In honor of National Poetry Month, Slate asked a handful of writers and editors to name a poem they turned to in a time of war. By the time we had gathered their responses, the second Gulf War was mostly over, but the poems’ immediacy remains, as does much of the confusion caused by combat. As Robert Pinsky reminds us in his commentary on Thomas Hardy, poetry continues to embody feelings that are usually only half-articulated. Here are the selected poems, each accompanied by commentary and an audio file. (Click on the links to hear the readings.)
Robert Pinskyon “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations,’ ” by Thomas Hardy
Sometimes poetry simply embodies in memorable form what many of us half-consciously feel. For example, people on all sides of the war in Iraq, and people of many different opinions about the war, all shared a deep wish that it be over. And maybe not only over, but somehow more than over—subsumed or gotten over by the normal, relatively decent rhythms of life and death.
That wishful thinking is enlarged in Thomas Hardy’s poem “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations.’ ” The title draws from the Biblical book of Jeremiah, and the poem was written in the dark year 1915. It is in three very brief parts:
Listen to Robert Pinsky reading this poem.
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
Somber comfort. I think we devoutly wish it to be so.
Alice Quinn on “Just Children” by Adam Zagajewski
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945, and his masters were Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert, the great poetic voices of post-war Poland. The New Yorker ran Adam’s poem “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” in the issue just after Sept. 11, 2001, and it struck a necessary note at that time. These great postwar Polish poets lived through so much: They’d managed to perfect, in the 30 years following the war, a balance of reverence for the world and a sharp awareness of the fragility of life.
One of the things I love about the poem is the way the punctuation figures: the implied single quotations around the word “just,” and the use of an exclamation point at the end following that wonderful question “who wouldn’t want to be a child, for the last time”—that exclamation point makes a point, but with an air of gentle surprise. I also love the tranquil mood of the poem and the way that as you read it your senses light up to the dimension of the sentence—you’re gazing so intently at the lindens and at the children, lulled into a meditation on how delightful it would be to be a child. Then comes a swerve at the close: “Who wouldn’t want to be a child for the last time”—and you think “Ummm … maybe.” Childhood, after all, is just the braided thing that every stage of life is: ecstasy, but misery and other things, too.
You could read this a hundred times. It’s so limpid and so wise. It reminds me sometimes of that beautiful poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Sandpiper” and the lines “[t]he world is a mist. And then the world is/ minute and vast and clear.” It’s that shift of scale, there, between looking at the children and yet being aware of the larger present—the devil and the minor gods and the politicians who don’t keep their promises but are still likely to be just as pierced by the sight of the children playing in the sand.
Listen to Alice Quinn reading this poem.
It was just children playing in the sand
(accompanied by the narcotic scent
of blooming lindens, don’t forget),
just children, but after all
the devil, and the minor gods,
and even forgotten politicians,
who’d broken all their promises,
were also there and watched them
with unending rapture.
Who wouldn’t want to be a child
—for the last time!
Judith Shulevitzon “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—” by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson didn’t write many war poems and those she did aren’t very good. This poem isn’t about war, in any obvious sense, but as with much of what Dickinson wrote during the Civil War we sense a terrible and also terribly attractive violence lurking just outside the world encompassed in the poem. Her allusions to war are easily missed, but they are all the more haunting for that. In “A Light exists in Spring,” a poem written in 1864, she describes the passing of a certain moment of the day as “Horizons step”—that is, they march away, like an army disappearing over a hill. In “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” written in 1863, the poet fantasizes that she is a gun carried off to the hunt by her owner. This poem, “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—,” written in 1862, is a horror poem with familiar Gothic overtones. A ghost is said to be less terrifying than one’s own internal demons; I am always struck, though, by the vividness of the “Assassin, hid in our Apartment,” as if Dickinson feared (or hoped) that a soldier might stray from his regiment and sneak into her house. I’m also struck by the breathless melodrama of “The Body—borrows a Revolver—/He bolts the door.” The housebound Dickinson kept the war at a distance, but she almost never stopped thinking about it, and her womanly mixture of sick anxiety and sexual longing seems to me to anticipate how all of us, women and men, would eventually relate to America’s far-off wars.
Listen to Judith Shulevitz reading this poem.
One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—
Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.
The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Dan Chiasson on “Virtue” by George Herbert
The second Gulf War was a spring war, coinciding nearly perfectly with the solstice, and the poem that has been running through my head is a spring poem. The 17th-century English poet George Herbert’s “Virtue” isn’t a “war” poem in any meaningful sense of the term, but it is a poem that offers the only kind of consolation possible in bleak times—hesitant, qualified, quiet.
Just as spring has been parodied by this war, so has dawn. Watching the dawn spread over Baghdad every night, during American prime time, was one of the most unsettling moral events of this war: the tremendous tenderness and privacy of dawn—of strangers’ dawn—televised around the world; dawn light revealing bombed-out apartments and overturned buses.
This is not a poem about war, but it has been conjured before in relation to the trauma of war. In Ford Madox Ford’s novel of the First World War Parade’s End, the hero, Tietjens, sees the sun rise on the carnage of the trenches. At that moment, the first line of Herbert’s poem comes rushing into his mind. As Peter Sacks showed in a brilliant essay on the poem, these syllables stand for the lost pastoral English ideal, the lost English countryside now scored by trenches. With its suggestion of both methodical breathing and a beating heart, the monosyllabic first line also returns Ford’s soldier to his own body—the only safe dwelling place in this suddenly frenetic world. But how safe is the body? Even as the poem calms the soldier, it speeds forward to the stark refrain: “thou must die.”
