June 6th, 1944 is the best-known D-Day in military history: the day the Allied troops landed on Normandy during World War II. At the time, it was the largest seaborne invasion and marked the beginning of the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe which finally brought down Hitler’s Nazi regime. It is still somewhat incomprehensible how a single man managed to incite masses to commit the greatest horrors this world has seen — involving more than 100 million people across 30 different countries and resulting in 50-85 million fatalities, including the genocide of millions of Jews and ethnic minorities during the Holocaust and millions of Chinese civilians who died during the Japanese occupation. 70 years on, we still shudder from the memories and the stories, given that almost everyone has relatives who were involved in WWII in some way or another.
Poets and writers have, of course, provided us unique and interesting perspectives of these kinds of mass atrocities, often from the trenches. War poetry has wide-ranging themes — from shining a light on the brutalities of war to the loss of innocence of both civilians and soldiers who had never imagined such agony and fear. We even have anti-war poetry that pleads for peace and a different way of living with our fellow beings.
While World War I was dominated by the Europeans (and, particularly, the British poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, et al), World War II saw a wider range of poetry from Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Eastern European, and so on.
There’s a curious thing about war poems — most poets have mixed feelings about writing them. Yeats, for example, when asked to write a war poem during World War I by Henry James, wrote this (although, he did go on to write more about war later):
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
James himself, after that first World War, felt that words had become powerless in the face of such mass brutalities. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, in his characteristic longwinded way:
One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.
Our American poet today is Randall Jarrell, for whom the war had, in fact, loosed up words as his best works were, arguably, his war poems. Having studied at university under esteemed poets and writers like Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransome, Jarrell did not quite follow in their footsteps in terms of poetic styles. His career, prior to joining the US Army Air Force, was spent teaching and writing. Two years after his war experience (most of which turned out to be aviation instruction), he returned to teaching and writing. But now, his poetry had the mark of a bruised psyche and war stayed the primary theme at least till the 1960s, when he turned to other themes such as growing old and the losses that involves.
Depression gripped him right around the time he reached 50 years of age. Unfortunately, medication did more harm than good. There was one suicide attempt and a hospitalization. He tried to get back to normal after that, even going back to teaching. But, a year or so later, when walking along a highway near his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was hit by a car and died. The jury’s still out on whether that was an accident or a suicide, given his emotional history and the previous attempt. When a memorial service was held for him at Yale University, some of the best-known poets of his generation showed up to pay their respects: Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur et al.
The most famous Jarrell war poem is ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner‘ — 5 lines of a raw and blunt image. The last line still makes the back of my neck crawl, no matter how many times I read it.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
There is another poem, ‘A Camp in the Prussian Forest‘, about WWII ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust. Its rhetoric, while strong and powerful, is so pointedly bitter that I can barely get through it. Still, it is, like all his works, searingly honest and expresses many complex emotions that were, at the time, unfamiliar in poetry. Consider this excerpt:
Here men were drunk like water, burnt like wood.
The fat of good
and evil, the breast’s star of hope
were rendered into soap.
Our poem selection today is no less raw. It is all the more heartbreaking because it is about an innocent child. It was written in 1945 but it is so prescient even for our times. It could easily apply to Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, or Ukraine today.
Undeniably, the biggest toll that wars take is the futures of those little ones who have barely lived a few years and don’t understand what’s happening to them and their world. Jarrell, flying those WWII US Army planes dropping bombs, knew just how he was a part of exacting this toll. In narrating this song-like poem of a child’s death through the child’s perspective, Jarrell makes us part of the intense experience. More than that, he also masterfully shows us how the child has, in the end, more knowing and insight than all the many soldiers and politicians who are fighting and taking lives.
The first verse sets the opening scene. The narrator describes a child seeing soldiers. The innocence of the child is conveyed through a simple mention of his walking on pathways covered with summer leaves while the soldiers race along overhead with their bombs. And the reference to the giants and ants is, I think, about how the people in their planes above are like looming giants, killing those on the ground as if they are insignificant, helpless ants. That human beings are described as two different species of the war-mongerers and the innocent civilians from the child’s viewpoint shows us that the child is more knowledgeable than we (and he) might think.
The second verse is where we hear the child’s voice directly. He’s talking to his mother who “has gone away.” Our hearts skip as we realize that it may well be a euphemism to indicate that she has already died. And, in his hasty assertion to her of “I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry,” we can only imagine that she must have urged him to be strong as she left him to fend for himself and, afraid as he is, he wants her to know he’s doing as she asked even as he feels most vulnerable.
Then, the question: “The people are punishing the people – why?” Interestingly, it is not in quotation marks like the previous words that the child says. So we can assume that it is either an unspoken thought by the child or it is being raised by the poem’s speaker.
Of course, there is no sensible answer to that question. The third verse shows us how the child answers with his foolish eyes brightening — in this case, I take the “brightening” of the eyes to mean a fear-driven filling with tears rather than a joyful livening up. The child can only see things in child-like terms and, for him, the angry planes and wind and the people dying only means one thing: a punishment.
And then comes the hammerfall of realization. The single line of “The angels sway about his story like balloons.” tells us that the child has also been struck down. His most plaintive words of all now come to us in the form of a demand or a directive with that last italicized line: “Come to the stone and tell me why I died.” Because, in death, he is no longer just a child. In death, even he sees the senselessness and futility of all the killing and wants an explanation.
If you have children or are around them at all, this is a very difficult poem to get through without tears pricking your eyes or a lump hurting your throat. Its jagged edges dig deep, don’t they? It’s almost as if Jarrell wants us to feel some of the sudden and inexplicable pain, even if just a fraction of it, that the child must have felt in those last moments. It is the kind of pain we need so that we can remind ourselves what it is like to be a helpless child… we, the grownups and the sensible ones, who can just as easily and thoughtlessly take the life of one.
Come to the Stone…
The child saw the bombers skate like stones across the fields
As he trudged down the ways the summer strewed
With its reluctant foliage; how many giants
Rose and peered down and vanished, by the road
The ants had littered with their crumbs and dead.
“That man is white and red like my clown doll,”
He says to his mother, who has gone away.
“I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry.”
In the sky the planes are angry like the wind.
The people are punishing the people—why?
He answers easily, his foolish eyes
Brightening at that long simile, the world.
The angels sway about his story like balloons.
A child makes everything—except his death—a child’s.
Come to the stone and tell me why I died.
~ Randall Jarrell, ‘Randall Jarrell: The Complete Poems‘