American War Poetry: the Vietnam War

Poetry inspired by the Vietnam War comes from a much more diverse authorship than that behind the poetry of World War II or the Korean War.  Writers like Yusef Komunyakaa (an African-American), women poets Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, and the openly gay Allen Ginsberg really broke the typical white male mold.  Also unlike with material from the previous conflicts, many of the poets behind Vietnam War poetry never served in the military (like W.S. Merwin) and/or were much older and served during previous wars (like Robert Bly or Thomas McGrath).

Not surprisingly- given the broader backgrounds of the poets- the form and language of poetry from this time differed significantly.  Vietnam War poetry is the most likely to be written in first person, read with a personal tone, and be in nonstandard form.  As a whole, it is the most graphic, blunt, informal, and more likely to use profanity.  Natural imagery is used in a war somewhat more similar to Korean War poetry; it may paint serene scenes to contrast the loud brutality of warfare, or complement the overall tone and mood of the environment from which the speaker talks.

Subject material also changed and diversified.  In the evolution of American war poetry, the role of technology shifts; focus remains on heavy bombing and the use of napalm.  By now, modern military technology (tanks, bombs, machine guns, etc.) have become fairly familiar, even if their efficient destruction is just as repulsive.  Social criticism is much broader; no one is exempt.  Earlier war poets sometimes portrayed military leaders in a negative light, but the faults of the Vietnam War are laid at the feet of military, political, and corporate leaders.  Furthermore, the war is seen as an extension of the intrinsic faults of greater American society and America’s attempted global role.

The pervasion of death within the war environment is explored to an extent similar to previous conflicts. Yet, the mental toll on the soldier is discussed more extensively and frankly.  Finally, while in all three wars the soldier is often seen as a victim, Vietnam War poetry is likely the most honest about the soldier’s complicity in warfare brutality and the soldier’s role as a victimizer.  This results in more empathy with the enemy as well as foreign civilians in Vietnam than with previous wars.

For good examples for readers, there are two poems that follow.  The first is Robert Bly’s “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” from page 32 of The Light Around the Body, which he released in 1967.  The second poem is veteran Michael Casey’s “Sweetheart”, from page 57 of his book Obscenities, published in 1972.  Enjoy!

Counting Small-Boned Bodies

Let’s count the bodies over again.

If we could only make the bodies smaller
The size of skulls
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller
Maybe we could get
A whole year’s kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller
We could fit
A body into a finger-ring for a keepsake forever.

Sweetheart

Kid
Ya
Could’ve been
Big time
Could’ve been
Up there
In lights
Sweetheart
Boston
Broadway
The National Geographic even
But
Ya missed
Ya chance
Doll
And I have to leave ya now
Can’t wait all day
Love
And I leave ya
A pack of gym
Anyways
Cuz I like the way
You hide behind trees
Keep hiding from Americans, Sweetheart

Comments

  1. Very interesting topic! I’ve read a fair amount of poetry inspired by WWII but I’m not very familiar with the poetry inspired by this war. I found the first poem you shared to be especially gripping.

    You talk some about how poetry from this particular era is more likely to be graphic, blunt, and/or profane. Do you think that these changes are more a result of the changing standards for poetry, the changing reactions to war itself, or both?