Poetry as Therapy or The Dead Soldiers Society of Poets

I begin this essay with a warning:  I am no longer a functional poet and claim no subject matter expertise in poesy, the formal study of poetry. Like Garrison Keillor, I am merely a lover of good poems, but I also dabble in writing them.

Emily Dickinson: "We That Wait"

My first efforts were in high school and they were predictably trite, often to the point of tears. During college years, I was too busy with other, more important affairs to write, yet the times were too intense to ignore the innate power of a good poem; this was the 1960s. I hosted a radio show in college in which, between the music, I would read relevant English and American poetry: Cummings, Whitman, Dickinson (did you know she wrote war poems?), Jeffers, Stevens, Longfellow, and the like. I even created one show around Richard Burton’s readings of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry; if you can find a stream or disc of these readings, I strongly recommend listening to Burton’s interpretation.

"Send off" by Wilfred Owen, read by Richard Burton.

While researching one of these shows, I discovered Stephen Crane’s war poem, “War is Kind.” The title is a refrain, repeated throughout a poem making the case that war is anything but kind. Thus, in just the first few verses of this long polemic poem, Crane created a powerful ironic counterpoint to the jingoistic tenor of the time (1899). In the rest of the poem, Crane rails against the tragedy of war, injustice, the inhumanity of man, even God, finishing the poem with this flourish:

Then, swift as they charge through a shadow,
The men of the new battalions,
     Blue battalions—
God lead them high, God lead them far,
God lead them far, God lead them high,
These new battalions,
     The blue battalions.

"War is Kind" by Stephen Crane

I imagined myself in Vietnam, as a soldier, in one of those blue battalions. By that time, 1968, I had done enough academic research and heard enough from returning veterans to know that something had gone terribly wrong in that war.

And then, in 1970, it was my turn.

On the eve of my departure for Fort Gordon and Signal Officer Basic, my parents held a farewell party for me. I got terrifically drunk, because, among other things, my orders assured me I would be in Vietnam within six months; it didn’t turn out that way. Sometime in the wee hours following the party, my mom woke me, and, in tears, presented me with a one-way airline ticket to Toronto; she would support me up there until I could get my feet on the ground, which was a significant financial commitment on my mom’s part. I was from a working class family, and in 1970 airline tickets to anywhere were not cheap.

"Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen

Somehow, in my drunken fog, I developed two images: one of John Kennedy’s call to arms, “Ask not what your country…” and one of Crane’s first verses from “War is Kind.” Essentially, I told my mom, duty calls and I must go.

A decade or so later, after my initial service, after graduate school in political science, and beginning a new career in politics, as my first marriage was crumbling, I sought counsel. One of my therapist’s initial recommendations was to keep a journal, recording my feelings. As I did so, I found my natural tendency was to record images, feelings about those images, and my connective thoughts on both. In other words, I started writing poetry. Primitive at first, as with all writing, with practice the poetry improved. I began getting published in local venues. I actually began to think I had some talent.

"Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen, read by Alex Jennings

Through a realization that my talent was limited and would not pay for my utility bills, my reunion with the Army, and a semi-permanent assignment at the Pentagon, I still wrote poetry, though I thought myself rehabilitated from my divorce and from my military past. A friend who had read my poems asked me if I had read or written any poems about my military experience and if had I read Bruce Weigl?

I responded that I had not done either, but I would look him up and think about writing on my war experience. The first poem I read of Weigl’s, his most famous, was “Song of Napalm.” By the time I finished my first reading, I found my hand shaking, and tears in my eyes. Even now, as I write these words, I find tears welling in my eyes. There is a particular line from this verse that always gets to the core of my being:

But the lie swings back again.
The lie works only as long as it takes to speak
And the girl runs only as far
As the napalm allows
Until her burning tendons and crackling
Muscles draw her up
into that final position
Burning bodies so perfectly assume…

"Song of Napalm," "Burning Shit in An Khe," and "Snowy Egret" by Bruce Weigl

“But the lie swings back again.” Members of my generation of veterans, those who—unlike me—have seen jungle combat, know well napalm or as some of us would refer to it, “nape the snake.” There is a distinct napalm smell which is both saving and condemning: it saved us from impending death, and it condemned those under its bite to a horrible, suffering death. All that salvation and all that condemnation going on for years...and for what? The loss of national pride for the one, and the gaining of national liberation for the other? As a strategic thinker on international relations and national security, I am supposed to be able to assess and analyze these things, coming to some reasoned conclusions about the value of such wars, even in losing, sometimes in winning. I should be dispassionate about these ideas, events, actions, and apply my models and theories of societal behavior in extreme conflict (war) to describe, explain, and even predict.

But then the smell of napalm, and Weigl’s haunting words intrude and disrupt my thinking. And I think of my own poem, certainly not in the league of Crane and Weigl, but nonetheless descriptive of my emotional state, always and ever mindful of our symbol for that damned war, our Wall.

The Wall
(For Jamie)
If, somehow, I can sneak by
                        - intact –
from this place,
a garden of sorrow,
so dark, consuming
all who have known,
all who believed,
and some who simply
could not conceive
that pain,
that strikingly
shaking the
until only the narcotic
of time                                                                                                                    
saves a semblance                                                                                         
of bronze
of cotton
flags, flown softly
yet resolute
among the roses
that dot this reverie,
an inane puppet show
on morals gone mad
amidst the debris
of nations.

Jonathan E. Czarnecki is a Naval War College Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Header Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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