War Poetry, Political Poetry, and The Invisible Powers

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“The problem for a poet in writing about modern war is that, while he can only deal with events of which he has first hand knowledge—invention, however imaginative, is bound to be fake—his poems must somehow transcend mere journalistic reportage. In a work of art, the single event must be seen as an element in a universally significant pattern: the area of the pattern actually illuminated by the artist’s vision is always, more or less limited, but one is aware of its extending beyond what we see far into time and space.”

–W.H.Auden, preface to the first edition of Lincoln Kirstein’s Rhymes of a Pfc.

“The proper subjects for poetry are love, virtue, and war.”

–Dante Alighieri, De Eloquentia Vulgari, 1304

“Now you are in a new world, the world of invisible powers, the world of literature, of poem and story.”

 –Mona Van Duyn, “Matters of Poetry”, (1993)


One day in Hanoi, where our Nôm Foundation was working at the National Library to digitize its several thousand ancient texts, I took a day off to visit the ancient Temple of Literature, founded in 1076 after the Vietnamese had finally driven out their Chinese overlords.  Until 1919 when the Temple’s function ended under the French, this was the academy where Vietnam trained its governing elite in poetry, history, and philosophy, selecting gifted students from all social classes in the belief that a mind trained and tested in such subjects is a quick, sharp, and careful mind, and that such minds are important resources to the nation.

One enters the Temple grounds through a large stone gate topped with recoiling dragons indicating royal rule and its mandate from heaven.  One then proceeds past gardens and ponds through another large gateway under a tile-roofed balcony where, over the centuries, new graduates  declaimed their poetry. Perhaps the most striking thing one then sees are rows of 6-foot stone blocks standing on the backs of massive stone turtles.  On these blocks are carved the names of those who graduated from the Temple and entered Vietnam’s civil service. Even today, hundreds of years after these graduates served the nation, one can see their descendants lighting incense sticks and placing them before those stone blocks in familial veneration.

Further on, in a room inside the Temple itself, there is a square stone carved in Chinese characters and next to it translations into modern Vietnamese and in English, which read as follows:

Virtuous and talented men are state sustaining elements. The strength and prosperity of a state depend on it[s] stable vitality and it becomes weaker as such vitality fails.  That is why all the saint emperors and clear-sighted kings didn’t fail in seeing to the formation of men of talent and the employment of literati to develop this vitality.

–Examination Stele, Đai Bảo Dynasty, Third Year (1442).

Literati?  Literary people as “state sustaining elements”? How on earth, we Americans might ask, can citizens trained in literary skills be “state-sustaining elements”?  Why would the Vietnamese royal court set up a university for its best and brightest, regardless of class or wealth, and then train them largely in poetry, history, and philosophy?

If that seems a little far-fetched, consider this: Confucius, the Chinese philosopher to whom the Vietnamese Temple of Literature is dedicated along with the Duke of Chou (this after the Chinese were finally driven out) was once asked the perennial philosophic question of 4th century China—as it was the perennial question for Socrates in Plato’s The Republic—“what would you first do if allowed to rule a kingdom?”  Confucius’ reply, as recorded in his Analects, was: “to correct language.”  Because, he said, if language is not precise, “then what is meant cannot be effected. If what is meant cannot be effected, society falls apart.”

The useful application of the Confucian reply to our affairs today must be obvious. Here is the exchange from Book XIII of the Analects, written around 400 BC.

Tzu-lu said, “If the prince of Wei were waiting for you to come and administer his country for him, what would be your first measure?”

The Master said, “It would certainly be to correct language.”

Tzu-Lu said, “Did I hear you right? Surely what you say has nothing to do with the matter. Why should language be corrected?”1

The Master said, “Lu! How simple you are! A gentleman, when things he does not understand are mentioned, should maintain an attitude of reserve. If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what was meant; and if what is said does not concord with what was meant, what is to be done cannot be effected. If what is to be done cannot be effected, then society falls apart.”

Such precision in the use of words is of course a lifelong pleasure in-and-of itself, but it has immense practical value as well. Without such precision in the way we communicate with ourselves, with ourselves as a society, and with the world beyond, our private and public affairs falter and fall apart.  Precision in the use of words is the talent which lends all other professions and skills their usefulness. It is a skill which goes beyond utilitarian technology.  Such precision in speech, writing, and the reading of complex works of the human imagination brings to its practitioners and to their societies a more enriched sense of self and an inevitable moral expansion.

This skill, most notably found in poetry, is indeed “a state-sustaining endeavor.”  It is no mere curiosity that from Vietnam’s earliest nationhood its rulers and foreign emissaries were always known poets.  The 18th century ambassador to China, Nguyễn Du, decorated by his emperor as a “pillar of the nation,” is also Vietnam’s most famous poet. In modern times, Ho Chi Minh wrote quite good poetry in Vietnamese and in Chinese.  The North Vietnamese Head of Delegation to the 1973 Paris Peace Talks was Xuân Thủy, known first as a poet.

