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Old Glory, American War Poems

edited by Robert Hedin

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Old Glory, American War Poems
If you assume that an anthology of poems about American wars from the the Revolutionary to Iraq, bearing the chauvinistic title Old Glory would be unlikely to inspire you to hope for peace, you would be wrong. The redeeming aspect of Old Glory is the positioning of hua patriotism in a context of the regrettable inhumanity war requires. Its unenlightened aspect is the proferring of American war poetry as being different in essence from any other war poetry, an attitude of chosenness tempered by the poems themselves.

Edited by Robert Hedin, who has written a marvelous twelve-page historical and literary overview as an Introduction, the anthology presents a survey of American poetry styles from early British-imitating verse to modern psychological realism (there are no poets who got famous in the last five minutes, however.) Nearly two hundred poems comprise the volume, a chapter for each of our wars, twelve in all: Revolutionary, 1812, Mexican-American, Civil, Indian, Spanish-American, First and Second World Wars, Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and what the book calls the War on Terrorism. All the "momentous events" of our military history such as Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are addressed in poems ranging from the gung-ho, like the glory-mongering "Battle Hymn of the Republic" of Julia Ward Howe, to later poems that call it like it was, and respect the humanity of enemy combatants.

Picking up an anthology of American war poetry, the reader, depending on temperment and the presence of the aggressive gene in the DNA, braces for, or happily anticipates, a macho-man's brew of jingoism flavored with a jigger of rue. Traditional poems of the Revolutionary and Civil wars do not disappoint this expectation. For total absence of ironic distance, have a look at Oliver Wendell Holmes'sentimental "Old Ironsides," about the War of 1812, in which the victor (us) flies a "holy flag."

But the eye of the objective witness begins to flicker open with Whitman, who, as geniuses will, broke through received values to express a new vision:. in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," for example, he observes with sympathy the wounded of both sides of a Civil War battle, "where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground," and compassion for the enemy enters American war poetry.

Herman Melville, though a committed Unionist, refused to glorify the war, instead depicting it with bitter realism. In "College Colonel" he describes a psychically maimed hero who stumbles through a victory parade, and in "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight" he broods on the cold technology of modern warfare: No passion, all went on by crank,/Pivot and screw..." Whitman and Melville both rendered war's brutal realities from the point of view of the common soldier, choosing not to adopt the traditional poetic task of writing war propaganda. Their new attitude was nuanced with empathy, their perspective widened to include the enemy in the human race.

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