Americans give verse to feelings


February 28, 1991|By Holly Selby

. . . All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- an ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone was still yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

-Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est" World War I Forty-five years after his brother's death in World War II, Ronna Hammer's father became depressed, his sad memories rekindled by the vision of American troops being sent to the Persian Gulf.

Her father's lingering sorrow haunted Ms. Hammer. So she wrote a poem.

"Nothing has the power of words," says the Takoma Park graphic artist, who has been writing poetry for 15 years.

War has long caused men and women to turn to verse as a way expressing emotions from hope to horror. In the last century alone, battle inspired artists such as World War I British poet Rupert Brooke and Vietnam War poet Bruce Weigl.

And recently, newspapers and literary magazines, radio stations and poetry classes have been on the receiving end of increasing amounts of war verse. One poem, written by a Marine stationed in the gulf, even was entered into the Congressional Record last month, improbably sandwiched between the prosaic speeches of congressmen.

The Sun has received poems from homemakers, lawyers, state employees and schoolchildren. Some are mothers, fathers, nephews, grandfathers or friends of those stationed in the Persian Gulf. All would like their poetry published.

John Lawyer, a facilities maintenance mechanic for the Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks Depart., wrote a poem to express "gratitude to the coalition of teams in this war."

His poem, "Extinguish the Flame of Saddam Hussein," reads, in part:

As God created lands for mans and ma'ams to tend,

He also gave us gardens to defend.

One that planted flowers,

One that planted bombs.

As one shall reap what one shall sow,

The flame of Saddam Hussein you know.

And Baltimore legal secretary Rusti Franczkowski has long sought solace in poetry: She has written her way through "two really bad divorces," as well as happier moments, such as the birth of her son.

Poetry, she says, "makes me feel better." Her poem, "The Lady Cried" is about the Statue of Liberty awaiting the return from the gulf of the American troops. "I just had a vision of the statue with tears running down her face," she explains.

And that is how it should be, say scholars. "War needs the kind of shaping and emotion that poetry can give it. In a really healthy culture, the centers of power, the Pentagon, would somehow be in touch with the poets and painters," says Rod Jellema, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. "War is a time in which we should turn to poetry and music and painting -- to make some order to the chaos."

But poets point to a downside to the rapidly growing body of gulf TTC war poetry: Some of it defies immediate categorization -- as art or otherwise.

There's at least one poet who misspelled Saddam Hussein's name, and another who describes his own artistic efforts as an attempt to break a world record: "Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. I have about 22 to go."

The mass inspiration may be due, in part, to how Americans think about poetry, says Heidi Erdrich, creative writing and poetry instructor at the Johns Hopkins writing seminar.

"Poetry is often associated with great heroics," she says. "There are certain things that occasion poetry: death, love, old age. Certain things make people think of poetry. They think poetry is about the big events of life" -- and little else is larger than war.

Quibbles over literary style aside, says Ms. Hammer, poetry answers legitimate needs for all kinds of people. "It touches people on so many different levels: The level of actually having a relative or a friend who has gone to war that you're worried about, and the need to express the feeling when you lose control and there's nothing you can do. There is a helplessness of war," says Ms. Hammer.

To her, poetry "is similar to religion in the sense that people go to the Bible or their congregation for help in those times. The written word has the power to calm a person. To put some order in a life when they feel that they have lost control."

Nonetheless, Mr. Jellema -- who, as poetry editor for a literary magazine called The Other Side, has received dozens of war poetry submissions -- finds some of the recent poetry vaguely alarming.

"Poetry ought to be saying something about the war," he says, "but there's not enough [good] poetry out there and the pop versifiers come along and try to say it."

Jan. 15, 1991 It's beginning again.

Those giving the orders

won't have to carry guns

or the memories of sounds.

We hid behind enemy lines,

had to kill Germans with knives

so the noise of our rifles

wouldn't announce where we were.

Today, I still hear sounds:

the knife rifting through ribs,

the scream caught in the palm

of my sweating left hand.

sentences cut off at midword

by the growing strain of planes

that may or may not leave the

thunder of bombs in their wakes.

And I can't forget the silence

accumulating at the dinnertable

like dirty knives hidden by

folded white napkins. No one

spoke about my brother's

death. It was never

enough that they renamed

the street after him.

--Ronna Hammer

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