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…
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.
Kim Stafford, son of the late American poet William Stafford, published this striking poem at the end of 2016 during troubled political times in America. Like many poems and speeches of protest, it takes advantage of a number of poetic and rhythmic devices to deliver a powerful response to those men and women who are quickly reshaping this country, for better or worse. Like many poets of witness, Stafford, too, finds a voice that pivots firmly in space, as he seeks to find solid footing in the new spinning and unstable world around us, as if we were all caught in the midst of an earthquake without fully realizing it.
If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable…
In addition to being a poet and teacher, Kim Stafford is a published and award-winning essayist, editor, and musician. He founded and directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Like his father, his poetry and writings deal largely with nature, place, preservation, and the West.
I love this poem. I first read it after the poem itself had gone viral in the wake of the tragic Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub on June 12, 2016. The shooter, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others before a 3-hour standoff with Orlando police that ended with Mateen being shot and killed. At first, the poem seems simple enough, and even slightly repetitive, but it grows on you. We start to understand the speaker is having some difficulty speaking, almost needing to keep re-forming the words in order to “sell” her children on the false idea of a world that is not “fifty percent terrible.” We begin to see the difficulty of telling our children the horrible truth that our world holds. We are left with “good bones,” though it’s fairly clear by the poem’s end that this is a fantasy. Aren’t we all guilty, to some degree, of selling ourselves a world that isn’t really there?
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.
Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan and is the author of five collections of poetry, including her first book, Gathering the Tribes, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1976. Her second book, The Country Between Us, was also the Lamont Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets. In 1993, Forché went on to publish the highly influential anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Her work has always been marked by a strong interest in politics and human rights issues throughout the world and is particularly focused on how our actions in the world affect our language.
Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq and has published six collections of poetry in her native Arabic. Her book, The War Works Hard, from which the title poem included below is taken, was translated into English by Elizabeth Winslow and published in 2005 by New Directions Press. Mikhail’s poetry is strongly critical of war in her native Iraq and scrutinizes the effects of the U.S.-Iraq wars on the Iraqi people, the land, and its culture. Markedly different than other masculine Iraqi poets of her generation, Mikhail’s tone indirectly points fingers at the forces of greed, corruption, and martyrdom that characterize both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Mikhail currently works as an Arabic instructor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
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.
Nelly Sachs was a Jewish German poet and playwright who wrote some of the most powerful holocaust poetry of the twentieth century. Born in 1891, Sachs escaped from Nazi Germany with her mother in 1940, a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp. Terrified by her experience — Sachs suffered from paranoia and delusions from her memories of leaving Germany — Sachs took up writing in her 50’s and published some remarkable poetry characterized by traditional Romantic imagery that morphed into an unsettling, surrealist poetry in her later years. Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966.
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.
Brian Turner served in the U.S. Army in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq before receiving his MFA from the University of Oregon. Winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award for 2005, Here, Bullet is a remarkable twenty-first century collection of poems written during wartime. What makes Turner’s poetry so unusual and striking is his attention to language, his knowledge of Iraq’s history and its themes (which his poems become a part of), and his ability to let his poems just hang off the edge of their own cliffs.
Mahmoud Darwish was an award-winning Palestinian poet and prolific author who died in 2008. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1973 until the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Darwish was also a strong political voice in the Palestine movement and a member of the PLO Executive Committee. When he was a child, Darwish’s village was destroyed by the Israeli army and his family was forced to relocate to nearby Lebanon. Like Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, a poet he admired and was challenged by, Darwish also wrote moving poems that professed his love for the land of his people.
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.
Doug Anderson is an American poet and fiction writer who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Anderson served as a combat medic in Vietnam and has written several books that chronicle his experiences during the war. “Night Ambush” is taken from his second collection of poems, The Moon Reflected Fire, which was published in 1994. Anderson’s war poems have been called “uncompromising” and “wrenching” by fellow poets and rank as some of the most honest, intimate portraits of war’s complex imagery — often brutal and shocking, sometimes strangely tender and unexpected — to come out of that era of history.
June Jordan wrote the poem “Moving towards Home” upon reading a quote in the New York Times shortly after the September 16-18, 1982 Phalangist/Israeli massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila outside of Beirut, Lebanon. Though the exact number of victims is disputed depending on the source, it is believed that 1700-2000 Palestinians were killed in the massacre. The attack was officially declared an act of genocide by the United Nations General Assembly, and Osama bin Laden later cited the Sabra and Shatila massacre as one of the motivations for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, in which al-Qaeda attacked an American Air Force housing complex in Saudi Arabia.