blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Poetry and Vietnam

John Clark Pratt

Poetry that documents the attitudes toward the Vietnam War--as well as the origins, development, and conduct of the war--is both pervasive and significant. Although only a few poems by French writers reflect that country's involvement, the Vietnamese tradition of poetic expression produced a large body of work, both personal and political, written by soldiers and civilians of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Unfortunately, except for the efforts of American poets John Balaban, Yusef Komunyakka, Kevin Bowen, and Bruce Weigl, most of these poems are not available in translation. Only the Vietnamese expatriate Thích Nhât Hanh published a significant collection in English. His The Cry of Vietnam (1968) contains 15 poems about the devastation of war and the horrors inflicted by all sides. Also a number of poems by Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao refugee poets appeared in the numerous volumes of the Viêt Nam Forum Series and the Lac-Viêt Series published after 1983 by the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University. In Viêt Nam Forum 14 (1994), for instance, Viêt Thanh Nguyên, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a moving poem about a burning ash heap that he was "yearning to find a clue/ in the ash to my people,/ severed from me with the finality of a butcher's cleaver."

More than any other group, however, American poets, both veterans and nonveterans, in thousands of poems written during and after the war best chronicled the changing, often conflicting attitudes and experiences of men and women fighting in Southeast Asia.

Their poetry ranges from often bawdy ballads sung by American fighter pilots, collected in Joseph E Tuso’s Singing the Vietnam Blues (1990), and the short, sometimes humorous verses published in publications such as the satiric Grunt magazine or the Pacific Stars and Stripes, to immensely ambitious and moving works that rank with the best poetry of the age. Poetry about Vietnam falls into three general categories: political protest poems, usually written by established poets who had not been to Vietnam; verse novels, in which chronologically linked poems depict one person’s experiences at war; and the hundreds of usually short, personal lyrics that present individual scenes, character sketches, or events.

The first significant protest volume was A Poetry Reading against the Vietnam War (1966), edited by Robert Bly and David Ray. The next year, Walter Lowenfels edited the anthology Where Is Vietnam?, in which the 87 contributing poets include James Dickey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Denise Levertov. Two more collections followed: Out of the Shadow of War (1968) and Poetry against the War (1972). Although a few poems are set in Southeast Asia, most of the works presented in these anthologies reflect the writers' attitudes to U.S. involvement in Vietnam by references to the political scene, the war as seen on TV or reported in the newspapers, and to antiwar themes in general. These anthologies and the numerous individual poems that were published served to define and sustain the general intellectual opposition to the war.

Of the verse novels, three stand out: Vietnam Simply (1967) by Dick Shea, How Audie Murphy Died in Vietnam (1972) by McAvoy Layne, and Interrogations (1990) by Leroy Quintana. In discursive, often sardonic selections, Shea presents the observations of a Navy lieutenant about the entrance of U.S. Marines into the war and other scenes and events in 1965 Vietnam. By means of short, staccato verses, Laynes book traces a Marine recruit (who bears the name of the legendary American war hero) through basic training and combat, then becomes allegorically fanciful as "Audie is captured by the Viêt Công and holds telephone conversations from Hà Nôi with the president of the United States, yet still hums "The Theme from Marlboro Country." Quintana, the only Hispanic veteran to publish a major collection of poetry, shows how a young army draftee experiences training, combat, and the aftermath of the war, where even "on city streets, in restaurants, bars" he "still walk[s] the jungle in camouflage," his "M-16 mind still on recon patrol." Each of these verse novels presents young men whose innocent acceptance changes to experienced disillusion about the American presence in Vietnam.

This subject--the movement from innocence to experience--was perhaps the most universal theme explored by American poets, most of whom served in Vietnam, either in the military or as conscientious objectors. Many of them interrupted their college educations to go to war, then returned to earn graduate degrees in various writing programs and teach in universities. Before the 1975 fall of Sài Gôn, many poet-veterans joined protest organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, using their poems to substantiate their opposition not only to war in general but to the Vietnam War in particular.

What characterizes the majority of the individual poems is their specificity. Presenting much more shattering detail than did World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen, these poets wrote about immediate wartime experiences: firefights, the death of a friend, smells of the jungle, rocket attacks, being wounded, seeing Vietnamese women and children killed, corpses in body bags, rape, arrival into and departure from Vietnam, street scenes, the beauty of the countryside, memories of the war after ending their tours, bombing missions, and letters from home. Brutally frank, much of the language of these poems represents the actuality of the discourse that prevailed, filled with the soldiers' jargon and profanity, often requiring the use of a glossary because of the many references to historical events as well as specific people and place-names.

