Spotlight on War Poets

Veterans Day is coming up and here at My Poetic Side we’re honoring our military veterans the best way we know how: by shining a spotlight on some of our favorite war poets. So as we thank our veterans for their military service, we’ll be curling up with the words of these notable poets.

Walt Whitman – The American Civil War


In 1862, American poet Walt Whitman moved to Washington, DC, intent on leaving New York behind for good. Whitman, fresh off his publication of Leaves of Grass, was hired as a part-time clerk in the Army paymaster’s office on the recommendation of a friend. The position gave Whitman plenty of time to volunteer as a nurse in the Army hospitals. The years he volunteered there had a profound affect on Whitman and his work, inspiring not only his poetry collection Drum-Taps, but also a newspaper article titled “The Great Army of the Sick.” Whitman described the process of writing Drum-Taps as something that came together in fits and starts, filling his notebook with draft fragments as he meditated on the military men and the ordinary objects they used. Drum-Taps was published in 1865 shortly before the death of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman was so moved by Lincoln’s death, however, that he couldn’t let Drum-Taps remain in publication as is. He wrote the now-famous poem “O Captain! My Captain!” as a tribute to the fallen president, publishing it in an 18-poem Civil War collection titled Sequel to Drum-Taps.

Rudyard Kipling – Crimean War and Boer War


Inspired by the hardships Crimean War veterans faced in old age, English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote the incredibly moving “The Last of the Light Brigade.” The poem is an echo of Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and documents the fictional visit of all surviving members of the Battle of Balaclava’s light brigade to Tennyson himself. In the poem, the twenty surviving veterans appeal to Tennyson to write a sequel to his original poem. “You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now,” the cavalry men plea. Kipling’s intention was to appeal to the British public with his allegorical poem in the hopes that his fellow citizens would offer financial support to these veterans. Unlike Tennyson’s original poem, however, “The Last of the Light Brigade” wasn’t particularly well received. Kipling went on to write poetry in support of the British troops in the Boer War, including his well-known poem “Lichtenberg.”

David Jones – World War I


British modernist poet David Jones drew upon his experience as a World War I infantryman to write his epic poem In Parenthesis. The poem utilizes both lyrical verse and prose to tell the story of English Private John Ball and his experience serving in an English-Welsh regiment. The tone and language Jones utilizes in the piece range from Cockney slang and military colloquialisms to that of a more formal nature. Though he’d been attempting to write about his military experience since 1928, it wasn’t until 1937 that Jones considered his attempts successful and published his epic. This literary debut was praised by critics and fellow poets alike, ultimately garnering him the Hawthornden Prize.

Karl Shapiro – World War II


While stationed in New Guinea during World War II, American poet Karl Shapiro wrote a collection of poems titled V-Letter and Other Poems. Shapiro went on to accomplish an incredible feat – he was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry while he was still serving in the military. After the war ended, Shapiro went on to become the 1946 and 1947 Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress – a title we now call Poet Laureate of the United States. While Shapiro’s early work showcases a mastery of formal verse laced with modern sensibility, his later work – including his 1964 collection The Bourgeois Poet and his 1968 collection White-Haired Lover – experimented with a more open form. His latest work, titled Coda: Last Poems, was published posthumously in 2008.

Rolando Hinojosa – The Korean War


American poet Rolando Hinojosa’s service in the Korean War provided inspiration for Korean Love Songs. This 1978 corrido is narrated by an orphaned and somewhat eccentric soldier named Rafa Buenrostro, the reader’s guide through Japan and Korea. As a Mexican American poet and soldier, Hinojosa plays with the identities of the Chicano soldiers serving alongside his fictional Buenrostro. The soldiers are individualized to start, but as the corrido progresses, the reader is presented with seemingly more urgent identities for these soldiers to carry. Their place in the 219th Field Artillery Battalion, for instance. Or the institutional nature of the United States Army. Hinojosa has dedicated the majority of his career to his Klail City Death Trip series, a project that consists of fifteen volumes to date, including Korean Love Songs. In 2013, Hinojosa was awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Critics Circle.

Michael Casey – Vietnam War


American poet Michael Casey was drafted into the Vietnam War after graduating with a degree in Physics from Lowell Technological Institute. His work as a military police officer in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province provided the inspiration for his debut collection Obscenities. The collection went on to win the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award and its publication shifted Casey’s focus from physics to creative writing, despite a post-military Master’s degree in Physics from SUNY Buffalo. Nearly thirty years after Obscenities’ initial publication, Casey came out with The Million Dollar Hole, a collection of military-fueled poetry inspired by his time stationed at Fort Leonardwood in Missouri during the Vietnam War.

Brian Turner – Iraq War


A veteran of the Iraq War, American poet Brian Turner was awarded the Beatrice Hawley Award for his debut collection Here, Bullet. The collection was inspired by his experience as an Iraq War leader of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from 2003 to 2004. Following Here, Bullet’s success, Turner published Phantom Noise in 2010. While both collections draw on Turner’s experience in Iraq, Phantom Noise adopts a flashback style to combat the devastations of memory, taking the reader on a surreal journey from Turner’s California home to the infantry in Iraq.

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