Reading the Poetry of War

Eric M. Murphy and Linda A. Sanders

Book lists are common, and each serves a purpose in the communities for which they are created and promulgated. The military community is no different, and reading lists abound. Consider, for example, the recent release of the Army Chief of Staff’s reading list, a collection of over 100 titles designed to help soldiers in pursuing a course of personal study and professional development. Or consider the list of “What Successful Strategists Read,” compiled by Aaron Bazin from surveys of military members and comprised of both fiction and non-fiction titles, that feeds and is fed by lists like the Chief of Staff’s in a mutually reinforcing way. Then there are more narrowly focused lists like Diane Maye's "Fiction for the Strategist" or “Science Fiction and the Strategist” compiled by Nathan Finney and Brigadier Mick Ryan to supplement the more typical fare on professional reading lists. Reviewing these particular lists, though, and professional military reading lists more generally, there is an obvious gap. While they encompass fiction and non-fiction in a variety of forms, they too often exclude poetry altogether.

Why is this a gap? Why does this create a vulnerability in our thinking? Because there is a very real difference between the reading of fiction and non-fiction on the one hand and poetry on the other. Marianne Moore once wrote:

I, too, dislike it
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

In the poetry of war, we record something of the genuine experience, raise a monument to that experience, and share it with others. As Ben Lerner writes in The Hatred of Poetry, “Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine.” The poetry of war provides a record of our experience of war beyond the finite and the historical. We can play back and recall or raise up glory and ignominy, pride and shame, life and death, the transcendent and the divine.

Importantly, though, poetry is an intensely individual experience—for the poet and for the reader of poetry—and begs for diversity because of it. Soldiers experience war differently from civilians and leaders differently from those they lead. The ancients experienced war differently from our contemporaries. Men experience war differently from women. We experience war differently from them, and the living certainly experience it differently from the dead.

We’d therefore like to offer a list of poetry reflecting the varied experiences of war...and a project.

The list below is intended as neither a definitive list nor a characterization of the canon of war poetry one should read…but it is a start to that conversation. We propose that you—the readers and writers of war poetry—tell us what we’ve missed. Choose your favorite poem (not book, not poet... but poem) and tweet it or respond on Facebook with an author, a title, and the hashtag #TheBridgeReadsPoetry. We’ll compile the submissions over the coming weeks into a larger list reflecting all of our experiences of war and war poetry. We’re creating a mixtape of individual poems, and we’re creating it together.

Editor’s Note: Titles in bold appeared in the original list published on 8 Sep 17. All other titles were subsequently suggested by readers in the ensuing month as part of our experiment in crowd-sourcing a playlist for the poetry of war.

  1. Anna Akhmatova, “July 1914”

  2. Anonymous, “Home Is Where the Pie Is”

  3. Anonymous, The Song of Roland

  4. Harold Arpthorp and Bernard Newman, "The Road To La Basse"

  5. Herbert Asquith, "The Fallen Subaltern"

  6. Margaret Atwood, “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”

  7. W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”

  8. William Blake, “A War Song To Englishmen”

  9. Adrienne Blanc-Peridier, "Le Cantique de la Patrie, 1917"

  10. Jorge Luis Borges, “A Soldier of Urbina”

  11. Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier”

