Tuesday, 1 November 2011

American Poets of the Second World War

From this distant perspective, the American attitude towards its war poets has always seemed perplexing. War poetry is something peculiarly English. Ask a literate American to name a war poet, and she is more likely to mention Owen than Whitman or Melville.

Recent years have seen the publication of a number of books which suggest that, at last, American awareness of its own war poetry may be growing. Lorrie Goldensohn's anthology of American war poetry demonstrated the extent of the tradition with poems from the colonial wars to Afghanistan; Cynthia Wachtell's War No More proved that it was the American Civil War which first challenged poets to write of industrialised slaughter; and the recent rediscovery of John Allan Wyeth has given Americans a Great War poet who can rank among the best of the Brits.

Diederik Oostdijk's new study, Among the Nightmare Fighters: American Poets of World War II, ought to inspire a new map of twentieth-century American poetry in which the poetry of war is no longer occluded. Until now, the 'middle generation' of poets, falling between Modernism and the various movements which came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s (Confessionalism, the Beats, the Black Mountain), has been squeezed or altogether ignored: powerful though they are, the five lines of Randall Jarrell's 'The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner' should not be a synecdoche for such a vast and diverse body of war poetry. Oostdijk's book retrieves into prominence a group of poets who were mostly (but not all) servicemen---not just Jarrell but Anthony Hecht, Karl Shapiro, Howard Nemerov, James Dickey, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Lincoln Kirstein. Like the greatest of their English contempories, Keith Douglas, they were haunted by the examples of earlier war poets. Oostdijk takes the title of his first chapter from a comment made by Karl Shapiro in a letter home: 'Im [sic] no Wilfred Owen, darling'.

Oostdijk writes pellucid English like only a Dutchman can. He has a pitch-perfect ear for nuances of meaning: this is a learned and historically-informed study, but its greatest strength is in close readings. Those readings draw on vast reserves of research, and display an impressive knowledge of previous war poetry (particularly from the American Civil War and the Great War). Fighting his corner, Oostdijk is also convincing when it comes to giving reasons why American poetry of the war has been neglected, and he is not averse to attacking Modernism or New Criticism on behalf of his charges. The thoroughness and detail of Oostdijk's readings disguise the fact that, on the sly, his is a profoundly polemical study. It points out, for example, that his poets often 'contradict the American victory narrative'---which is a key reason for their neglect. Oostdijk quotes Michael C C Adams, author of the bitterly-titled history, The Best War Ever: America and World War II: '[the war] has been converted over time from a complex, problematic event, full of nuance and debatable meaning, to a simple, shining legend of the Good War.' Oostdijk's poets undermine that legend, and in doing so, their fate has been to go unheard. Thanks to Oostdijk's attention, the time has come to reassess their achievement and their legacy.


  1. This sounds like a terrific book. Thanks so much for alerting me to its existence! And for making me want to read it!

  2. Tim,

    This does sound like a fascinating study of a field which is under-represented critically. Some thoughts on the reasons for American neglect of its homegrown war poetry, for what they're worth: you're right in painting 'war poetry' as an almost exlusively English phenomenon, and I suppose part of that is due to the prevalence of schools and movements in the States, particularly in the wake of Modernsim. The poets you noted above are, in many instances, satellites to broader schools in the mid-century - Confessionalism in the cases of Shapiro and Jarrell; neo-formalism in the case of Hecht; whilst Dickey is a sort of guiding light, for good or ill, for the Deep Image poets (Louis Simpson, another figure whose war poetry is neglected, is similarly tied - though loosely - to the Bly-ites). English poetry in the 20th century, meanwhile, at least its more mainstream currents, seems on the whole less enamoured with schools and movements (calling your movement 'the Movement', say, is a typically deflationary gesture), preferring instead to focus upon individual relationships between poets within or across generations. 'War poetry' in this context, then, becomes a kind of readymade unofficial school of poetry, one of affiliated experiences rather than poetics (though poetic similarities do abound).

    Simon @ Gists and Piths

  3. Thanks for your kinds words about my book, Tim, and also Victoria for your interest. That's an astute comment, Simon. I think you are right that the various 'schools' of post-war American poetry obscure the fact that the war poets can be seen as one group who shared a similar poetics and vision of World War II.

    Another fact that may explain their relative neglect is that whereas many of the principal war poets of the twentieth century -- Keith Douglas, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg -- died during their war and were thus principally known for their war poems, all of the main American poets of the Second World War survived, as I discuss in the fourth section of my book "Troubled Afterlives." They spent decades writing about other topics as well.

    Yet the American war poets also left a legacy of hundreds of poems -- published but significantly also unpublished -- which drew little attention in their lifetimes. Tim is right that that's also because they were quietly polemical, and that their messages were not particularly welcomed or understood in postwar American society. They kept their objections and frustrations mostly to themselves. Do read them, though, because Hecht, Jarrell, and Nemerov really rival Douglas, Owen, and Rosenberg.