Thursday, February 09, 2006

Poets of World War II

I’ve just started reading an anthology called Poets of World War II, from the American Poets Project of the Library of America. I’m finding that I’m enjoying the experience much more than I’d be enjoying reading a comparable anthology of contemporary poets, and not necessarily because I think the poets are better than contemporary poets would be.

No, it’s because there’s a powerful and not always realized connection between poetry and history. This sort of cross-section of poetry of an era, and poetry about that era, opens a window of insight into that time. Poets are first of all human, and individual, and the good ones connect to that collective humanity and express that individuality, but we all know that. It’s now they use that to mirror history that so interests me here.

So here’s Witter Bynner making a simple but poignant commentary on racism in the middle of a fight for freedom, and Robinson Jeffers’ angry isolationism, and Lincoln Kirstein’s clunky but oddly lyrical evocation of General Patton, whose driver he was for a while. And the combat poets like Jarrell and Dickey and Hecht and Nemerov and Ciardi -- I’m just getting into that group

And the old warhorses of the era – the widely anthologized poems like Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke” take on an new resonance by being in this context.

I ordered the book for inclusion in my American Lit survey course, and I’m glad that I did.

Editor Harvey Shapiro, then and now

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