  12. Randy Brown, “what sacrifice has been”

  13. May Wedderburn Cannan, “France”

  14. Cathy Linh Che, “I Walked Through the Trees, Mourning”

  15. G.K. Chesterton, “Lepanto”

  16. G.K. Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”

  17. Lucille Clifton, “Let There Be New Flowering”

  18. Stephen Crane, “War is Kind”

  19. E.E. Cummings, “i sing of Olaf glad and big”

  20. Jonathan E. Czarnecki, “The Wall”

  21. Kate Daniels, “War Photograph”

  22. Maurice Decaul, “U.S. Grant on the Disbanding of the Iraqi Army”

  23. James L. Dickey, “The Firebombing”

  24. James J. Dickey, “Hunting Civil War Relics At Nimblewill Creek”

  25. Hilde Domin, “Cologne”

  26. Edward Field, “World War II”

  27. Carolyn Forché, “The Colonel”

  28. Brett Friedman et al, “Santa Clausewitz”

  29. Robert Graves, “To Lucasta on Going to the War—for the Fourth Time”

  30. Mary C.D. Hamilton, “Lord, Guide and Guard the Men Who Fly”

  31. Thomas Hardy, "Christmas: 1924"

  32. Shawn Harris, “Furious Calm”

  33. Homer, The Iliad

  34. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Soldier”

  35. A.E. Houseman, “Here Dead We Lie”

  36. A.E. Houseman, “Soldier From the Wars Returning”

  37. Julia Ward Howe, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

  38. Felicia Hemans, “Casabianca”

  39. Randall Jarrell, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

  40. Randall Jarrell, “Eighth Air Force”

  41. David Jones, In Parenthesis

  42. Mitsuharu Kaneko, “The Song of Loneliness”

  43. Jane Kenyon, “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863”

  44. Rudyard Kipling, “Arithmetic on the Frontier”

  45. Rudyard Kipling, “Boots”

  46. Rudyard Kipling, “Gunga Din”

  47. Rudyard Kipling, “My Boy Jack”

  48. Rudyard Kipling, “Tommy”

  49. Kenneth Koch, “To World War Two”

  50. Yusef Komunyakaa, “Hanoi Hannah”

  51. Yusef Komunyakaa, “Tu Do Street”

  52. Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV”

  53. Roland Aubrey Leighton, "Hédauville"

  54. Roland Aubrey Leighton, "Villanelle"

  55. Mikhail Lermontov, “Borodino”

  56. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christmas Bells”

  57. Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”

  58. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius”

  59. E.A. Mackintosh, “In Memoriam”

  60. John Gillespie Magee, Jr., "High Flight"

  61. Steve Mason, “The Wall Within”

  62. Mathew 5-7, “The Sermon on the Mount”

  63. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

  64. Herman Melville, “Shiloh: A Requiem”

  65. Howard Nemerov, “The War in the Air”

  66. Tzvi Nesher, "Cyanide Boy"

  67. Dan O‘Brien, The War Reporter

  68. George Oppen, “Survival: Infantry”

  69. Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”

  70. Wilfred Owen, “Futility”

  71. Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”

  72. Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, “The Last Parade”

  73. Psalm 18:5, “The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.”

  74. Psalm 18:34: “He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.”

  75. Henry Reed, “Judging of Distances”

  76. Henry Reed, “Naming of Parts”

  77. Anton Schnack, “Standing To”

  78. Alan Seeger, “I Have a Rendezvous With Death”

  79. Siegfried Sassoon, “Dreamers”

  80. Siegfried Sassoon, “Suicide in the Trenches”

  81. Siegfried Sassoon, “The General”

  82. Antarah ibn Shaddad, “Did Poetry Die?" or “The Mu’Allaqa of Antarah”

  83. Shakespeare, Henry V

  84. Karl Shapiro, “The Conscientious Objector”

  85. Tom Sleigh, “Homage to Basho”

  86. Patrick Shaw Stewart, “I saw a man this morning”

  87. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade”

  88. Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet”

  89. Bruce Weigl, “Elegy for Peter”

  90. Bruce Weigl, “Song of Napalm”

  91. Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser”

  92. W.B. Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”

  93. W.B. Yeats, “On Being Asked for a War Poem”

Eric M. Murphy is a mathematician, operations research analyst, and strategist for the United States Air Force. He is also an Editor at The Strategy Bridge. Linda A. Sanders is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Rider University and Ocean County College in New Jersey. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Header Image: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Commander of the 617 Squadron "Dambusters" at Scampton, Lincolnshire, July 22, 1943. (Imperial War Museum)

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