Book Review: Poets Of World War II

Poets Of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro

I was very disappointed by this read.  I am certainly no stranger to reading about World War II, nor to reading books of poetry [1].  Yet there is a great disconnect in this book between my appreciation of the poetry–some of which is quite good–and my lack of appreciation of the underlying sentiment and the tone of the editor that makes sense of it.  A big part of that disconnect has to do with the matter of patriotism.  At least among the veterans I know, there is a great deal of patriotic pride about this particular war, and that is certainly the case in the collective memory.  Yet one will search this collection in vain for the sort of patriotism that a genuine patriot would be proud of.  You can find plenty of leftist carping and even some fascist poetry courtesy of Ezra Pound.  One can find people tweaking America about racism and plenty of pacifist poetry–including some from William Stafford, whose poetry I actually like–but one will search in vain for a genuine sense of patriotism here, and that is definitely something that this book is missing.  One cannot imagine that there was a lack of good patriotic poetry, but one can easily imagine a leftist poet having a hard time honoring it properly in a book like this one.

The contents of this book are organized like the rest of the series I am familiar with, in chronological order by the birthdate of the poet.  Although this book purports to have only American poets, there are some fudges here that work out for the best.  For example, British-born W.H. Auden, whose September 1, 1939 is a great poem, and Russian-born Nabokov are represented here, and both have fine work.  Despite the wide breadth of poets represented, most of them who come from leftist political perspectives that are very skeptical and cynical, a few poets manage to have a few poems shown here, like Lincoln Kirstein, Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi, Noward Nemerov, and Louis Simpson.  Overall, though, despite the power of World War II this collection feels more than a little bit slight.  Because it was chosen with such an obvious and such a negative political bias, the poems do not hit the mark.  This is, on the whole, as undistinguished a collection of poems that one can imagine.  The collection of my childhood poems would have had more highs than this book does, sadly, and probably not nearly as many lows.

Ultimately, this book is a demonstration that among the literati of the United States, the rot and corruption that would engulf the larger culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s was already present here.  A literary elite that could not be inspired to fight bravely and nobly by being opposed by such wicked men as Hitler and Japan’s militaristic regime is a literary elite that is rapidly losing any kind of moral courage whatsoever.  To be sure, a great many of the poets reflect negatively on the way that death came from above and there was a remoteness from other troops and from one’s enemies that certainly made warfare less romantic than the past, but all in all this is grim reading.  The poets feel comfortable writing about anonymous death and the degradation of the body, and certainly on the racism of the South, but they lack the sort of moral vision that would make this work memorable or transcendent.  Among the poet-critics of the war, few come off remotely well, perhaps best of all William Stafford, who at least stood by his principles of pacifism and showed himself willing to serve his time during the war at a labor camp rather than bloody his own hands.  Compared to his noble willingness to sacrifice glory and honor in the eyes of others for his principles, the rest of these whiny critics come off rather poorly indeed, though perhaps none so poorly as the editor of this work.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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