Refracting war through American vernacular poetry

American wartime poetry of the Great War had always seemed overshadowed by British poets. Then the author enlisted Google in the search and found some treasures.
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The 1928 cover of an American war poet's book.

American wartime poetry of the Great War had always seemed overshadowed by British poets. Then the author enlisted Google in the search and found some treasures.

This is what I love about the Internet. On Monday morning I was reading The New York Times and this headline caught my eye on the front page: A Well-Written War, Told in the First Person. Elisabeth Bumiller had written a lovely piece about some of the fine poetry and prose coming out of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was especially taken by the work of Brian Turner, whose poem 'ꀜHere, Bullet'ꀝ Bumiller discussed.

I Googled Turner and found more poems of his online describing a murder of crows, looking down on a row of body bags, and a man named Hasan who tried to commit suicide by leaping off a balcony, only to be rescued, temporarily, by a clueless soldier, and an American PFC named Miller who succeeded in committing suicide by putting a bullet through his mouth — 'ꀜnothing can stop it now, no matter what/blur of motion surrounds him."

A little more Googling and I learned that Turner'ꀙs work is included in the Voices in Wartime anthology that my friend Andrew Himes put together, and that a recording of one of his poems is available on the Voices in Wartime website. So that was a good morning on the Internet in an otherwise frustrating stretch of days.

But this thread gets even better. Reading Turner's verse got me thinking about the poetry that came out of the Great War and how all the really good stuff was written by Englishmen — Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, T. E. Hulme. The only American poets of note I could think of off-hand were Joyce Kilmer ("I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree'ꀦ") and Alan Seeger ("I have a rendezvous with Death/At some disputed barricade/When Spring comes round with rustling shade/And apple blossoms fill the air."). Memorable enough, but let's face it, tarnished by time.

So back to Google I went and entered the words World War I American poetry and bingo, I found a website called Poetry of the First War which features write-ups of e.e. cummings, Archibald MacLeish, John Reed, and yes, Seeger and Kilmer. Scrolling down, I came across an entry devoted to a writer I'd never heard of named John Allan Wyeth. What caught my eye was a blurb of Wyeth's book This Man'ꀙs Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets: "Let the trumpets sound for John Allan Wyeth!" wrote British poet and critic Jon Stallworthy. 'ꀜAt overlong last, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice, an American poet takes his place with the British in the front rank of the war poets' parade."

Two more clicks and I arrived at an essay by poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia, which told the story of why it took nine decades for those trumpets to sound. Wyeth, the son of a prominent New York City surgeon and a graduate of Princeton, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 with the rank of second lieutenant, shipped out to France in 1918, and spent the duration of the war with the Interpreters Corps of the 33rd Division. He returned to live and work in Europe after the war and published his slim sonnet collection to moderate acclaim in 1928. Shortly afterward both he and the book vanished into obscurity. Eighty years later, This Man's Army fell into the hands of Dana Gioia, who instantly recognized Wyeth as "the missing figure in the American literature of World War I — a soldier poet still worth reading."

Gioia notes that Wyeth'ss sonnets chronicle with "documentary exactitude" the poet's journey through the war. Places, song lyrics, the sound of incoming shells and muttered conversations, even the weather — Wyeth conveys it all in minute detail. But what makes this verse stand out is Wyeth's loose, jittery, colloquial style and biting tone. None of Seeger's sonorities or Kilmer's misty-eyed piety.

We passed
two soldiers, pain-white, and a man they bore
between, blind twisting head and drunken knees,
'ꀔlike Christ.
"Come on, Bud'ꀔThere'ꀔYou just been gassed."
(from Through the Valley)

Every war has its own patois — a jaunty muttered soldier's slang set to the beat of whatever music blared through headphones, loudspeakers, or from the throats of marching men. I've heard the American version of the Great War patois in the prose of John Dos Passos (Three Soldiers, the USA Trilogy), e.e. cummings'ꀙs The Enormous Room, in Fix Bayonets!, the lightly fictionalized stories of Marine battles by Lieutenant Colonel John W. Thomason, Jr., and the superb memoir Suddenly We Didn'ꀙt Want To Die by Marine enlistee Elton E. Mackin. But never before had I caught that peculiar note — weary, young, wised-up, pissed-off — in American verse. Stallworthy is right: John Allan Wyeth is a cause for celebration. Thank you, Dana Gioia. Thank you, Internet.


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