Lately, I have been listening to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a full-orchestra and multi-chorus work written to commemorate the reopening of the Coventry Cathedral which was built in the late 14th and early 15th century and obliterated during German air-raid bombing during World War II. Britten, a pacifist, put everything he had into the work, and Britten’s 1963 version of it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir stands out as one of the masterpieces of Western music in the 20th century. You should listen to it. Britten’s genius was to weave together nine of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems with the liturgical mass texts found in the traditional Requiem Masses of Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, etc. The juxtaposition is striking: one lone voice vs. the choir rising and falling in waves. Owen, whose poems describing the horrors of trench warfare and the widespread use of chlorine and mustard gas, died on the battlefield in 1918. Most of his poems were discovered only after his death.
Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world
In 2012, filmmaker Gabe Rubin (see his short film, Boyland, another film centered around a poem) made a short video of Charles Bernstein’s poem, “On Election Day,” being read by the author around parts of, presumably, his hometown of Philadelphia (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). The mixed-media piece, which includes at times the author’s voice in a choral reading, is a dramatic example of how poetry can be combined with other genres to reach a wider audience. Perhaps we should see more of this kind of thing in the future.
The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on
Yusef Komunyakaa published his sixth book of poetry, Dien Cai Dau, in 1988. In Vietnamese, the title literally translates to “crazy in the head,” a term that the Vietnamese used to refer to U.S. soldiers fighting in their war-torn country. The poems in Dien Cai Dau, more than any other of Komunyakaa’s books, witness the events he saw and wrote about as an army correspondent during the Vietnam War. Often cited among the best books of poetry written about the Vietnam War — or any war, for that matter — the poems also explore the unique experiences of African American soldiers on the front lines. In 1968 — the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated — African Americans made up roughly 12% of the total Army and Marine soldiers fighting in Vietnam; however, they represented around 50% of the total front-line combat force and suffered significantly higher casualty rates than other soldiers. Komunyakaa’s poems are important in many ways, but especially for bringing attention to the military sacrifices of African Americans in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.
There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
Komunyakaa would go on to publish many more books of poetry, publish a book of essays and a translation of Vietnamese poetry, and co-edit two important anthologies of Jazz Poetry. Some of his other books focus on the Civil Rights era, his childhood growing up in the segregated South, and his African heritage. His book Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems won both the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994. In 2001, Komunyakaa won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, widely considered the most prestigious award that can be won by an American poet while living. Komunyakaa currently teaches at New York University.
Born in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, in 1903, poet Lorine Niedecker wrote in relative seclusion and anonymity for most of her life. Most of her neighbors and friends, in fact, did not even know she wrote poetry. Her poems are characterized by their sparse, almost Japanese-influenced character. She described her own work as “condensory,” a word she made up. Generally overlooked during her life, her poems are now widely considered to be an important and unique contribution to the canon of twentieth-century American poetry. I’ve included her work here because four volumes of her work has been published since her death and, in many ways, a large portion of her readership has grown in the twenty-first century.
Born in Moscow in 1936, Natalya Gorbanevskaya was a Russian poet famous for her political dissidence. She received international fame and attention after she and seven others protested peacefully in Moscow’s Red Square after the forceful Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the reformist Prague Spring in 1968. Gorbanevskaya was not immediately arrested, as she had just given birth, but went on to publish reports of the ensuing trial in the Chronicle of Current Events, a periodical she created and continued to write into the 1980’s. Arrested in 1969 for her dissidence, she was confined to a Soviet psychiatric prison until 1972. Gorbanevskaya, with her two sons in tow, emigrated to Paris in 1975, where French psychiatrists reversed her fabricated diagnosis of “continuous, sluggish schizophrenia.” Gorbanevskaya wrote and translated poetry until her death on November 29, 2013.
Anna Świrszczyńska was born in 1909 in Warsaw, Poland, and spent part of her adulthood in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. During the Warsaw Uprising, Świrszczyńska served as a military nurse, witnessing some of the worst nightmares of the second World War. Her war poetry is brutal, lucid, full of simple descriptions of the events that occurred during the complete leveling of Warsaw in 1944.
Yehuda Amichai is considered Israel’s greatest modern poet. Born in 1924, in Germany, Amichai attended high school and college in Jerusalem. Amichai wrote his novels and poems in Hebrew, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. During his life, Amichai served in many wars of the twentieth century, including World War II (for the British army), the Israeli War of Independence (also known as al-Nakba in Arabic, “The Catastrophe”), the Sinai War (1956), and the Yom Kippur War (1973). Amichai’s poems are often personal, often describing daily encounters in a war-ravaged country, and many of his best poems can be arresting in their frank, matter-of-fact tone and Amichai’s unusual language, turn, and imagery.