Traditionally, the chief poetic vehicle for study and composition, was the “regulated” lü-shih verse form made classic by the Chinese master Tu Fu in the 8th century, and called thơ đường lut in Vietnamese.  It is always eight lines, seven syllables to a line, rhyming usually on the first, second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines, and requiring syntactic parallel structure in the middle four. For several East Asian societies it became the main lyric vehicle for centuries, serving them in the way the sonnet served the West.  This form—whether written in Vietnamese or in Chinese—streamed with history and culture in generations of individuals possessing “bright mind.” As the stone tablet suggests, the strength and prosperity of a state depend on its stable vitality created by men and women who are trained to inquire, sharpen their minds, and expand their souls by an active engagement, we would say, with “the best words in the best order,” as Coleridge defined poetry in 1835 in his Table Talk.

This notion of poetry’s affecting voice resulting in moral action, is increasingly foreign to us. The idea that a poem can change political events probably seems to us quaint if not preposterous.  Yet, even today, Vietnamese will gamble on a person’s ability to aptly end a poem, and political debates can be won by an appropriate poetic quotation.  Indeed, legend has it that a Chinese invasion was once turned back by the poem below, supposedly painted on banana leaves and eaten by ants, the resulting poem causing panic in the invading troops.  Whether this really happened isn’t as significant as the legend itself and its existence in popular belief:

 南 國 山 河 南 帝 居  Our mountains and rivers belong to the Southern Ruler.

截 然 定 分 在 天 書  This is written in the Celestial Book.

如 何 逆 虜 來 侵 犯  Those who try to conquer this land

汝 等 行 看 取 敗 虚  Will surely suffer defeat. 

–Marshall Lý Thường Kiệt (1019-1105)

One is reminded in our more recent times of poetry’s ability to change human events by George Washington’s decision, on December 26, 1776, on the eve of his attack on Trenton–as his flotilla of farmers prepared their crossing of the Delaware, in the night, in a blizzard–to assemble his troops to hear a reading of Thomas Paine’s just-published poetic essay regarding “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.”  Their subsequent attack, and perhaps that reading, changed the course of the war.

Christmas Eve at Washington’s Crossing

Out on the freezing Delaware, ice sheets bob the surface, breaking against granite pilings of the colonial river inn swept by winter storm.

Gusts of snow blow off a sandbar and sink in plunging currents where a line of ducks paddle hard against the blizzard

as cornfields on the Jersey banks are whisked into bits of stalks and broken sheaves spinning in the squalls.

This is where, one such Christmas night, the tall courtly general with bad teeth risked his neck and his rebels to cross the storming river and rout the Hessians.


What made them think they could succeed?…farmers mostly, leaving homesteads to load cannon into Durham boats

to row into the snowstorm, then march all night to Trenton, saving the Republic for Valley Forge and victory at Yorktown.

Before crossing, legend says, they assembled in the snow to hear Paine’s new essay about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

What words could call us all together now? On what riverbank? For what common good would we abandon all?

But what about the success of political poetry today including, say, the Joseph Biden inaugural poem written by Amanda Gorman?  Why do some poems stay alive in us, while others never even take hold?  Some poems disappear as their immediate events fade from memory.  But why do others endure?  And why do a handful of poems referring to politics or war take hold when most are immediately forgotten?  Do poems based in the shocks of warfare or in popular political sentiment belong to a different category of aesthetics?

In a letter to me in Vietnam in 1968, in response to some poems I had mailed him, my former teacher, novelist John Barth wrote:

The poems get it said, even to me, who do not find very much war poetry successful if it has more than one topical proper name in it.  Most of Lowell’s and Bly’s & Who-Have-You’s Vietnam verse, sincere as its horrification and indignation is, will fare as badly as Karl Shapiro’s V-Letter poems, I believe, once the bloody war is over and the verses have to survive on their excellence alone.

Nonetheless, Randall Jarrell, writing in his Fifty Years of American Poetry, said this about Shapiro’s style in his war poems:  “Karl Shapiro’s poems are fresh and young and rash and live; their hard clear outlines, their flat bold colors create a world like that of a knowing and skillful neoprimitive painting, without any of the confusion or profundity of atmosphere, of aerial perspective, but with notable visual and satiric force.”  “Neoprimitive”…”without any of the confusion or profundity of atmosphere.”  Not much of in the way praise.

During WW II, Shapiro was stationed as a military clerk in Australia and New Guinea. (Perhaps a poet’s proximity or distance from the battlefield is one factor in a war poem’s success, even for accomplished, established poets like Robert Lowell.) Indeed, in the 2014 edition of his centuries-spanning collection of The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, Jon Stallworthy writes that “the charge against a poem like Lowell’s ‘Women, Children, Babies, Cows, Cats’ is that, far from shocking an exposed nerve, it has the numbing effect of second-hand journalism,” adding in regards to Vietnam War poets, that “a problem for many American poets then aspiring to be war poets was that, rightly perceiving it to be an unjust war, they could not participate as servicemen or women; and lacking first-hand experience, could not write convincingly of the war ‘on the ground.”

