“Where Are the War Poets?” WWII in Verse

If I asked you to name a poem from the First World War, or even the name of a poet who participated in that war, you could probably do it. At the very least, you might recall fragments of “In Flanders Fields.” Or names like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Now, name a poem from the Second World War, or even the name of a poet who participated in it.

* * * * *

I retrieved just one from deep in the memory of my schooling: “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (though not the name of its author, Randall Jarrell). And whether or not my high school English teacher was right that its last line was inspired by the abortion of a fetus (“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose”), I wasn’t shocked not to see its words carved on any the WWII memorial I visited on a recent tour of southern Minnesota.

But I was mildly surprised not to see any poetry from 1941-1945 on them. In fact, the only war poem I saw was John McCrae’s WWI classic. When the VFW post of tiny Melrose, Minnesota dedicated a memorial in 1950, they had the third verse of “In Flanders Fields” inscribed on it.

"In Flanders FIelds" quotation on Melrose (MN) Memorial
Detail from the War Memorial in Melrose, MN

While the WWII page at the War Poets Association website asserts that “The various conflicts that swept through the world from 1939 to 1945 produced an extraordinary body of poetry by several hundred poets,” it also acknowledges that those who tried to respond with verse feared that they had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said by Owen, Sassoon, McCrae, and the other war poets of 1914-1918. Keith Douglas, the British poet who fought in North Africa and died in Normandy, interrupted the beginning of “Desert Flowers” with a nod to another poet of that preceding generation: “Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying.” When Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem for the 1962 consecration of a new cathedral at Coventry — the old one a rather famous victim of the Luftwaffe — he used as his text the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

(Incidentally, or not, the 9th edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature includes sections entitled “Voices of” both wars, but the one for WWI has about six times as many excerpts as the one for WWII.)

In a October 1941 radio talk asking “Why has this War produced no War Poets?”, WWI memoirist Robert Graves gave this explanation: “Poems about the horrors of the trenches were originally written to stir the ignorant and complacent people at home…” but no one in 1941 “will feel any qualms about the justice of the British cause or about the necessity of the war’s continuance.” Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis advanced a more cynical version of that argument, in his brief poem asking a similar question:

They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse—
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

* * * * *

Stallworthy, The Oxford Book of War PoetryBut poetry was written. Some did make that defense; others critiqued how “the bad” acted too much like “the worse.” But poetry was written by soldiers and observers trying simply to find some way to express the inexpressible about a war more violent than anything humans had ever experienced.

As I’ve been thinking about teaching my new course on World War II and looking for primary sources to assign students, I browsed through the WWII poems collected by Jon Stallworthy, one of the Norton Anthology editors, in his Oxford Book of War Poetry (such as the one above from Day-Lewis).

I should make clear that Stallworthy doesn’t actually set apart a “WWII” section, and poems can appear out of chronological order. (For example, WWI veteran Archibald MacLeish’s “Memorial Rain” is actually from 1926, in honor of his brother, a fighter pilot who died in 1918, but Stallworthy places it after several works from WWII). But from those in the collection recognizably tied to the Second World War, a few themes stood out:

• Whereas WWI had not only made famous writers like Sassoon, Graves, and (posthumously) Owen, but inspired efforts from aging Victorians like Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy and rising modernists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, only two names from the WWII section of Stallworthy’s collection stood out to a casual student of poetry like me: Dylan Thomas, whose “The hand that signed the paper” stands alone here, but is only one of several works inspired by the bombing of civilians that appears in the New Directions collection of his poetry; and W.H. Auden, represented by one of his Sonnets from China (originally published as Journey to a War in 1939, then later revised).

• Though the German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Auden’s poem was not alone in addressing the Holocaust and the other mass killings of WWII: “…maps can really point to places / Where life is evil now. / Nanking. Dachau.” Ephim Fogel’s “Shipment to Maidanek” itemized victims of the Final Solution: “…seventeen dozen Danes, nine gross of Dutch. / Total: precisely a million and a half”). Anthony Hecht imagined the last moments of two Jews (“Much casual death had drained away their souls”) and the Pole who refused to bury them alive and was “shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.” Randall Jarrell’s other war poetry included one about “A Camp in the Prussian Forest,” where

The Voice of the Poet: Randall JarrellThe needles of the wreath are chalked with ash,
A filmy trash
Litters the black woods with the death
Of men; and one last breath

Curls from the monstrous chimney….

• Of course, the reality of Holocaust is one reason that the War Poets Association page I quoted above can claim that “the unparalleled scale of the inhumanity and violence unleashed after 1939 was such that it seemed to many to be beyond poetry, or even to be an inappropriate subject for poets.” Over sixty million dead, most of them civilians (and a lot of the rest civilians temporarily made into soldiers). How could poetry begin to evoke such loss?

Perhaps by alluding to the most terrible act of violence known to the religious imagination: the death of the Son of God.

Crucifixion appears in several poems from Stallworthy’s collection, but the two most striking examples of theme he places back to back. First, David Gascoyne‘s “Ecce Homo,” which likened Fascists to the Roman soldiers on Golgotha:

He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His splattered blood

Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.

Then Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain,” inspired by the Blitz:

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

This was one WWII poem that Benjamin Britten did set to music:

But the literary response to WWII seems to have been more post-Christian than Christian.

Shapiro, V-Letter and Other Poems
Shapiro’s Pulitzer-winning collection from 1945

One of the more acclaimed American poets of the war, Karl Shapiro, won the Pulitzer as a 32-year old medical corps clerk serving in the Pacific. A writer who (according to David Wojahn) “proudly proclaimed his Jewishness and set himself against the main trends of Modernism,” Shapiro is represented in Stallworthy’s collection by a poem written in 1944, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier,” which narrates a memorial service where “A white sheet on the tail-gate of a truck / Becomes an altar….” Shapiro’s chaplain merely “chats” and a reading from the apostle Paul leads him to ask “Shall we believe our eyes or legends rich / With glory and rebirth beyond the void?” The dead soldier is eulogized as one who “belonged to church / But never spoke of God.”

But “could we mark the grave of him who died,” Shapiro suggests this haunting epitaph:

Underneath this wooden cross there lies
A Christian killed in battle. You who read,
Remember that this stranger died in pain;
And passing here, if you can lift your eyes
Upon a peace kept by a human creed,
Know that one soldier has not died in vain.

And that’s a WWII poem worth inscribing into a memorial.


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