Posts filed under ‘War Poetry’

Alle Tage / Every Day

Ingeborg Bachmann

Listen (to Bachmann read)

Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.

Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.

Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
jeglichen Befehls.

Translation (by Peter Filkins):

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.

What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.


P.S. Today’s recording comes to your courtesy of lyrikline, where you can also fine a whole bunch of other Bachmann recordings.

April 2, 2008 at 3:20 am 4 comments


Yusuf Komunyakaa


Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to me the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved. 

Anytime contemporary war poetry gets discussed, Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau is bound to get mentioned, and with good reason. Direct and moving, Komunyakaa’s poems combine brutal honesty with fragile lyricism, offer us an insider’s view of the war that is stripped of all rhetoric, above and beyond all politics. Reading them, we find ourselves placed in the human center of a maelstrom of savagery, loss, courage and hope, searching for a tentative beauty that is snatched away even as we glimpse it.

Today’s poem is, I think, a good example of what makes Dien Cai Dau so powerful. With its litany of narrow escapes, ‘Thanks’ shows us how the constant awareness of death is the constant awareness of grace, how the true horror of war is the way it proves death arbitrary, “slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men” (as Donne would have it) and how if we come to believe in a power that transcends us, it is because we are constantly aware of how frail the thread of our life is, and how little we have done to deserve to keep it intact.


September 21, 2007 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

The Pilots

Denise Levertov


Because they were prisoners,
because they were polite and friendly and lonesome and homesick,
because they said Yes, they knew
the names of the bombs they dropped
but didn’t say whether they understood what these bombs
are designed to do
to human flesh, and because
I didn’t ask them, being unable to decide
whether to ask would serve
any purpose other than cruelty, and
because since then I met Mrs. Brown, the mother of one of their fellow prisoners,
and loved her, for she has the same lovingkindness in her
that I saw in Vietnamese women (and men too)
and because my hostility left the room and wasn’t there
when I thought I needed it
while I was drinking tea with the POW’s,

because of all these reasons I hope
they were truly as ignorant,
as unawakened,
as they seemed,
I hope their chances in life up to this point
have been poor,
I hope they can truly be considered
victims of the middle America they come from,
their American Legionnaire fathers, their macho high schools,
their dull skimped Freshman English courses,

for if they did understand precisely
what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again,

then I must learn to distrust
my own preference for trusting people,

then I must learn to question
my own preference for liking people,

then I must learn to keep
my hostility chained to me
so it won’t leave me when I need it.

And if it is proved to me
that these men understood their acts,

how shall I ever again
be able to meet the eyes of Mrs. Brown?

It’s about time we updated this blog. And it’s about time we had a Levertov poem up on it.

I really like Levertov – at her best she’s one of the most stunningly lyrical poets of her generation. Today’s poem is taken from The Freeing of the Dust (1975) – one of her most political collections, featuring a whole series of ‘protest’ poems about Vietnam. Of these, The Pilots is easily my favorite, not so much because of its technical brilliance or the quality of its imagery (though it is a deeply eloquent poem) but because of the way it so perfectly captures the fundamental dichotomy between the abstraction of war and human reality of those who fight it, the way it’s so easy to hate War as an idea, and so much harder to condemn those who fight it in person. What do you say to the families of those killed fighting what you believe is a fundamentally unjust war? What do you say to the Mrs. Browns of the world, who are kind, generous and sincere human beings, and yet who take pride in the fact that their sons are out there attacking and killing innocent people?

The Pilots is set in Vietnam, but the questions it raises, the choices its narrator is faced with, remain (sadly) as relevant today as they were three decades ago.


September 19, 2007 at 4:11 am Leave a comment

from Seven Laments for the War Dead

Yehuda Amichai


Is all of this
sorrow? I don’t know.
I stood in the cemetery dressed in
the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
and a shirt yellow as the sun.

