Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

World War One and American Poetry

For the last ten years or so my research has been on American literature (and culture more generally) and the First World War–although my interest and  earliest research began when I worked on my dissertation in the late 80s. Through my own exploration and by incorporating the existing bibliography, I’ve found around 400 volumes of poetry written by Americans either entirely or in significant part about the war. And one of the things that has struck me is the range, or more accurately the variety or ranges, within that body of writing.

For example, let’s look at a poem, “Saturday P.M.,” in the collection Rookie RhymesRookie Rhymes is the poetic outpouring from the Plattsburg officer training camp of 1917, an effort by the U.S. Army to train some of the vast number of officers that would be needed to staff the AEF, conducted in Plattsburgh (yes, it should be spelled with an “h”), New York, about 25 miles south of the Canadian border and on the western shore of Lake Champlain. Even though a lot of the writers found in Rookie Rhymes were products of the Ivy League and represented a narrow selection of the American population, a variety of sensibilities are on display in the poems. The sensibility in “Saturday P.M.” is definitely comic. It’s a poem about the dreaded inoculations administered to trainees–Rookies.

The poem’s third section–all of the poem’s five section have the same basic form, an eight-line stanza followed by a four-line refrain–looks like this:

Tho' you stood a strict inspection 
And your dirty gun got by; 
Tho' you'd grease spots on your breeches, 
And the Captain winked his eye; 
Tho' you ate your fill at dinner, 
And enjoyed a Lucky Strike; 
There is something at one-thirty 
That I know you will not like. 

It's the needle, the needle, 
The prophylactic needle. 
There's a hungry surgeon waiting 
And he's waiting just for you.

The thought in the poem, this section included, is pretty clear: even though things have gone great so far on this fine Saturday, you still have an unpleasant appointment waiting, and it’s described in the refrain: “It’s the needle,” etc. Not only is the basic scenario comical: these men being trained for combat still dread, like most of us, being jabbed with a needle, but the execution also is very good. The first six lines feature anaphora, the repetition of initial words, a structuring device. These six lines set up the last two of the stanza: “There is something at one-thirty/That I know you will not like.” The writer, Harold Amory, writes the main stanza in a variation on ballad meter, with lines of eight syllables, three of them stressed (there is SOMEthing AT one-THIRty) alternating with lines of seven syllables, also with three stresses (that i KNOW you WILL not LIKE), and which rhyme with one another, forming a pattern we call xaxaxbxb (x indicates the line does not rhyme; a rhymes with a, etc.). Amory uses monosyllables in the last line of the stanza, which combine with the completion of the rhyme (“Strike/…. like”) to emphasize the comic–if also unpleasant–nature of the thing.

OK, it’s not Wallace Stevens, but there has to be place for well-executed writing that isn’t trying to be philosophically profound or a rare experience of beauty. Something more ordinary, but still admirable and enjoyable in its modest way. And, conveniently enough, for purposes of contrast Wallace Stevens has a World War One poem, “The Death of a Soldier”:

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

Where Amory writes lightly comic verse in regular, closed form featuring end rhyme and regular meter, Stevens writes in open form, with only the stark regularity of the three-line stanzas and pattern of increasingly short lines in each stanza. He uses the association of autumn with the natural death of leaves: as leaves fall in autumn, so does the soldier in wartime: “death is expected.” With death expected, the dead are not exceptional, comrades do not pause to mourn, to practice rituals of grief: no “pomp.” Then Stevens provides a simile to describe the situation; it is like that experience when in autumn the wind stops for us on the ground, but above it continues to blow the clouds on their way. Life stops for the dead, but nature, the world, the war goes on. Beautiful.

And that is range, at least one kind of range. A light-comic poem based on the utterly human fear of being jabbed with a needle, a fear not diminished by the fact one might very well be faced with much worse pretty soon, written by an unknown fellow (Harold Amory would go on to serve in France as a first lieutenant in the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, 26th Division; he survived the war to return to his native Massachusetts.) in very competent closed form. And a somber poem featuring an astonishing combination of detachment and profound feeling for the nature of death–a constant in life–in the particular circumstances of total war, written by one of the acknowledged great American poets in stark, disciplined open form.

Well, if you found that to be of interest, stay tuned to this blog: part of my research involves making these 400 volumes of poetry available to the public via a digital poetry archive. I’ll make periodic installments based on this work.

Tim Dayton is a Professor in the Department of English, Kansas State University. In addition to regularly teaching classes on American literature and the First World War, he has published essays on the best-known American soldier-poet, Alan Seeger, and on some of the war poetry of e.e. cummings. He is part of a team of researchers and digital humanists building a digital archive of American First World War poetry. He recently completed a book manuscript on American literature and the war.

2 Comments

  1. Adrienne Landry Dunavin

    What I especially liked about the Amory poem is the juxtaposition of a soldier growing up — going through inspection, cleaning his gun, etc. — all very manly and soldierly things. Yet his fear is very youthful — a boy’s fear of doctors and needles. It reminded me of just how young the soldiers were that went to war. Thank you for sharing!

    • Tim Dayton

      Yes, you see this elsewhere in “Rookie Rhymes,” sometimes when the writers are trying NOT to seem like kids. Melville has a great line in “The March into Virginia”: “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys”.

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