“How willingly with proper words the soldier dies/ Or lives on the bread of faithful speech,” Wallace Stevens wrote. I wonder, What did soldiers in this war say to steady or console themselves?
Listen to Dan Chiasson reading this poem.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!
The bridal of the earth and sky—
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
Anthony Swofford on “Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field” by Walt Whitman
Choose one poem? Impossible. One a day. If given 30 minutes to record, I’d also have read e.e. cummings’ “my sweet old etcetera,” Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue,” W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and Rexroth’s translation of this poem by Akahito:
I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.
For the one, I chose this poem by Whitman because he’s the father of American poetry, the poet who engaged with his time in order to serve the present and to give those who would follow a past. “Vigil” narrates a doubly unnatural act—men killing one another and one man, a soldier, burying his dead soldier-son.
Always men have sent their sons to battle for state and nation and always they have buried those sons. Whitman’s soldier-father bent over his dead son is the country bent over the multitudes who have died carrying its standard. The country still asks sons, and daughters, to die for us citizens—we are all fathers of the dead fallen; to bend over them in vigil strange. And so poets and writers must, like Whitman, continue to capture these burials if any sense is to be made of the carnage.
Listen to Anthony Swofford reading this poem.
Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field
Vigil strange I kept on the field one night:
When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave, which your dear eyes return’d, with a look I shall never forget;
One touch of your hand to mine, O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground;
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle;
Till late in the night reliev’d, to the place at last again I made my way;
Found you in death so cold, dear comrade—found your body, son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding;)
Bared your face in the starlight—curious the scene—cool blew the moderate night-wind;
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battlefield spreading;
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet, there in the fragrant silent night;
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh—Long, long I gazed;
Then on the earth partially reclining, sat by your side, leaning my chin in my hands;
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you, dearest comrade—Not a tear, not a word;
Vigil of silence, love and death—vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole;
Vigil final for you, brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living—I think we shall surely meet again;)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear’d,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head, and carefully under feet;
And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited;
Ending my vigil strange with that—vigil of night and battlefield dim;
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding;)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain—vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.
Robert Fagles reads Andromache’s lament from the Iliad by Homer
Robert Fagles reads from his translation of the Iliad by Homer. The passage is from the 22nd book, where Andromache laments for her husband, Hector, whose recent death in battle foreshadows the doom of Troy. Andromache’s speech conveys the full catastrophe of a soldier’s demise: She weeps out of love and grief for her fallen husband even as she rages at him for his absence, and for abandoning their son Astyanax to a dark future.
Listen to Robert Fagles reading this selection.
Iliad Book 22, lines 540 - 606
So she cried,
dashing out of the royal halls like a madwoman,
her heart racing hard, her women close behind her.
But once she reached the tower where soldiers massed
she stopped on the rampart, looked down and saw it all—
saw him dragged before the city, stallions galloping,
dragging Hector back to Achaea’s beaked warships—
ruthless work. The world went black as night
before her eyes, she fainted, falling backward,
gasping away her life breath. …
She flung to the winds her glittering headdress,
the cap and the coronet, braided band and veil,
all the regalia golden Aphrodite gave her once,
the day that Hector, helmet aflash in sunlight,
led her home to Troy from her father’s house
with countless wedding gifts to win her heart.
But crowding round her now her husband’s sisters
and brothers’ wives supported her in their midst,
and she, terrified, stunned to the point of death,
struggling for breath now and coming back to life,
burst out in grief among the Trojan women: “O Hector—
I am destroyed! Both born to the same fate after all!
You, you at Troy in the halls of King Priam—
I, at Thebes, under the timberline of Placos,
Eetion’s house. … He raised me as a child,
that man of doom, his daughter just as doomed—
would to god he’d never fathered me!
Now you go down
to the House of Death, the dark depths of the earth,
and leave me here to waste away in grief, a widow
lost in the royal halls—and the boy only a baby,
the son we bore together, you and I so doomed.
Hector, what help are you to him, now you are dead?—
what help is he to you? Think, even if he escapes
the wrenching horrors of war against the Argives,
pain and labor will plague him all his days to come.
Strangers will mark his lands off, stealing his estates.
The day that orphans a youngster cuts him off from friends.
And he hangs his head low, humiliated in every way …
his cheeks stained with tears, and pressed by hunger
the boy goes up to his father’s old companions,
tugging at one man’s cloak, another’s tunic,
and some will pity him, true,
and one will give him a little cup to drink,
enough to wet his lips, not quench his thirst.
But then some bully with both his parents living
beats him from the banquet, fists and abuses flying:
’You, get out—you’ve got no father feasting with us here!’
And the boy, sobbing, trails home to his widowed mother …
And years ago, propped on his father’s knee,
he would only eat the marrow, the richest cuts of lamb,
and when sleep came on him and he had quit his play,
cradled warm in his nurse’s arms he’d drowse off,
snug in a soft bed, his heart brimmed with joy.
Now what suffering, now he’s lost his father—
The Lord of the City, so the Trojans called him,
because it was you, Hector, you and you alone
who shielded the gates and the long walls of Troy.
But now by the beaked ships, far from your parents,
glistening worms will wriggle through your flesh,
once the dogs have had their fill of your naked corpse—
though we have such stores of clothing laid up in the halls,
fine things, a joy to the eye, the work of women’s hands.
Now, by god, I’ll burn them all, blazing to the skies!
No use to you now, they’ll never shroud your body—
but they will be your glory
burned by the Trojan men and women in your honor!”
Her voice rang out in tears and the women wailed in answer.