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.

  1. Margaret Atwood, “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”
  2. William Blake, “A War Song To Englishmen”
  3. Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier”
  4. Cathy Linh Che, “I Walked Through the Trees, Mourning”
  5. Hilde Domin, “Cologne”
  6. Edward Field, “World War II”
  7. Homer, The Iliad
  8. A.E. Houseman, “Soldier From the Wars Returning”
  9. Julia Ward Howe, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
  10. Randall Jarrell, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
  11. Mitsuharu Kaneko, “The Song of Loneliness”
  12. Jane Kenyon, “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863”
  13. Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV”
  14. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius”
  15. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
  16. Herman Melville, “Shiloh: A Requiem”
  17. Tzvi Nesher, "Cyanide Boy"
  18. George Oppen, “Survival: Infantry”
  19. Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”
  20. Siegfried Sassoon, “Suicide in the Trenches”
  21. Shakespeare, Henry V
  22. Karl Shapiro, “The Conscientious Objector”
  23. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade”
  24. Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet”
  25. Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser”

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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