Friday, August 24

Poetry Friday: Two About War

I caught a peep at a new book due out in the spring called America At War, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. The selections are grouped by the major American wars starting with poems about the Revolutionary War and concluding with poems from the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

I had been looking lately for a poem about the Vietnam War that might resonate today. I found in this collection a Sandburg poem from World War I that I had forgotten.

Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high as Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What is this place?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

I remember being more than a little creeped out when my 7th grade teacher had us memorize that, the images of the grass growing over the fallen. Since then I've come to hear the weary voice of the grass begging to be allowed to cover over the scars of battle. Not to hide but to heal.

I had also been looking for a poem by Denise Levertov, separate from a war poem, and found this in the same collection.

What Were They Like?
Denise Levertov

1) Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?
2) Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4) Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
5) Had they and epic poem?
6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
5) It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants, their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
6) there is no echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.
Too much silence these days, too quiet for my taste.


Unknown said...


John Mutford said...

Both are great poems but I especially like the unique format in the second.