Cemeteries are cheap; they don’t ask for much.
Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
tissue paper
that wrapped flowers from the store.
Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
“I Shall never forget you,” in French
on a little ceramic plaque.
I don’t know who it is that won’t ever forget:
he’s more anonymous than the one who died.

Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
“May ye find consolation in the building
of the homeland.” But how long
can you go on building the homeland
and not fall behind in the terrible
three-sided race
between consolation and building and death?

Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
a little love burning always
like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
though he doesn’t know what the light is
or where it comes from.

[translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch]

What better way to end our series on War poetry than with Amichai? I could try summing up the theme, but I don’t need to. This poem says it all.


Coming up on Poi-tre: A Valentine’s Day Special and an Auden retrospective. Stay tuned.

February 13, 2007 at 3:40 am 3 comments

In the Heart of the Beast

C. K. Williams

Listen (part 2)

Listen (part 3)

(May 1970: Kent State, Jackson State)


I’m sorry.

I don’t want to hear anymore that the innocent farmer in ohio on guard
duty means well but is fucked up by his politicians and raises his
rifle out of some primal fear for his own life and his family’s and
that he hates niggers hates them hates them because he is warped and
deceived by events

and pulls the trigger

I’m sorry I don’t want to forgive him anymore
I don’t want to say he didn’t know what he was doing
because he knew what he was doing
because he didn’t pull the trigger once and run away screaming
they kept shooting the kids said
we thought they were blanks but they kept shooting and shooting
we were so scared.

I don’t want to forgive the bricklayer from akron who might or might
not hate his mother I don’t care or the lawyer or gas station
attendant from cleveland who may or may not have had a bad childhood

I don’t care

I don’t want to know

I don’t want to hear anything about it

another kid said the rocks weren’t even reaching them!

I don’t want to understand why they did it

how could you?
just that

everything else is pure shit.


on the front page of the times a girl is screaming
she will be screaming forever
and her friend will lie there forever you wouldn’t know she wasn’t
just sleeping in the sun except for the other screaming
and on the editorial page
“the tragic nature of the division of the country…the provocation
undoubtably was great and was also unpardonable…”

o my god
my god

if there was a way to purify the world who would be left?
there is a list
and it says
this person for doing this
and that person for doing nothing
and this person for not howling in rage
and that for desperately hanging on to the reasons the reasons
there is an avenger
who would be left?
who is there now who isn’t completely insane from all this?
who didn’t dream with me last night
of burning everything destroying everyone
of tearing pieces of your own body off
of coughing your language up and spitting it away like vomit
of wanting to start at the bottom of your house
breaking everything floor by floor
burning the pictures
tearing the mattresses up
smashing windows and chairs until nothing is left
and then the cars with a sledgehammer
the markets
the stores that sell things
the buses
the bridges into the city
the airports
the international harbors
the tall buildings crumpling like corpses
the theaters torn down to the bare stage
the galleries naked the bookstores like mouths open

there should be funerals in front of the white house
bones in the capitol

where do you stop?

how can we be like this?

The more I hear people drawing comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the current one in Iraq, the more I’m struck by one vivid difference – the lack of widespread public protest against the Iraq invasion. Never mind the opinion polls, where are the marches, the street protests?

I’m not alone in noticing this. In last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:

“One of the things that will strike future historians about our era is the placidity of American cultural life at the time of a wildly unpopular war – the unexcited alteration of American death and “American Idol” so different from the eruptions that attended Vietnam – that is a result of our not having to go there if we don’t have [want?] to.”

Today’s poem takes us back to 1970, to the time of those violent eruptions, to the massive outpouring of political outrage that once overflowed America’s campuses, and became the keynote of a generation that turned protest into a culture. It is an angry and (uncharacteristically for Williams) over-the-top poem, frantic in its accusations, breathless with sensibility. Like the generation it champions it is frenzied and impractical; but that is exactly the point. There are times when our conscience demands that we not be reasonable, that we refuse to make allowances. And when what is at stake is the lives and freedoms of innocent people, whether at home or in another country, then that time has come.

