My post on Gerald Dawe's Irish War Poetry made me think about what is, as its title suggests, the nearest thing to a U.S. counterpart: American War Poetry, edited by Lorrie Goldensohn. War, like nothing else, obliges an urgent consideration of topoi of national identity; at the same time, most languages (and therefore most literatures) cross national boundaries. To what extent, then, does it make sense to think of war poetry in national terms? Is there an American war poetry?
Having published a book titled Modern English War Poetry, I am in no position to be dismissive about national categories. Had I referred to British rather than English, I would still be writing it now. All books need to end somewhere, and as I had a large temporal range --- from the Boer War to the present --- I felt entitled to narrow the geographical focus. But there was a political imperative as well. Whatever the various reactions of English poets to the nation and their government, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms take a fundamentally different attitude both to Westminster and to established symbols of Englishness. More than that, I wanted to claim that the ways in which English war poets talk to each other during the last century do constitute a tradition; not a simple tradition, not even a linear tradition, but a tradition perhaps in the sense of a shared awareness, community or engagement. For example, when Keith Douglas decorates a photograph of himself in his army finery with the words 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', he looks to assault a poetic tradition (while reinstating an allegiance to an Horatian one); but that breaking is itself an acknowledgement and a continuation of a drama played through Wilfred Owen's poetry. Owen uses his predecessors to create a discordant antiphony; Douglas uses Owen in the same way.
I am not sure that the same can accurately be said of American war poetry. Goldensohn doesn't say it, although the book's blurb does: 'While the birth of a national identity is documented in early poems, the anthology also conveys the growing sophistication of a uniquely American style.' Reading the many wonderful and not-so-wonderful poems from the eighteenth-century Colonial Wars to (many would argue) those new colonial wars in the Persian Gulf, I am not convinced that the anthology's contents support that claim. Poetry is not a branch of science: it does not progress. And talk of a 'uniquely American style' risks belittling a nation which upholds among its self-evident truths the freedom of the individual; the freedom, that is, to choose to be different. America is nothing if it is not various; it seems too vast to have one 'style'.
None of this detracts from Goldensohn's anthology, which is quite appropriately a collection of the best war poems written out of a particular nation. War poetry does not seem to be part of a national psyche in the States as it is in England; there is no Yankee Brooke or Owen. The best poets in the book --- Emerson, Whitman, Stevens, Frost, Bishop, etc. --- are what we might term occasional war poets. Whitman (as always) comes closest to an exception, and the story of how Drum Taps influenced English war poets like Gurney and Rosenberg has still not been fully told. Whitman is, with 8 poems, the most heavily-represented poet in Goldensohn's anthology, and as war poet he stands head and shoulders above the others. Yet when we think of Whitman's crowning achievements, we probably think first of 'Song of Myself', 'I Sing the Body Electric', or the elegy for Lincoln.
Goldensohn's introductions to each war are excellent, but one line made me smile: 'The United States is still considered the key to the victory of 1918.' Far be it for me to want to start a transatlantic bunfight at a time when we British attempt to salvage a 'special relationship' from our position of utter powerlessness, but this comes close to the Oh What a Lovely War version of history. The hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who fought in the war certainly didn't harm the Allied cause... and yet it would be more diplomatic to drop the definite article. American entry into the war was, undeniably, 'key'.