Yet this does not explain the many forgettable poems in the 1985 anthology (in which I am included), called Carrying the Darkness,3 edited by a foremost poet of that war and including no less than seventy-five poets, all witnesses to the war, writing mostly in loose free verse, offering raw scenes and harsh ironies in often conversational, colloquial, cool, and hip dictions. The anthology included for its readers back home, not only topical names, but also a three-page glossary of military terms, slang, and war-related abbreviations: “AK-47, ao dai, ARVN, beaucoup, beaucoup dien cai dau, berm, BOQ/PX” etc. ending with “Zippo, zoomie.”

Other factors must be working to ensure a war poem’s success besides having the author’s feet on the battlefield. The connection of a poem with its reader surely must have to do, not only with its topic—war or whatever—but with essentials of craft, the poet’s ability to summon appropriate use of imagery, rhythm, sound play, and argument or, as Ezra Pound put it in his 1934 ABC of Reading, “you still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.”  These are the shifting but essential elements of all effecting poetry, whatever the topic.

Today, in the blither of 21st century media that floods our eyes and ears each day, it is no wonder if poetry seems weak and irrelevant. In Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellows’ powerful 1975 novel based on his brilliant and crazed poet friend, the catastrophical Delmore Schwartz, Bellow describes poets as “poor loonies,” and seems to cast a cold view on the importance of poets in modern society:

The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, “If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either . . .”

That is to say, their poetic artistry of words means very little compared to the real skills, the visible, demonstrable powers of technology.

In modern America, even poets will seem to claim that “poetry makes nothing happen,” as in W.H. Auden’s famous passage in his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry survives.  It is a way of happening. A mouth.

Auden’s apparent criticism in fact points to poetry’s power, including war poetry and political poetry. When its voice is memorable, poetry’s “mouth” can to speak to our innermost selves and to the universe beyond us. This is no slight thing. This changes everything. With this qualification, poetry becomes as essential for us now as it ever was—even if it is hardly read today and rarely reviewed—for if (and when) poetry gives us a “mouth,” a voice to express our most private and public concerns, poetry makes everything happen, extending our own voice and human self, opening paths to address our inmost thoughts and the universe outside of us. Poetry “objectifies the subjective; subjectifies the objective,” as the philosopher Suzanne Langer argues in her essay on the cultural importance of art.5

But how can any art form make things happen? By changing us.

And how can it change us?  By opening in us a new sense of ourselves in the world.

My “if (and when)” above refers both to the skills of craft employed and to the “genius” of the poet evoking those skills as needed for the task at hand.  Early in our English speculations about the uses of poetry, Sir Philip Sydney wrote in his Defense of Poetry of 1580 that “a poet no industry can make if his own genius be not carried into it…”

The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both not having both, do both halt. … Now doth the peerless poet perform both; for whatsoever the philosopher says should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposes it was done, so as he couples the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture, I say; for he yields to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestows but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth.

Genius and craft.  The first is impossible to talk about and the second can’t be talked about enough, especially when engaging young writers.  As with any poetry, mere rhetorical claim or assertion may be the start of a poem, but rarely are they its completion. Rhetorically determined poetry isn’t less or different or necessarily off-putting because of its topic but for its want of persuasive skills.

Some years ago Mona Van Duyn, then the Poet Laureate of the United States, was interviewed by Ted Koppel on his ABC television show, Nightline.  Mr. Koppel must have ticked off Ms.Van Duyn because here is because here is what she said:6

“Mr. Koppel, I have watched you over the years as you challenge, manipulate, contradict, humiliate the world’s leaders, the world’s visible powers.  Those powers are very great: they can change the world.  Now you are in a new world, the world of invisible powers, the world of literature, of poem and story.  These do not force their powers upon their subjects, who freely choose to submit to them.  You cannot contradict, challenge, manipulate or humiliate them.  They work invisibly—they widen and deepen the human imagination, they increase empathy (without which no being is truly human), they train the emotions to employ themselves with more appropriateness and precision, they change or modify the very language in which human thought is formed.  Like love, but stronger, since love’s power is limited by mortality, they are holders and keepers of what Time would otherwise take away from us—the world, both natural (its creatures, colors, shapes, textures, sounds, smells, tastes) and the social (the others we love or hate or have never known, their voices, appearances, assumptions, the inner and outer contexts of their lives).  These powers, too, are very great: they can change the self.”


2 John Balaban, in Empires. Copper Canyon Press, 2019.
3 Carrying The Darkness, W.D. Ehrhart, ed. Avon Books, 1985.
4 Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift. Viking Press, 1975. Note also: “Pox take your orators and poets, they spoile lives and histories.” –John Aubrey, letter to Anthony Wood in Two Antiquaries, p. 91.
5 Suzanne Langer in The Journal of Aesthetic Education Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1966). pp. 5-12
6 Mona Van Duyn, “Matters of Poetry.” Library of Congress, 1993.