There is much that could be said against the student protests of the 70s. You could take, with Gopnik, the cynical view, and argue that, in the era of the draft, the protests were motivated by self-interest. You could say that at the end of the day the protests achieved nothing. No matter what their reasons and no matter how little they achieved, though, at least the young people of the day protested – as loudly and as vehemently as they were able. You may say they were dreamers, but it was a beautiful dream.

And why is a poem about the suppressing of an anti-war protest part of a series on War Poetry? Because in the end the only war worth fighting is the one against war itself.


P.S.: C.K. Williams has a new Collected Poems out (FSG, 2006). A lovely book.

February 12, 2007 at 12:50 pm 1 comment

Building the Barricades

Anna Swirszczynska ‘Swir’

Selections (click on title to hear)

Building the Barricade

We were afraid as we built the barricade
under fire.

The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber,
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving-stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards –
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.

The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.

A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really

Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
under fire.


That Brat

In the morning when he began setting
the bottles of gasoline in the gateway,
the janitor swore like mad.

That brat
stuck his tongue all the way out at him.

In the evening the soldiers brought him back,
he had set a tank on fire.

Now the janitor swore more softly as he dug a small hole
in the yard for that brat.


Said the Major
(in memory of Anna Ratynska)

“The order must be delivered within the hour,”
said the major.
“That’s impossible, it’s hell out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five runner-girls set out,
one got through.

The order was delivered within the hour.


The Last Drop of Air

The sweethearts were dying
buried in the rubble of the cellar.

When there was no more air
and death
forgot to come
who gave who
the last drop of air.


Against the Machine Gun Nest with Grenade

They’ve stopped shooting, lieutenant,
give me a grenade, I’ll go first,
I’m the smallest, they won’t spot me,
I’ll move like a cat on it’s belly, give me a grenade.

Like a cat on its belly, through the puddle,
a grenade in my hand, slowly, very slowly,
my heart pounding so hard they might hear it,
help me, God, slowly, very slowly,
like a cat on its belly, closer, closer,
oh God, even closer, even closer,
now pull the pin, leap.

She leaped. The Germans
let loose with a burst.


The Planes

Those were not German planes,
they were bringing help,
we could not believe our eyes,
but there were fewer and fewer living eyes left.

The roar
of antiaircraft bursts
assured us
those were not German planes.

We lifted up our hands,
with our hands
we tried to shield from death
the planes that were not German.


Waiting to be Shot

My fear grows more powerful
every second
I am as powerful
as a second of fear
I am a universe of fear
I am
the universe.

Now that
I am standing at the wall
and don’t know whether to close my eyes
or not close them.

Now that
I am standing at the wall waiting to be shot.

When you Shoot at Me

For a split second
we look each other in the eye.
When the split second passes
you will shoot at me.

It’s hard to die
it’s hard to kill
there is fear in my eyes
there is fear in your eyes
you are killing these two fears
by shooting
at me.


A Conversation with Mothers

He is going into captivity as if bearing
the bodies of his lads who’ve been killed.
He repeats in a whisper, repeats endlessly
their eighteen-year-old names,
he sees the eyes of their mothers, they are looking at him.

“Your son was killed defending the barricade
that’s no longer there, defending the house
that’s now disintegrated into rubble, into fine sand.
Your son was killed defending the street
that’s ceased to exist.
For those bricks, for that rubble, for that sand
they gave their living bodies.
I led them to their death
and I am alive.”

The Germans are saying: Hurry up, lieutenant,
hurry up into captivity.
But he can’t move any faster, he’s bearing
the bodies of his lads.

