World War II had barely started when the British press began to loudly ask why this war had not yet produced any soldier poets, as the last war had.
“Where are the war poets?” became such a familiar cry that in early 1941 the poet and editor C. Day Lewis wrote a short poem with that title to answer the question. The naïve idealism and personal heroism that had cast the First World War poets’ collision with death in the trenches in tragic relief was gone forever, Lewis suggested; weary realism, which had replaced them, was hardly the stuff of great poetry. No one believed this war was going to be heroic. It was just a bad job that had to be done:
It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.
The First World War poets were indeed genuine heroes. Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote some of the most searing antiwar poems, furious in their attacks on the incompetent generals and fat, complacent civilians who squandered the courage of the soldiers at the front, was twice awarded the Military Cross for his almost suicidal bravery in the trenches. His fellow British poets Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke also received the Military Cross for their heroism in battle. They were mostly members of the privileged class, imbued with a sense of calling and duty, romantic and patriotic and adventurous, which made the shock of what war had become all the greater.
One of the few great poets to finally come out of the Second World War was an ordinary American GI who never came close to battle during his four years in the service. Randall Jarrell had taught English at a few colleges, enlisted in 1942 to become a flier, and washed out after 30 hours in the air. “It was a very great piece of luck for me,” he later candidly admitted, after seeing friend after friend shot down, killed in training accidents, or meeting the other forms of assembly-line death and destruction that were the lot of aircrews. Transferred to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, he was assigned to instruction duty. He half-jokingly said that his official title—“celestial navigation tower opera tor”—was the most poetic in the air force.
But the reality of army life, he wrote a friend, was just mind-numbing exhaustion, as far from anything heroic as imaginable. “We normally spent over four hours a day just standing in line…Your main feeling about the army, at first, is just that you can’t believe it: it couldn’t exist.”
The soldiers of Jarrell’s poems are cogs in a vast machine. They are nameless; they meet death and mete out destruction in equal anonymity; the very enormity of the events they take part in makes their own identities insignificant.
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out.
Death doesn’t even pretend to be heroic in Jarrell’s poems; it is impersonal, irrational, accidental. “It was not dying: everybody died,” he wrote in his poem “Losses”:
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
“You are something there are millions of,” he wrote in another poem, addressed to a recuperating soldier. Because the soldiers in Jarrell’s poetic world are so vague and interchangeable, one critic wrote, “you care very little what happens to them, which is terrible”—and which was his whole point.
After the war Jarrell resumed teaching, became an influential critic, and wrote several highly regarded children’s books, illustrated by the famous children’s book artists Maurice Sendak and Garth Williams. Jarrell’s best-known war poem, “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” would be frequently anthologized. It ends with a jarring punch line: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” Jarrell’s own life ended equally brutally on a fall evening in 1965; aged 51, suffering from manic depression, he apparently leapt in front of a car on a heavily traveled North Carolina highway and was killed instantly.
Excerpt from “Losses” from THE COMPLETE POEMS by Randall Jarrell. Copyright © 1969, renewed 1997 by Mary von S. Jarrell. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.