seemed to be another event in the same tradition
—though for some, problems had begun to emerge. I was flying airplanes
in the Air Force at the time, and it made me uncomfortable, in the outrage
following the Chinese intervention, to compare the 7000 miles that
we brave "defenders of freedom" were from our own border to the 50
miles that "the Chinese Communist aggressors" were from theirs.
Be that as it may, Vietnam soon followed, and as just about all of
us who were old enough to know have experienced, the evil- aggressor
myth exploded. Never mind about the details. Our wars have changed their
character yet again, and the poets are still trying to deal with the
fact. One of the bravest of the early attempts was by Michael Casey,
the author of the only poem I remember solely by hearing the poet read
it in public. It was in the early '70's. The poem describes how a column
of American tanks is going through a rice paddy. The farmer, angry about
the damage being done to his crop, beats furiously on the lead tank
with a stick. In reply, the tank commander directs his column to go
sideways, destroying the farmer's crop completely. The poem concludes
with these words, more-or-less:
If you have a farm in Vietnam
and a house in Hell,
sell the farm and go home.
I think the poem is in a book entitled, Obscenities.
As it suggests, we thought that war had reached a degree of horror
and pointlessness that could not be exceeded, but we have become aware
of a new horror of the spirit which has evidently been added: the thought
that our suffering and sacrifice may be on behalf of an Evil Empire.
I think it is this possibility lurking in the shadows of R. L. Barth's
Deeply Dug In that makes it a very interesting book of poems indeed.
There is an ambiguity even in the book's title. Soldiers "dig in"
—into foxholes, trenches, etc. —to protect themselves. But the
scorpion that is stinging you is also "deeply dug in," isn't it? The
book, consisting mainly of extremely brief epigrams, is divided into
three sections. The first has the same title as the book and seems to
be, among other things, an exploration of the title's other possible
meanings —that is, or the various scorpions involved.
But before this first section, there is an introductory poem for the
whole book which emphasizes Barth's awareness of his war's place in
history, including literary history:
Reading The Iliad
Volume and desk, coffee and cigarette
Forgotten, the reader, held in Homer's mind,
Looks upon Greeks and Trojans fighting yet,
The heroes and foot soldiers, thin and blind,
Forced-marching for the Styx. But suddenly
Stunned by the clamor under smoky skies,
Boastings and tauntings, he looks up to see —
Not the god-harried plain where Hector tries
His destiny, not the room; instead, a mountain
Covered with jungle; on one slope, a chateau
With garden, courtyard, a rococo fountain,
And, faces down, hands tied, six bodies in a row.
These lines may owe something to W. H. Auden's memorable poem, "The
Shield of Achilles," but that need not worry us. In all ages until recent
times, poets have freely imitated one another. As Bertolt Brecht remarked,
if we demanded originality from those who built our houses, we would
all be living in huts. In Barth's poem, as in Auden's, we go from the
ancient Iliad directly to a scene from modern times, in this case Vietnam's
French colonial past, a past that has been wiped out in this location,
leaving only the remains of six summary executions. Who were the victims?
And who killed them? We are not told because it doesn't matter. The
West's colonial past (and China's colonial past in Vietnam for 3000
years before that) had been in place and the trading of atrocities
had begun long before the Americans arrived.
This leads us to the first poem in the book proper:
I need just war, a people's sense of mission,
And not some general's arrogant ambition
For heroism's context, or my muse's
Tongue-tied except for how that people uses
Not troops, sheep-slaughtered, baby-killers, tools,
But, to speak plainly, its unmonied fools.
If a poet who writes about war cannot think of it as having a just
and worthwhile purpose, he had better skip the cliches of war protestors
and admit that he's only in it because he lacked the brains or the money
to buy himself out of it. Thus, reflections on the war reflect ultimately
on him, and, right off, the scorpion has begun to sting —though
there is a danger of self-pity in such a "hard-boiled" attitude, as
3. War Debt
Survive or die, war holds one truth:
Marine, you will not have a youth. or
4. Allegory For L. B. J.
So many Isaacs, Abraham!
You needn't even lash
Poor boys to alters; seek no ram;
Just raise your knife and slash.
—though this last is saved by those "poor boys." Does the phrase
expand to "O those poor innocent boys" or to "those fools who weren't
The recovery from this sting is to endure the deeper sting of a different
9. A Child Accidentally Napalmed
"Why waste your tears on me? Give over grief.
If I knew horror, yet my life was brief."
Some poet will perhaps say that for me.
I'd say, "I suffered an eternity."
—the realization that, in such a war, the suffering that one's
own side causes belittles one's own.
The digging-in theme can suggest the grizzly humor of having one's
friend dig into one through one's nostrils:
11. One Way To Carry The Dead
A huge shell thundered; he was vaporized
And, close friends breathing near, internalized.
It is curious the way the presence of a participial absolute in the
second line makes this most modern of poems sound like a translation
from the Latin and suggest that present conditions may somehow be a
return to something very ancient.
Still a different kind of digging in occurs (again as in ancient times)
in wars where armies mix with general populations:
12. An Old Story
"Hustle the boom-boom girls up here,
But take precautions, hey? I've sent
Back for the rum. We'll drink down fear.
Why should our watch be different?
Another characteristic that flourishes in Barth's anatomy of this
turning point in American history is the way both the supporters of
the war and the protestors against it are scornfully dismissed:
15. Movie Stars
Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Martha Raye
Were dupes who knew no other way;
Jane Fonda, too, whose Hanoi hitch
Epitomized protester kitsch.