Author’s Note:

“The Warsaw Uprising was one of the most tragic events of World War II. The destruction it brought to a city of more than a million people can only be compared to the destruction visited on Hiroshima. Warsaw was transformed into a wasteland filled with corpses, ruins and smouldering ashes. That part of the population which survived the inferno was driven out and deported to various concentration camps. After the capitulation, German soldiers systematically burned and dynamited the remaining buildings. Himmler said: “Warsaw must be levelled to the ground, in order to set a deterring example for the whole of Europe.”

The priceless cultural heritage that had been accumulated in Warsaw over the centuries by countless generations of Poles was completely destroyed. The splendid palaces, the Castle of the Polish Kings, the historic churches, the rich collections of art, the museums, the libraries – all were turned into ashes and rubble. The flower of the young intelligentsia, who had been raised in a romantic love of freedom, perished. So did thousands of heroic children, the world’s youngest soldiers at twelve and thirteen: with unexampled courage they threw themselves at the tanks, gasoline bombs in hand, and carried dispatches under a hail of bullets. The German army that fought the insurrectionists was very well-equipped; it had bombers, tanks, self-propelled guns and flame-throwers. The insurrectionists had few weapons, limited mainly to pistols and grenades. People for whom even these weapons were in short supply often took them from the enemy with their bare hands. The insurrectionists suffered from hunger and cold; they had no medicines nor bandages. Despite everything, they fought heroically, in the belief that fervor and self-sacrifice would make up for the overwhelming strength of the enemy.

Life in Warsaw during the Uprising had the quality of a nightmare. The city was deprived of water, electricity, gas and food supplies. The sewer system was largely unoperative. Hospitals lacked medicines of pure water. German bombers rampaged over the city day and night, burying the living beneath the rubble. People sought shelter from the air raid in basements, but found no safety even there: the Germans dragged them out and conducted mass executions – of men, women and children. The Nazi tanks that rolled through the streets spread death and destruction. The insurrectionists and the population at large tried to defend themselves by building barricades. Everyone joined in this undertaking, regardless of age and sex. People did not sleep, eat or wash for days on end. No one knew whether he would be alive five minutes later. Corpses lay about in the streets, and the stench of rotting bodies rose from the ruins. Despite these horrible conditions, the city put up a heroic struggle for sixty-three days. The insurrectionists and the population at large displayed an extraordinary moral courage. But faced with the lack of food, weapons and ammunition, Warsaw finally had to surrender.”

(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Not all wars are fought by soldiers. Some of the most heroic battles of the last century were fought street by street, doorway by doorway, rice field by rice field; were fought by ordinary civilians who found they could no longer bear the tyranny of occupying forces, and chose to take arms against them, knowing full well that the odds were impossible, that defeat was almost certain. These were people who chose to reassert themselves in the face of oppression, and the cost of their rebellion was measured out in the lives of the innocent.

I first heard of Anna Swirszczynska in an essay by Milosz. Writing about the reaction to World War II and the destruction it caused to Poland in Polish literature, Milosz praised Swirszczynska to the skies, extolling her book Building the Barricades (Budowalam Barykade) as one of the finest literary responses to the horror of those days [1].

It’s not hard to see why. These poems, exquisite and deeply moving taken individually, form a collection that is an authentic masterwork of the last century – one now tragically overlooked (as I write this, no copies of Building the Barricades are availabe on Amazon, or anywhere else that I can find).

