April is National Poetry Month, a 30-day celebration inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, to encourage all of us to think about poetry and poets in our culture.
For at least three years, I considered discussing war poems. Then, a presidential election occurred, and I chose to introduce readers to Amanda Gorman and other inaugural poets. Next came two years of pandemic, and I chose to encourage everyone to find solace in poems like “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and “The Thing Is” by Ellen Bass.
However, in February 2023, when “Mouth Still Open” by Mosab Abu Toha arrived in my inbox from Poem-a-Day, I knew the universe had spoken.
“Someone’s mouth is still open.
He hadn’t finished yawning
when shrapnel pierced
through his chest,
stung his heart.
No wind could stop
the flying pieces of shrapnel.
Even the sparrow on the lemon tree nearby
wondered how they could move with no wings.”
So, this year, I invite you to explore with me the impact of selected poets who have used their linguistic tools to paint a picture of the sorrow and horror of war.
Since Homer wrote the “Iliad,” bards have been the messengers who tell stories of heroism or hell. Often, the poems that resonate most with readers are those written by persons who have served in the military. One example is that of Iraqi war veteran Brian Turner. This is an excerpt from his poem “Here, Bullet,” published in his book by the same name in 2005.
“If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started.”
When readers search for the best war poems, many cited come from World War I. Mark W. Van Wienen, professor of English at Northern Illinois University, has edited a book titled “Rendezvous With Death, American Poems of the Great War.” Among the more than 100 entries included is the title poem, the first stanza of which is foreboding:
“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes round with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.”
Alan Seeger, the poet who wrote “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” served in World War I, and was killed in battle at Belloy-en-Santerre in France in July 1916. He had written the poem on the sly.
Sometimes, war poets both lament losses and exhort the next wave of fighters as did Canadian officer and surgeon John McCrae in the often-quoted “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae jotted down these words during the Battle of Ypres shortly after losing a friend.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place; and in the sky
the larks, still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago,
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields.”
Englishman Thomas Hardy was debarred by age from active service in either the Boer War or the Great War. However, his well-known poem, “The Man He Killed,” illuminates the irony of war.
“Had he and I but met
by some old ancient inn,
we should have sat us down to wet
right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry
and staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
and killed him in his place.
. . .
Yes, quaint and curious war is
you shoot a fellow down
you’d treat if met where any bar is
or help to half a crown.”
Other effective war poems have been written by laypeople. Richard Swanson, Madison, Wisconsin, poet, says this about the genesis of his poem “Baghdad Email.” “Soldiers, in action these days after Vietnam and starting in Iraq, are largely invisible to the public at large. For security reasons, we are told, battle details and military activities need to be kept secret. In my poem, I wanted to put a face on war.”
“Mom, Dad, hey.
Coming home early.
not to worry much
learning to type all over.
miss my unit, the guys
Poets have long testified about war, yet wars rage on. Not on American soil, perhaps, but in other countries where men and women serve and die. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, writer Janet Leahy chooses to bear witness in her book of poems, “The Storm.”
“They say … war is over
I want to set my poems of war
Yet day after day
You are the sniper’s target
one by one
I write poems of war,
so we do not
This year, Mosab Abu Toha, the Palestinian poet whose family, including three children, has lived through four major attacks since 2008, would not let ME forget.
• Jan Bosman of Woodstock taught English and business for 32 years, the last 22 at Johnsburg High School. She also is a published essayist and poet and a member of the Atrocious Poets of McHenry County and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.