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The types of war poetry depend upon the perspectives of the people writing it. There is patriotic poetry, which honors the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers who fight for their country. Anti-war poetry sees no glory in war but only destruction and suffering. Witness poetry is written by those who experience the effects of war first hand but are not participants in the fighting. The poetry of soldiers describes the experience of fighting in a war.
Patriotic poetry celebrates and honors soldiers who fight and often die in defense of their country. Its purpose is to give dignity and meaning to their sacrifices. Soldiers are to be honored because they bring safety and peace to their fellow countrymen. English poet Rupert Brooke wrote in his World War I Sonnet “Peace” that the fallen soldier leaves behind “Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,/A width, a shining peace under the night.”
War poetry that speaks out against violence of any kind has been written by poets around the world in every age. It often has as a theme the illusion of glory and victory. The 8th century Chinese poet Li Po wrote in “Fighting South of the Wall” that, “Wise men know that winning a war/is no better than losing one.” In 1899, American poet Stephen Crane wrote the bitter and ironic “War is Kind.” The poem declares “Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom - /A field where a thousand corpses lie.”
Another body of war poetry is that of the witnesses to war. They include civilian prisoners of concentration and internment camps. They experience a war as one of its victims. In the poem “We Will Never Forget – Auschwitz,” Holocaust survivor Alexander Kimel writes about his discovery of the gas chambers. “Later the children turn rigid with death/The people become a twisted load/Of intertwined limbs and heads glued with blood.” Much of the poetry about the American internment camps of World War II was written by Japanese children.
The war poetry of the soldier describes what is like to be in a war. Soldiers at war, no matter what country they represent, express in their poems a deep bond of love for their comrades. In “A Piece of Sky Without Bombs,” Vietnamese poet Lam Thi My Da writes about a comrade killed in an American bombing raid. “We pitched stones upon the barren grave, adding our love to a rising pile of stone.” In the poem “Where Are My Brothers?” American poet Steve Newton searches for his comrades. A stanza from the poem indicates where he finds many of them. “Where did my brothers go?/Sometimes I see them in a field of stone/or on a wall."
An affecting war poem I remember is "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell. Very evocative.
Civil War poetry from the American Civil War is also heavy with emotion and feeling. The songs were often as sad as the poetry: "Just Before the Battle, Mother;" "All Quiet Along the Potomac" and "Lorena" are three that are very mournful.
War is so harrowing and sweeping, it is little wonder that poets feel compelled to attempt to understand it by writing about it.
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