There are many reasons why these are incredible poems. There’s the honesty, for one thing. Like many of the other poems we’ve featured in this theme, these poems give you the authentic sense of lived experience, show you vividly what it was like to be there [2]. Nothing is abstract here, nothing is imagined or metaphorical – indeed, the book as a whole reads like a furiously edited documentary, a collage of heart-rending vignettes put together by deft hands. Married to this is Swirszczynska’s eye for detail, her ability to unerringly pick the one scene that will tell it all, her talent for telling us just enough so that the picture comes alive, and leaving it to us to imagine the rest. (In one of the other poems – They were Twelve Years Old – Swirszczynska writes: “Two of them went to disarm an M.P. / one threw sand in his eyes, the other / lunged after the pistol in his holster./Only one returned that evening to his mamma with the pistol”). Then there’s the sheer range of the poems – the way Swirszczynska shifts effortlessly between the prosaic and the lyrical, between the human and the heroic, making you laugh and cry at the same time. But most of all, there’s the incredible sense of simplicity in her narratives, the vision of ordinary people somehow continuing to be their ordinary selves even as they perform extraordinary acts. Swirszczynska’s great insight is that heroes, at the end of the day, are people too. They have their frailties, their weaknesses. Their hopes are childish, their pride sentimental, their loves banal; they are frequently silly, often afraid. Yet it is such stuff from which the human barricade is fashioned, it is such stuff of which the resistance to tyranny is made.


[1] Milosz is also co-translator of a book of Swirszczynska’s later poems, Talking to my Body (Copper Canyon, 1996)

[2] Swirszczynska did, in fact, live through the Warsaw Uprising. At one point, in fact, she was arrested and awaited execution – an experience she describes in Waiting to be Shot above.

February 11, 2007 at 2:24 pm 6 comments


Brian Turner

“It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.”

– Sa’di


It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005) won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award for poetry, and has gone on to won a slew of other prizes. Turner is the real thing – he was an infantry team leader in Iraq for a year, and did a spell in Bosnia before that. As a result, his poems have a kind of journalistic authenticity, they are poems of witness in the truest sense, their impact made stronger by the fact that they describe the reality of a conflict that still rages, still fills our television screens.

Yet Turner is so much more than a journalist. Like his soldier-poet forebears (Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg) Turner blends the horror of the daily reality with passages of lyrical contemplation and dream, finding beauty in the loss, seeking the exquisite in the devastated. They are, inevitably, poems tinged with sadness, but it is a pure sadness, unalloyed with any sense of pride or mission that would make them parochial. Indeed, much of his work reflects an attempt to engage with other cultures, to study the poetry of Iraq and it’s people.

Today’s poem reflects that engagement. The epigraph to the poem comes from The Gulistan of Sa’di. (Sadiq means friend in Arabic). In his notes on the poem, Turner writes: “The year [The Gulistan of Sa’di] was written, Daras Salam (ancient Baghdad) was sacked – it is said that 800,000 lay dead in the streets after forty days of siege followed by forty days of brutal plunder.”

There is something strangely comforting in this. Perhaps, after all, the wars will never end – but neither will the poetry.


P.S. Coming soon to a theatre probably fairly far from you! Turner also features in a forthcoming film. See details here.

February 10, 2007 at 1:58 pm 2 comments

To the Indians who died in Africa

T. S. Eliot


A man’s destination is his own village,
His own fire, and his wife’s cooking;
To sit in front of his own door at sunset
And see his grandson, and his neighbour’s grandson
Playing in the dust together.

Scarred but secure, he has many memories
Which return at the hour of conversation,
(The warm or the cool hour, according to the climate)
Of foreign men, who fought in foreign places,
Foreign to each other.

A man’s destination is not his destiny,
Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his.
Let his village remember.

This was not your land, or ours: but a village in the Midlands,
And one in the Five Rivers, may have the same graveyard.
Let those who go home tell the same story of you:
Of action with a common purpose, action
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgement after death,
What is the fruit of action. 

Another of these ‘soldier dying far from home’ poems – except this one is, in a way, a neat inversion of Brooke’s The Soldier. What resonates for me from this poem is Eliot’s talent for the prophetic tone, his ability to invest the simplest phrase with meaning, make it seem profound and absolute. But I also love the way the poem starts so calmly, in the dreamlike adagio of a distant sunset, and it’s only half way through that the first minor chord ushers in that aching sense of loss, that note of tragedy. There is no bragging here, no fanciful imagery: Eliot is uncompromising about the truth (“This was not your land, or ours”). This is a poem about a sadness that cannot be justified, but must be accepted. And I love the way that Eliot, ever the erudite master, ends the poem with a line and a sentiment that comes almost straight out of the Bhagavad Gita.