This first section ends with a final digging in very deeply indeed:
Twenty years later, the poor sons of bitches
Learn jungle rot, decaying flesh, still itches
And, spreading body part by body part,
Even corrupts the chambers of the heart.
—suggesting, through its effect on hearts, the effect that the
war has had on the country as a whole.
The remaining two sections of the book, entitled, "Looking For Peace"
and "Small Arms Fire," remind the reader —this reader at least
—of the movements into which classical music is organized —three
movements, fast, slow, fast, being the simplest pattern. In all the
patterns, the weight and power, the discovered profundity of the piece,
tends to fall in the slow movement, in particular, in the revelatory
end of it. I suspect that something like this was in Barth's mind when
he sought out ways to organize his material.
A year or two ago, I had an odd thought: that the Next Great War,
to be known also, if there is anybody left on earth to know things
after it, as the Final Great War, is going to be the war between people
and machines: "machines" meaning, not just the machines proper, but
also the people who run the machines, who have themselves become like
machines in order to run them; and "people" meaning the actual people
who remain, who have been left out of this wonderful symbiosis and
who have helter-skelter mobilized themselves in strange ways in order
to fight it: have become like peasants, beating on tanks with sticks,
guerrillas in the hills, suicide bombers, God knows what next....
The title, "Looking For Peace," of this second section —this
slow movement —is taken from a passage in Jeremiah and again has
more than one meaning. It won't be enough with this, as with other wars,
just to have it over —peace in that sense. There is also an inner
peace that we will have to find somehow. Near the beginning we have:
A Letter To The Dead
The outpost trench is deep with mud tonight.
Cold with the mountain winds and two weeks' rain,
I watch the concertina. The starlight-
Scope hums, and rats assault the bunkers again.
You watch with me: Owen, Blunden, Sassoon.
Through sentry duty, everything you meant
Thickens to fear of nights without a moon.
War's war. We are, my friends, no different.
Beyond its simple manner, there is a strange complexity in that
second stanza. Those World War I poets aren't really watching with
him on sentry duty any more than he is really writing a letter to them.
He is only pretending all that, based on a single similarity: a night
without a moon is more dangerous for a sentry than one with a moon to
light things up a bit. What, then, are we to make of that bluff, hail-fellow-well-met
last line? Is war war? No, war is not always war since the character
of war changes. And, yes, we are different since the statement that
we are not different is so obviously untrue.
This middle section quickly moves on to thoughts and attitudes we
could not imagine encountering in the work of the poets just named:
No moon, no stars, only the leech-black sky,
Until Puff rends the darkness, spewing out
His thin red flames, and then the quick reply
Of blue-green tracers climbing all about.
At night, such lovely ways to kill, to die.
In the conditions described in Barth's poetry, death itself has
become beautiful and attractive. We are told why in the poem which
follows (the title refers, evidently, to the landing of Marines by
helicopter in hostile territory; a glossary in this book would have
Our view of sky, jungle, and fields constricts
Into a sinkhole covered with saw grass
Undulating, soon whipped slant as the chopper
Hovers at four feet. Rapt, boot-deep in slime,
We deploy ourselves in a loose perimeter,
Listening for incoming rockets above
The thump of rotor blades; edgy for contact,
Junkies of terror impatient to shoot up.
Nothing moves, nothing sounds: then, single file,
We move across a streambed toward high ground.
The terror of the insert's quickly over.
Too quickly ... and more quickly every time ...
The experience of danger has become like a drug. The addict Marines
need it, can't do without it. These are people with a new identity,
which the next poem succinctly defines.
Swift, Silent, Deadly motto of the 1st Reconnaissance
Somewhere, along the tangled mountain slopes,
Slyly edging the camps and villages,
The tiger pads;
he is at once our emblem
And fear and, did he know, almost extinct.
The tiger doesn't know that he is almost extinct, and the Marines,
the poem implies, don't either.
Is there a counterbalance to the spiritual anguish revealed in "Looking
for Peace"? The section ends with
At last, the senses sharpen. All around,
I listen closely. Under the dull sound
Of distant artillery and the shrieking planes
Diving with napalm; under the dry crack
Of automatic rifles; at the back
Of consciousness, almost, one sound remains:
Mud sucking at bare feet as they are going
Between the rice shoots. Nearly silent. Knowing.
In the Final War between people and machines, the people —in
their bare feet! —are going to prevail. In America this result
may not be greeted with enthusiasm.
How can the jovial and sprightly finale required by custom possibly
follow from such a searching and devastating slow movement? Once again
the masterpieces of eighteenth century music point the way. There is
indeed gaiety. But the gaiety is ironic. It is like the endings
—the "false" endings —of Moliere's greatest plays. A farcical
presence comes onstage to remind us that it was, after all, only a play
that we have been watching. Barth's final section, "Small Arms Fire,"
opens with its title poem and reminds us —in Moliere's very manner!
—that there is a difference between life and art:
The epigram is not artillery,
Blockbuster, napalm, mortar, rocketry;
But it is, rather, hunkered deep in mire,
The sniper-scoped guerrilla's small arms fire.
And —with its "hunkered deep in mire" reflecting yet again the
"Deeply Dug In" of the book's title —there we have it. The resolution
of the agony for this soldier has been for him, in the spirit of his
art, to establish his own rapport with the enemy and, as far as he is
concerned, to bring the Evil Empire to an end.