The themes of the poems are both universal and particularly modern. Many show the horrors of war, the deaths of innocent civilians, the tragic ending of youthful lives, and the general sundering of moral and ethical values. Reflecting the consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, however, a large number of poems mirror the feelings of all participants as America’s longest war began to seem more and more unwinnable: the sense of loss of individuality, the feeling of guilt at having participated, the impossibility of anyone's understanding the totality of the experience, the realization of having been betrayed by higher authority, and most often, the anger and bitterness at feeling like what fiction writer Larry Heinemann called not a cog in a mighty machine but merely "a slab of meat on the table." There are also many poems that contain racial and ethnic themes, using both black versus white and white versus Asian conflicts.

Of the hundreds of war veteran poets, a few achieved literary prominence. In 1994 Army veteran Yusef Komunyakka won the Pulitzer Prize for his Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993). All of the selections in one of his earlier books, Dien Cai Dau (1988), are about the war and present not only richly metaphoric poems about Hà Nôi Hannah, Bob Hope, and night patrols but also offer the acute vision of a black soldier. Another major prizewinning poet is former Marine W. D. Ehrhart, whose numerous collections of poetry, four nonfiction books, and many edited anthologies made him one of the most prolific and widely known Vietnam War writers. In A Generation of Peace (1977), his poem "A Relative Thing," which details the feelings of many returned veterans, reminds America that "We are your sons," and that "When you awake,/we will still be here."

The oldest of the major poets was Walter McDonald, who was a career officer teaching at the Air Force Academy when he was assigned to Vietnam in 1969. An editor as well as a fiction writer, McDonald was best known for his many volumes of poems such as After the Noise of Saigon (1988), in which the subject of war is balanced by poems about flying and scenes set in west Texas. Another professor was Bruce Weigl, whose 1967-1968 Army service in Vietnam sparked a number of collections such as Song of Napalm (1988), in which most of his war poems appear. The title poem is a haunting testament to his wife as he confesses his inability to forget aspects of the war. Also a college teacher, John Balaban spent three years in Vietnam, the first two as a conscientious objector. He published fiction and numerous translations of Vietnamese poetry, and his collections After Our War (1974), nominated for a National Book Award, and Blue Mountain (1982) contain memorable poems such as "The Guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge" and "April 30, 1975," a poem written about the last day of the war.

Among the other poets and their major books are Michael Casey, Obscenities (1972); David Huddle, Stopping by Home (1988); Kevin Bowen, Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong (1994); D.F. Brown, Returning Fire (1984); Horace Coleman, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, in Four Black Poets (1977); Gerald McCarthy, War Story (1977); Bill Shields, Nam Poems (1987); Steve Mason, Warrior for Peace, with an introduction by Oliver Stone (1988); Bryan Alec Floyd, The Long War Dead (1976); Perry Oldham, Vinh Long (1976); and D. C. Berry, Saigon Cemetery (1972).

Individual works by most of these and other poets can be found in the following anthologies: Winning Hearts and Minds, edited by Larry Rottman, Jan Barry, and Basil T. Paquet (1972); Listen: The War, edited by Fred Kiley and Tony Dater (1973); Demilitarized Zones, edited by Jan Barry and W. D. Ehrhart (1976); Carrying the Darkness, edited by W. D. Ehrhart (1985,1989); Shallow Graves. Two Women in Vietnam, by Wendy Wilder Larsen and Trân Thi Nga (1986); and Unaccustomed Mercy, edited by W. D. Ehrhart, with an introduction and bibliography by John Clark Pratt (1989).

Coincident with the dedication of "The Wall," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the first major gathering of and public readings by Vietnam War creative writers was held in New York City on 23 March 1984. There, W. D. Ehrhart defined what became apparent in most of the poetry that had been and was to be published. Although most veteran-poets did write about many other subjects, it was the war that consumed them in their art and inspired their best poems because, according to Ehrhart, that experience was "the single most important experience of [one's] life." Accordingly, the poetry of the Vietnam War provides a historical, intellectual, and emotional chronology of men and women at war that is indeed unique.

From Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political , Social, and Military History. Ed. Spencer C. Tucker. ABC-CLIO/Oxford. Copyright © 1998 by Spencer C. Tucker. [This three-volume set is the most comprehensive reference work on the Vietnam War. Oxford University Press now distributes a one-volume condensed version.]

Return to About the Vietnam War