'There is no better book of poems about the American experience in the Great War.' Dana Gioia's praise for John Allan Wyeth's This Man's Army, which was first published in 1928 and re-discovered eighty years later, seems entirely just. Admittedly, the bar has been set low, but Gioia also states that Wyeth's is 'probably the only volume that stands comparison with the work of the best British soldier poets'. That is high praise, and although such comparisons are problematic because Wyeth sounds nothing like those usual suspects, Gioia's claim does not seem manifestly absurd. His introduction, available here, also gives a fascinating account of the archaeological work by B. J. Omanson which brought this long-forgotten book to prominence. And here are Wyeth's Chipilly Ridge sonnets. I would quote from Wyeth myself, if only Blogger were more forgiving of poems whose lines are variously indented.
I have blogged already about Wyeth's brothel sonnet, that marvel of comedy, desire and disgust: Wyeth can pack more into 14 lines than many epics manage. Gioia speaks expertly about the radical rhythms of his sonnet forms, but even that description fails to convey the strangeness of Wyeth's best sonnets as they string snatches of vernacular dialogue across lines. Gioia associates Wyeth with Modernism, and it's not hard to see why. There is even a biographical prompt: based in Rapallo during 1926, Wyeth seems to have counted Ezra Pound as a friend.
But his knack of catching speech rhythms and bringing them into complex relation with formal and metrical traditions has more in common with Robert Frost. Frost writes to John Cournos in 1914 that ‘there are the very regular preestablished accent and measure of blank verse; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get them into strained relation. I like to drag and break the intonation across the metre as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.’ The drama of Wyeth's sonnets comes from this same interplay of rhythm and metre, as the sonnet is stretched to astonishing limits in the need to accommodate materials previously beyond its purview.
Gioia, finally, tempers his praise with the belief that 'the concluding sections of [Wyeth's sonnet sequence] feel inconclusive and anti-climactic': This Man's Army, he insists, 'is a strongly written, authentically detailed, and imaginatively engaging book that fails to reach its full poetic, historical or cultural potential.' Gioia wants the sonnet sequence to have a grander finale. The greatest sonnet sequences of all would struggle to pass such a test: Shakespeare's sonnets 153 and 154, for example, end the sequence with a whimper. But Wyeth ought to be defended on his own terms, because one point of his sequence is its understatement. The final sonnet ends on what seems like a minor key, but it makes the first mention of a new humanitarian disaster all the more potent: “Aw I’m not wounded Buddy—it’s just the flu.”