Where Did All the War Poets Go?

Or, better, why have the Afghanistan and Iraq war poets not arrived? So asks an interesting short essay by Jason Dempsey posted on Tom Ricks’ blog at the Foreign Policy website. Dempsey is an active duty infantry officer (as am I) who served in Afghanistan in 2009 (same year as me) and now is back in Afghanistan as an advisor (same job I had). The link is below, so check it out and then read my comments beneath.

Tom Ricks-Jason Dempsey Where Are the Poems?

Great post, all-in-all.  I like most of all the fact that Dempsey values art and thinks it might have something to contribute to our understanding of the wars.  I like his informed speculation about our current dearth of culturally important works of art, especially his savage denunciation of Hollywood’s inability to do anything other than recycle cliches.  Just a few quibbles, if I may:

1. It seems odd that Dempsey does not mention–no, not my blog–but Brian Turner, whose Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise loom large in discussions of contemporary war poetry.  If Dempsey is aware of Turner, then why not specifically explore why he has not achieved wider recognition?  Or a consideration of what Turner brings to the poetry table?  If Dempsey is not aware of Turner, then he probably shouldn’t be making his claims as stridently as he does.

2.  Dempsey’s notion that the great World War I poetry by Owen, Sassoon, and others effortlessly achieved cultural prominence seems a bit thin.  I’m sure our awareness of its greatness has more to do with decades of sustained attention by the intellectual literati and academic mavens, through which it gradually permeated the consciousness of educated readers.  That is to say, I don’t think any poetry written in the 20th or 21st century has become well known through any other means than being taught in thousands and thousands of high school, college, and graduate school classrooms.

3.  Finally, Dempsey articulates the importance of World War I poetry in informing the public of the ghastly reality of trench warfare, but struggles to define exactly how he thinks contemporary poetry will contribute to a better, truer understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Well, of course, he might say:  we await the poet who can tell us what we don’t yet apprehend.  But not just Turner, but other poets such as Walt Piatt, Elyse Fenton, and Paul Wasserman have already begun that work, as I try to explain in my posts on them.

More to follow on Turner in the weeks to come.  I’m very interested in explaining with as much accuracy as I can what I think is the nature of his achievement.

2 thoughts on “Where Did All the War Poets Go?”

  1. Also check out Shortly Thereafter, a poetry collection by an infantryman in Afghanistan that looks at his time there and the impact it had on his life when he returned to being a civilian. Turner hailed it as “raw and immediate…reinforc[ing] the fractured and dislocated self that inhabits the uniform–the self that carries the rifle, the self that returns ‘home.'” It won the 2012 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was declared a Must-Read of 2013 in Massachussetts, but because of the general decline in poetry reading in general, it does not receive much attention, though it has been featured on Battleland and NPR.

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