American War Poetry: the Korean War

First, I believe what was meant to be my first post was a comment, which was a mistake, but I thought I would make that clarification.

To the primary point, American poetry from the Korean War has been interesting to read and definitely differs as a whole from poetry inspired by World War II.  Korean War poetry is more likely to be in nontraditional form, read from the first-person point of view, and can take a more blunt, sharply negative tone.   The language is a little more plainspoken, and is more likely to be profane and/or graphic.  To give good examples for readers, what follow are two poems by the veteran poet William Wantling.  I found both in the book Retrieving Bones: Stories and Poems of the Korean War, which was put together and edited by W.D. Ehrhart and Philip K. Jason and published in 1999.  The first poem (found on page 187) is “Without Laying Claim”.  The second piece (found on page 189) is “Pusan Liberty”.  Enjoy!

Without Laying Claim

without laying claim
to an impossible innocence
I must tell you how
in the midst of that crowd
we calmly pulled the pins
from six grenades
mumbling an explanation
even we didn’t believe
& released the spoons
a lump in our throats

Pusan Liberty

the 6×6 bounces me down the
washboard roads, I see the

sun-eaten walls of Korea,
my girl-wife & child in a mud &

straw hut back in Taegu & here
I am meeting the SEAL as he

sits on his roller-skate cart
minus arms & legs but beneath

his ass a million $’s worth
of heroin-I make my buy

walk through the 10,000 cam-
era market-place, jeeps for

sale, people for sale, I’m
even for sale as I find the

sun on the adobe veranda, the
2 Chinese agents come around

to make their buy, 2 young
boys, they’re hooked bad & I

charge them too much-we sit
there and fix, I fix again, the

so-called Enemy & I, but just
three angry boys lost in the immense

absurdity of War & State sudden
friends who have decided that

our hatred of Government exceeds
the furthest imaginable limits

of human calculation.


  1. I found the second of the two poems to be more interesting, I think. I’ve never read any sort of American war poetry, so I cannot really compare these to a different war, but the first one seemed more a typical free verse poem that I might run across on any subject, whereas the second seemed to embody more the blunt tone that you mentioned. It has a repetitive feel to it, like an inner mantra, albeit definitely a negative one, and I thought it had a more unusual word choice and construction overall. Both poems were thought-provoking, though, and since I have only a general idea of the sentiment and resistance surrounding the Korean War, I was glad to read them and get a better sense of the reactions surrounding it.

  2. Hello!

    The poetry from the Korean War that you posted reminds me a bit of the poetry surrounding the Vietnam War as well – the same negativity and sharpness of tone and blunt execution. I thought that, even if you are finished with your project, you might enjoy looking into Vietnam War poetry a bit since you seem very interested in the subject.

    Best wishes.