The Warrior-Poets of WW II

A new collection of poems written by those who fought is a powerful reminder of the trauma, danger, and fear all soldiers face

By Thane Peterson

The last few days I've been getting up early and reading poetry while I listen to war reports on CNN and National Public Radio. The poems are apt because they come from the new book, Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro, a poet and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, who flew 35 missions as an Air Force crew member during World War II.

This is a remarkable collection that should be widely read. The poems remind us of how brutal, terrifying -- and vividly memorable and life-changing -- war really is when seen from the perspective of the riflemen, tail gunners, and others who do the actual fighting. Forty of the 62 poets included in the book served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Merchant Marine during World War II, most of them as enlisted men rather than officers.

A CHANGED WORLD.

  Shapiro admirably shows that the American poets of World War II created a body of work equal to that of the storied English poets of World War I, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves. He also shows how much the world changed between the two world wars. Indeed, these poems are vivid and modern and much more evocative of our times -- and the war in Iraq -- than of World War I. The Jazz Age, talking movies, and a rush of other innovations loosened up language and changed the way people waged war -- and perceived it.

For instance, many of the most striking poems in the collection are about air combat, which was only in its infancy during World War I. In Where We Crashed by Richard Hugo, which is about the crash-landing of a B-24 in which the poet was a bombardier, each short line is like a machine gun burst. Here is the beginning:

I was calling airspeed

Christ

One-thirty-five and

Pancake bam

Glass going first

Breaking slow

Slow dream

Breaking

Slow

Sliding

Gas and bombs

Sliding

You end

Now

Here

Explode

The poets in the air war didn't actually see most of the devastation they wreaked, but it tormented their imagination for years afterward. In The Firebombing, James Dickey, who flew numerous fighter missions over the Pacific (and whose son Christopher is Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and is covering the war in Iraq for the magazine), recreates in his mind two decades later what happened when 300 pounds of gasoline and napalm bombs were dropped in an "antimorale" action on the small Japanese resort town of Beppo during a night raid:

All leashes of dogs

Break under the first bomb, around those

In bed, or late in the public baths: around those

Who inch forward on their hands

Into medicinal waters

Their heads come up with a roar

Of Chicago fire

Like many people who viewed the September 11 terrorist attacks, these poets often had the eerie feeling that they were taking part in a movie rather than something real. Of mortar attacks on French villages, "the scene jags like a strip of celluloid," says Louis Simpson, a Jamaican-born infantryman in the 101st Airborn Division. The poet Edward Field recalls that when the bomber in which he was a navigator crashed into the English Channel after a raid on Berlin, "water [came] rushing in like a sinking-ship movie."

TIME TO HATE.

  There's no macho chest-beating about heroism in these poems. Field recalls that he knew as he hung onto a lifeboat that he couldn't survive long in the icy waters of the English Channel during winter so he called on his comrades to spell him for awhile. "A little rat-faced boy from Alabama, one of the gunners" whose name the poet can't recall, courageously gave Field his place in the boat -- and ended up dying in his stead. "I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today," Field admits near the end of this mournful, pitiless remembrance.

Not all the poems are so gloomy. You'll even find occasional flashes of humor, as in the first few lines of a poem called Beach Red by Peter Bowman, who was a correspondent for the Air Force magazine during World War II:

Rejoice, O young man in thy youth (Keep down, down.

Rest your body on your legs and on your arms

And for Jesus' sake don't let your pimply ass protrude...)

New York-born and Harvard-educated Howard Nemerov, a onetime U.S. Poet Laureate who flew combat missions with the Royal Air Force during World War II, notes that he hardly gave a thought to hating Hitler because he was too busy hating his own officers -- "bastards in your daily life with Power in their pleasure, smile or frown."

Often, these poems are bluntly political, despite the common perception that poets are dreamers by nature, not political creatures. Indeed, First Lady Laura Bush canceled a scheduled White House poetry reading earlier this year because she feared it would become too antiwar in tone, and some commentators chided the nation's poets for organizing an antiwar-poetry campaign afterward.

FURY-FILLED LINES.

  The World War II poems are a reminder that poetry has never been apolitical. The North Dakota-born poet Thomas McGrath, who served with the Air Force in World War II, was a member of the Communist Party, for instance. He ends his poem Remembering That Island with a reference to the "lying famous corrupt Senators [who] mine our lives for another war." And consider these fury-filled lines from Negro Hero by the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the few women in the collection:

(In a southern city a white man said

Indeed, I'd rather be dead;

Indeed, I'd rather be shot in the head

Or ridden to waste on the back of a flood

Than saved by the drop of a black man's blood.)

These poems provide a much-need reality check on our overly rosy view of World War II. Many of them are also astonishingly powerful. Poets of World War II is part of the Library of America's American Poets Project, which aims to create the first compact library of American poetry. One day, if a volume of poetry by soldiers who served in the first and second Gulf Wars is added to the series, the details will change. But I suspect the tone and broad themes will be much the same as in these poems.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht