Poetry And Vietnam Essay, Research Paper John Clark Pratt

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Poetry And Vietnam Essay, Research Paper

John Clark Pratt

Poetry that documents the attitudes toward the Vietnam War–as

well as the origins, development, and conduct of the war–is both pervasive and

significant. Although only a few poems by French writers reflect that country’s

involvement, the Vietnamese tradition of poetic expression produced a large body of work,

both personal and political, written by soldiers and civilians of the Democratic Republic

of Vietnam (DRV) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Unfortunately, except for the efforts

of American poets John Balaban, Yusef Komunyakka, Kevin Bowen, and Bruce Weigl, most of

these poems are not available in translation. Only the Vietnamese expatriate Th?ch Nh?t

Hanh published a significant collection in English. His The Cry of Vietnam (1968)

contains 15 poems about the devastation of war and the horrors inflicted by all sides.

Also a number of poems by Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao refugee poets appeared in the

numerous volumes of the Vi?t Nam Forum Series and the Lac-Vi?t Series published after

1983 by the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University. In Vi?t Nam Forum 14

(1994), for instance, Vi?t Thanh Nguy?n, then a Ph.D. candidate at

the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a moving poem about a burning ash heap

that he was "yearning to find a clue/ in the ash to my people,/ severed from me with

the finality of a butcher’s cleaver."

More than any other group, however, American poets, both veterans and nonveterans, in

thousands of poems written during and after the war best chronicled the changing, often

conflicting attitudes and experiences of men and women fighting in Southeast Asia.

Their poetry ranges from often bawdy ballads sung by American fighter pilots, collected

in Joseph E Tuso’s Singing the Vietnam Blues (1990), and the short, sometimes

humorous verses published in publications such as the satiric Grunt magazine or the

Pacific Stars and Stripes, to immensely ambitious and moving works that rank with

the best poetry of the age. Poetry about Vietnam falls into three general categories:

political protest poems, usually written by established poets who had not been to Vietnam;

verse novels, in which chronologically linked poems depict one person’s experiences

at war; and the hundreds of usually short, personal lyrics that present individual scenes,

character sketches, or events.

The first significant protest volume was A Poetry Reading against the Vietnam War (1966),

edited by Robert Bly and David Ray. The next year, Walter Lowenfels edited the anthology Where

Is Vietnam?, in which the 87 contributing poets include James Dickey, Lawrence

Ferlinghetti, and Denise Levertov. Two more collections followed: Out of the Shadow of

War (1968) and Poetry against the War (1972). Although a few poems are set in

Southeast Asia, most of the works presented in these anthologies reflect the writers’

attitudes to U.S. involvement in Vietnam by references to the political scene, the war as

seen on TV or reported in the newspapers, and to antiwar themes in general. These

anthologies and the numerous individual poems that were published served to define and

sustain the general intellectual opposition to the war.

Of the verse novels, three stand out: Vietnam Simply (1967) by Dick Shea, How

Audie Murphy Died in Vietnam (1972) by McAvoy Layne, and Interrogations (1990)

by Leroy Quintana. In discursive, often sardonic selections, Shea presents the

observations of a Navy lieutenant about the entrance of U.S. Marines into the war and

other scenes and events in 1965 Vietnam. By means of short, staccato verses, Laynes book

traces a Marine recruit (who bears the name of the legendary American war hero) through

basic training and combat, then becomes allegorically fanciful as "Audie is captured

by the Vi?t C?ng and holds telephone conversations from H? N?i with the president of

the United States, yet still hums "The Theme from Marlboro Country." Quintana,

the only Hispanic veteran to publish a major collection of poetry, shows how a young army

draftee experiences training, combat, and the aftermath of the war, where even "on

city streets, in restaurants, bars" he "still walk[s] the jungle in

camouflage," his "M-16 mind still on recon patrol." Each of these verse

novels presents young men whose innocent acceptance changes to experienced disillusion

about the American presence in Vietnam.

This subject–the movement from innocence to experience–was perhaps the most universal

theme explored by American poets, most of whom served in Vietnam, either in the military

or as conscientious objectors. Many of them interrupted their college educations to go to

war, then returned to earn graduate degrees in various writing programs and teach in

universities. Before the 1975 fall of S?i G?n, many poet-veterans joined protest

organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, using their poems to

substantiate their opposition not only to war in general but to the Vietnam War in


What characterizes the majority of the individual poems is their specificity.

Presenting much more shattering detail than did World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke,

Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen, these poets wrote about immediate wartime

experiences: firefights, the death of a friend, smells of the jungle, rocket attacks,

being wounded, seeing Vietnamese women and children killed, corpses in body bags, rape,

arrival into and departure from Vietnam, street scenes, the beauty of the countryside,

memories of the war after ending their tours, bombing missions, and letters from home.

Brutally frank, much of the language of these poems represents the actuality of the

discourse that prevailed, filled with the soldiers’ jargon and profanity, often requiring

the use of a glossary because of the many references to historical events as well as

specific people and place-names.

The themes of the poems are both universal and particularly modern. Many show the

horrors of war, the deaths of innocent civilians, the tragic ending of youthful lives, and

the general sundering of moral and ethical values. Reflecting the consciousness of the

1960s and 1970s, however, a large number of poems mirror the feelings of all participants

as America’s longest war began to seem more and more unwinnable: the sense of loss of

individuality, the feeling of guilt at having participated, the impossibility of anyone’s

understanding the totality of the experience, the realization of having been betrayed by

higher authority, and most often, the anger and bitterness at feeling like what fiction

writer Larry Heinemann called not a cog in a mighty machine but merely "a slab of

meat on the table." There are also many poems that contain racial and ethnic themes,

using both black versus white and white versus Asian conflicts.

Of the hundreds of war veteran poets, a few achieved literary prominence. In 1994 Army

veteran Yusef Komunyakka won the Pulitzer Prize for his Neon Vernacular: New and

Selected Poems (1993). All of the selections in one of his earlier books, Dien Cai

Dau (1988), are about the war and present not only richly metaphoric poems about H?

N?i Hannah, Bob Hope, and night patrols but also offer the acute vision of a black

soldier. Another major prizewinning poet is former Marine W. D. Ehrhart, whose numerous

collections of poetry, four nonfiction books, and many edited anthologies made him one of

the most prolific and widely known Vietnam War writers. In A Generation of Peace (1977),

his poem "A Relative Thing," which details the feelings of many returned

veterans, reminds America that "We are your sons," and that "When you

awake,/we will still be here."

The oldest of the major poets was Walter McDonald, who was a career officer teaching at

the Air Force Academy when he was assigned to Vietnam in 1969. An editor as well as a

fiction writer, McDonald was best known for his many volumes of poems such as After the

Noise of Saigon (1988), in which the subject of war is balanced by poems about flying

and scenes set in west Texas. Another professor was Bruce Weigl, whose 1967-1968 Army

service in Vietnam sparked a number of collections such as Song of Napalm (1988),

in which most of his war poems appear. The title poem is a haunting testament to his wife

as he confesses his inability to forget aspects of the war. Also a college teacher, John

Balaban spent three years in Vietnam, the first two as a conscientious objector. He

published fiction and numerous translations of Vietnamese poetry, and his collections After

Our War (1974), nominated for a National Book Award, and Blue Mountain (1982)

contain memorable poems such as "The Guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge" and

"April 30, 1975," a poem written about the last day of the war.

Among the other poets and their major books are Michael Casey, Obscenities (1972);

David Huddle, Stopping by Home (1988); Kevin Bowen, Playing Basketball with the

Viet Cong (1994); D.F. Brown, Returning Fire (1984); Horace Coleman, Between

a Rock and a Hard Place, in Four Black Poets (1977); Gerald McCarthy, War

Story (1977); Bill Shields, Nam Poems (1987); Steve Mason, Warrior for

Peace, with an introduction by Oliver Stone (1988); Bryan Alec Floyd, The Long War

Dead (1976); Perry Oldham, Vinh Long (1976); and D. C. Berry, Saigon

Cemetery (1972).

Individual works by most of these and other poets can be found in the following

anthologies: Winning Hearts and Minds, edited by Larry Rottman, Jan Barry, and

Basil T. Paquet (1972); Listen: The War, edited by Fred Kiley and Tony Dater

(1973); Demilitarized Zones, edited by Jan Barry and W. D. Ehrhart (1976); Carrying

the Darkness, edited by W. D. Ehrhart (1985,1989); Shallow Graves. Two Women in

Vietnam, by Wendy Wilder Larsen and Tr?n Thi Nga (1986); and Unaccustomed Mercy, edited

by W. D. Ehrhart, with an introduction and bibliography by John Clark Pratt (1989).

Coincident with the dedication of "The Wall," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

in Washington, D.C., the first major gathering of and public readings by Vietnam War

creative writers was held in New York City on 23 March 1984. There, W. D. Ehrhart defined

what became apparent in most of the poetry that had been and was to be published. Although

most veteran-poets did write about many other subjects, it was the war that consumed them

in their art and inspired their best poems because, according to Ehrhart, that experience

was "the single most important experience of [one's] life." Accordingly, the

poetry of the Vietnam War provides a historical, intellectual, and emotional chronology of

men and women at war that is indeed unique.

From Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political , Social, and Military History.

Ed. Spencer C. Tucker. ABC-CLIO/Oxford. Copyright ? 1998 by Spencer C. Tucker. [This

three-volume set is the most comprehensive reference work on the Vietnam War. Oxford

University Press now distributes a one-volume condensed version.]

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