February 7, 2007 at 4:14 pm 9 comments

The Soldier

Rupert Brooke


If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Did you ever have that experience in school where you’re standing in front of the class picking a team for whatever sport you’re playing that day and there’s this kid with an eager expression on his face that says “Pick me! Pick me!”. And for a while you try and ignore him because you don’t think much of his abilities, but eventually you get tired of being looked at expectantly and you go ahead and choose him, just to get it over with.

That’s pretty much how I ended up picking this poem for the War Theme. I must admit I’ve never had much admiration for Rupert Brooke’s work – he’s always struck me as modern poetry’s equivalent of a one man boy band, a kind of Robbie Williams of verse. His poems sound pretty, and are accomplished enough to make for pleasant reading, but they always come across, to me, as outdated and uncompelling. This poem in particular, arguably his most famous, I find both cliched and parochial – it smells vaguely of cheese.

Still, it IS a famous poem. Every time I sat down to think about what other poems might be appropriate for this series it kept popping up. So here it is. Posted as part of the War Theme. Now let’s all try to put it behind us.


February 4, 2007 at 3:44 pm 3 comments

Two Armies

Stephen Spender


Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side.

From their numb harvest all would flee, except
For discipline drilled once in an iron school
Which holds them at the point of a revolver.
Yet when they sleep, the images of home
Ride wishing horses of escape
Which herd the plain in a mass unspoken poem.

Finally, they cease to hate: for although hate
Bursts from the air and whips the earth like hail
Or pours it up in fountains to marvel at,
And although hundreds fell, who can connect
The inexhaustible anger of the guns
With the dumb patience of these tormented animals?

Clean silence drops at night when a little walk
Divides the sleeping armies, each
Huddled in linen woven by remote hands.
When the machines are stilled, a common suffering
Whitens the air with breath and makes both one
As though these enemies slept in each other’s arms.

Only the lucid friend to aerial raiders,
The brilliant pilot moon, stares down
Upon the plain she makes a shining bone
Cut by the shadow of many thousand bones.
Where amber clouds scatter on no-man’s-land
She regards death and time throw up
The furious words and minerals which kill life

Reading Spender, I almost always have the sense of something metallic and assembled, a feat of engineering, a poetry of girders and rivets. Spender’s poems do not fly, they remain firmly bolted to the page, their phrases gleaming like true steel, their voice at once greased and rusty. They are exquisite machines, these poems, and they hum with the energy of the earth. And for all their complex gadgetry, there is nothing contrived about them – ugly at first glance, they are models of efficiency, turning out the truth with ruthless precision, every cog necessary, every word tightened to its exact torque. They are poems for a metal landscape, roaring and unadorned.

Today’s poem is a good example [1]. It is a poem crammed with death and despair, conveying perfectly the sense of being trapped and crushed in the giant machine that is war, and yet, just as the apparatus of the poem is beginning to suffocate you, Spender throws in “the images of home / ride wishing horses of escape / that herd the plain in a mass unspoken poem”. It is also, of course, a poem with a message. Spender titles the poem ‘Two Armies’, but his descriptions are ubiquitious and apply equally to both. Facing each other across the plain (a frame that Spender creates in the very first lines with superb skill), the two armies thus become mirror images of each other, indistinguishable but for the trapping of flags and anthems, and we are reminded once again that “When the machines are stilled, a common suffering / whitens the air with breath and makes both one / As though these enemies slept in each other’s arms”. It’s an image that always reminds me of Dali’s Autumn Cannibalism:



[1] On a personal note, my own memories of this poem go back a little over ten years to my first year in college, where the Economics Honours syllabus included a mandatory English course, in which Two Armies was pretty much the only thing remotely worth reading.

February 3, 2007 at 1:14 pm 4 comments

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