American War Poetry: A Recap

Literature is frequently rooted within historical events and American poetry is no exception, with much of American poetry having its inspiration in war. A significant evolution in American war poetry occurred through the historic milestones of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Poetry from these wars do have much in common; shared characteristics include the heavy use of natural imagery, insight into the warfare experience as well as how it affected soldiers, reflections on human nature, and criticism of military or political leadership. American war poetry from this era is frequently anti-war. Even if the author thought the war justified, their work typically focused on the uglier aspects of war. However, notable changes in perspective, form, language, and subject material can be seen among the poems that were based in these wars. Furthermore, these shifts were not limited to the world of literature, but reflected changes that were occurring in American culture and society.

Significant shifts in American war poetry can be framed around the background of the poets themselves, poetic form, the use of natural imagery, the portrayal of warfare, how warfare affected the soldier personally, reflections on human nature, and criticism of military and political leadership. Before fully discussing the poetry from these wars, an outlining of the poetry of the respective wars through the lenses of these topics follows.

Of the poets associated with the respective wars, the authors of World War II material are the least diverse. The most prominent poetry from World War II was overwhelmingly written by white men, most of whom were veterans of the war. To an extent, their form, technique, and subject material reflect this. World War II poetry has a tendency to be in standard form and be written from the third person point of view, often affecting some distance between the reader and the subject. Imagery from nature is used frequently, and typically conveys the serenity of the natural environment itself as a contrast to emphasize the brutality of human violence and destruction in warfare. War poetry from this time frequently speaks of the violently brutal effectiveness of contemporary military technology. It also is not unusual for the speaker’s point of view to be from the sky (typically in an airplane). World War II poetry does not shy from the mental and emotional toll of warfare on the soldier; the authors recognized how pervasive death was in the combat environment. Homesickness, boredom, and mental illness are explored. The military and the state are sometimes criticized, and there is a common message that soldiers are used as pawns of the state. Given their emphasis on the depressing destruction and toll on life sowed by the war, the poets were unsurprisingly pessimistic in their view of humanity.

Poetry from the Korean War is somewhat similar to World War II material with regards to subject material and the messages poets conveyed. However, the form and use of language and imagery by Korean War poets was more similar to- and strongly influenced- poetry associated with the Vietnam War. As a group, poets associated with the Korean War were marginally more diverse than those associated with World War II; Korean War poetry was still mostly the product of white male veterans. Poetry from this war was much more likely than earlier material to be in a nonstandard form, have a first person point of view, and be graphic or obscene. This resulted in the affect of a more personal tone. Natural imagery is prevalent, but is used in a greater variety of ways. Such imagery is often exploited as a parallel- as opposed to a contrast- for describing the nature of the warfare environment. Korean War poetry places less emphasis on the role of technology, and- largely due to how the war was fought- the combat point of view is usually from the ground or at sea. Korean War poets focused similarly on the frequency and nature of death in warfare as well as the mental toll it had on the soldier. Criticism of leadership is slightly less prevalent, but is aimed at political as well as military elites. The idea that soldiers are pawns of the government is extant but not as emphasized. Poets of the Korean War are close to their World War II counterparts in their judgment of humanity.
Of material from the three discussed wars, Vietnam War poetry was written by easily the most diverse group of poets. The range of forms and language used, as well as the subjects covered, reflect this. Vietnam War poetry is the most likely to have a nonstandard form and be written in first person. As a whole, it is the most graphic, blunt, obscene, and informal. This makes the poetry especially honest and personal. Like Korean War poetry, natural imagery may be used either to paint peaceful scenes to contrast the loud brutality of combat or for complementing the overall darker, damaging feeling of the speaker’s environment. At this point, modern military technology had become fairly familiar, although their efficient destruction was just as repulsive; focus shifted to the heavy use of bombing, especially with napalm. The emotional fallout faced by soldiers, and their activities outside combat, are most explored here. Yet while in all three wars the soldier is often seen as a victim, Vietnam War poetry speaks far more of the soldier’s complicity in warfare brutality and his role as a victimizer. Similarly, there is more empathy with foreign civilians in Vietnam than with affected foreigners in previous wars. Criticism of leadership is harsh, and more broad. The faults of the war are laid at the feet of military, political, and corporate leaders; the conflict is seen as an extension of the intrinsic faults of greater American society and culture as well as the country’s attempted role in the international community. However, the poets’ judgment of humanity- while often pessimistic- at points offers a surprising glimmer of hope.


  1. noahbrooksher says:

    This is a really cool project and I enjoyed reading about the shifts in contemporary American war poetry!

    However, I was wondering if whether or not you thought that the differences in the styles of poetry and how they dealt with the war had more to do with the manner in which the war was fought, or if the broader socio-cultural forces had more of an impact? Or this it a little bit of both, and attempting to separate the two creates a false dichotomy?

  2. Ebony Lambert says:

    Hi there! I think your research is extremely fascinating and really enjoyed reading about your study. As a poet, I think it is immensely beneficial to examine particular events and periods in history through poetry, as it provides you with more personalized, emotive lenses with which to explore different situations. I am curious, however, as to how you became in interested in war poetry specifically and how you think your experiences with this project will affect your own poetry. Also, did you come across any poetry that was told from the perspective of refugees? I am pretty familiar with the work of Yasmin Mohammed Yonis and bri mar (both poets who discuss and draw on their experiences as refugees) and thus am really interested in this topic.

  3. petermenelly says:

    This is a project I could easily have seen myself doing; I’ve always been interested in war poetry and military literature in general. Through my great uncle who served in the Marines and my own personal research, I’ve experienced a decent amount of literature and music written by Vietnam veterans, both during their time of service and after they were discharged. In your research did you come across much Vietnam War poetry that contained musical elements or blended the lines between poetry, prose and lyrics? If so, how did this compare with WWII and Korean War poetry?