The Poetry of War by Stanton S. Coerr
At Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC it is common for waiting passengers to greet veteran groups. Everyone is always asked to clap. “Clap” they say with enthusiasm. “It’s for the veterans!” Perhaps fearing that without a prompt no one would. These elderly groups arrive from different states for a day or two, laying wreaths at their respective memorials. Some are ushered in wheelchairs to the eerie statues of the Korean War memorial that are like gargoyles eternally fighting through the fog and brush. Others line up along the long black wall of names dedicated to the Vietnam War where they find their friends. With each year, fewer appear just West of the Washington Monument to see the World War II Memorial in all its fountains and glory. Today one can see more kites there than tears, but maybe that’s how it should be.
As generations disappear so does our connection to their experiences. There are two World War I memorials in the District. One celebrates the men and women from Washington that fought in Europe ten decades ago, the other, Pershing Park was officially established only in 2014 as a memorial to the War (commemorating its centennial) and not just the general that led our troops against Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people pass by each year, but no one visits these destinations to commemorate — they remain wreath-less.
At places both marked or hidden, where wreaths are no longer laid, war poetry provides society’s record. Poetry is our greatest monument. But war poetry has been on a decline. There is an abundance of literature about Afghanistan and Iraq and endless raw video footage. History has never been recorded more completely than today. In this world, however, no voice rises above the media-created noise to make us pause, breathe, think, or — for a moment — shiver. Imagine if one night, on prime-time, we got just two minutes to hear a poem such as Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches.” Here is an excerpt:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
While many may write, there seems to be a poetic void in our society. Some write personally, others share on public forums, and a few publish their work in magazines that have a limited and primarily military audience — everyone remains unknown and generally unread. There is no national poet — a Kipling, Graves, or Owen. If you walk the memorials in Washington DC and ask strangers to name a poem that changed their perspective about today’s wars you’ll come back empty-handed.
It used to be different.
Stanton S. Coerr’s bold and daring poetry project, Rubicon, is also obscure. A self-published collection of work it reads, at times, like a desperate attempt to be heard. And yet, this is what poetry should be: honest, vulnerable, and loud. Poetry captures the human condition; it is not supposed to be a catalog of events. In fact, war poetry, does not have to comment on war; it can use the experience and stress of deployments to provide an exposé on the very social fabric from which a soldier emanates. Poetry allows for immense metaphor and, if done right, leaves a lasting lesson to its readers. After all, poetry, as W.H. Auden — a 20th century master — said is “memorable speech.”
Brotherhood, friendship, loss and love transcend the violence of combat. Poetry gives us both ends of the human condition: the softest of words for the hardest of truths. — Stanton S. Coerr
It would be easy to misconstrue Coerr’s poetry as verse. The book’s near seventy pieces are divided by poems that have a tight and repetitive rhyme, those that have rhythm yet lack structure, and those that tell stories and observations. It is here that Coerr is strongest. He manages to weave through his writing on war several other important and unifying themes: maturity, separation, race, and regret. Undoubtedly a tall order for his first collection.
In “Harvest Moon” Coerr explores the draw of young men to military experience. It’s heartening to read as he carefully builds up to a crescendo of departing with “One bag. A train. Goodbyes. Now the going.” Harvest is reflective of this collection as it describes a small town boy with a calling to enlist, an experience that forever shapes a person’s character and worldview. The poem tells of bonds built among soldiers, but also provides a glimpse into their despair. While one veteran may feel kinship to all others, “each of them” returns “lonely, one to another.”
In “American Dream” Coerr is direct and personal. It is a story of routine. There is a blunt observation on the American life, seeing Afghans at the 7/11 every morning smile and serve coffee with kindness and compassion. They are building an enterprise in America of which this soldier is now a regular customer. But one of the store clerks has a limp and so now every morning this soldier questions whether it was his bullet that caused the disability. Is it the Afghan or the veteran that benefits more from the American dream?
Across the world, “Purple” describes a little girl running past a convoy of those same small town boys — now men — that are covered in more gear than once fit in their one bag. She, conversely, “wears half of all she owns.” She is exposed, innocent, a bystander to the conflict that consumes everyone around her. Humanity, as Coerr reminds us throughout this collection, is grander than war. This girl can still experience joy, while the boys in their kevlar can only muster a grin.
Coerr’s work is filled with beautiful vignettes. His poems make soldiers human and past enemies neighbors. Children are featured prominently, but so are snakes. What he masterfully accomplishes is to use innocence to describe a personal and societal pre-war condition. In turn, war, is described as the Rubicon — an irrevocable experience — much like childhood which irreversibly passes.
T.S. Eliot was famously criticized by George Orwell for his coy introduction to Faber & Faber’s collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. At first blush Eliot’s review was filled with praise, but he accused Kipling of writing verse and not poetry, adding — to save face — that there is “poetry in verse.” Kipling could be magisterial on one page and intolerable on another; this was common knowledge. Eliot acknowledged Kipling’s ability to focus our attention “to the object and not the medium,” but only to suggest that his writing could be confused for simple “jingles.” Eliot’s motivation for such sleights was to suggest that he was the better poet; Orwell rightly intervened.
Orwell was not blind to Kipling’s elitism, jingo imperialism, and outward racism. Yet he was the first to discern his mastery from his politics. War consumed Kipling’s best and most voluminous writing; he was its astute observer and gravest victim — his only son John died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling forever encapsulated an era, Orwell observed, not because he recorded the first draft of history poetically. He instinctively understood the impact of his times — growing up in Victorian colonial India, covering the Boer Wars in South Africa, and his family’s participation and sacrifice in The Great War — as lasting lessons about the very fabric of British society.
In times of war and not before,
God and the soldier we adore.
But in times of peace and all things righted,
God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.
Conflicts seem to persist unabated, but one day we will transition from a post 9/11 America defined by terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq. One can hope! At that time soldiers will again be slighted. Poetry can help society cope and understand the decisions of its past, the value of service, and the irrevocable experience war has on us all.
It is easy to see how Coerr’s work could be overlooked. Some of it is very challenging, dense, and hard to follow. There are poems that are set in different time periods that makes reading them puzzling. On the other hand, many of his other works are created based on a basic A/B/A/B or A/A/B/B structure. But, if Kipling taught us anything, it is that writing jingles makes poetry accessible. And writing dense “verse” sometimes is the only way to deeply explore an experience. Coerr accomplishes both with grace.
Coerr is not today’s Kipling. And it is an unfair comparison. However, we should celebrate his aspiration and in doing so inspire the thousands of others that have deployed to write. Backgrounds will shape what each reader will or can take away from Rubicon. It is a collection that takes one evening to read, but you’ll pick it up again the very next night.
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Header Image: Arabella Dorman, Contemporary British War Artist