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From Behind the Lines to Between the Lines: War Poems and Beyond

The following is a blog post in honor of National Poetry Month.

While walking the halls of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, it is not difficult to be inspired by the Lyric Poetry Hall.  I have often wondered what artists and poets have ventured through these halls for the past 122 years. Were they as taken by the representation of art in the architecture of the most beautiful building in D.C.?

South Corridor, Great Hall. Lyric Poetry mural by Henry O. Walker. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Looking at the mosaic of names and murals around the room, it is easy to appreciate that poets such as Poe, Shakespeare and Sappho will forever be memorialized in our national library. They stand as a fixture to remind guests that poetry and literature are central to our lives.  Reading poetry can offer insight into a time, place, experience and personality.  Whether the highest high or the lowest low, poetry has the power to both enchant us and shake us to our very core.  Creating poetry, like any art or craft, is a deeply personal form of self-expression that can help writers articulate a more vivid description of their experiences, and sometimes illuminate irreparable harm.

Long before Homer’s Iliad, servicemembers and veterans have been weaving allegories and rhyming patterns together.  Whether celebrating victories or honoring the fallen, these poets pen works illustrating some of the most pivotal moments in their own personal histories, and ultimately in our national history.  For many servicemembers and veterans, writing is an outlet.  Sometimes writing can be the first cathartic step toward managing their memories and sharing their truth.

Nearly 1,000 of the 110,000 of Veterans History Project collections feature poetry –poems written by a veteran, poems that spoke to them and even poems about them.

For a prisoner of war (POW), such as Lt. Richard Heh, writing helped him process experiences that led to his imprisonment. Composing poetry kept his mind occupied. Heh’s B-17 was shot down over Liege, Belgium in May of 1944.  Captured by Nazi soldiers, Heh served as a POW in Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany.  With little food, bouts of solitary confinement, interrogations and crippling cold, Heh kept a diary in which he recorded daily occurrences and penned prose.

More than 50 years after his fateful fall from the skies, Heh sat down with his son to share his military memories.  Asked about the events that led to his imprisonment, Heh instantly recited his poem “My Last Mission” from memory.

Poem “The Last Mission”, from the Richard Joseph Heh Veterans History Project Collection. //lccn.loc.gov/87986.PM01.page3.

From World War I through Vietnam, servicemembers relied on telegrams, letters and other correspondence to communicate with their loved ones back home. Though distance and circumstance separated them, these correspondences served as comforting reminders for servicemembers of their life back home.  For the families, these correspondences gave a brief glimpse at what their loved one was facing, and provided comfort that no matter their hardships, they were enduring.

Nettie Trax worked with the American Expeditionary Forces in field hospitals in Savenay and Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, France during World War I.  She frequently wrote home reporting on wartime conditions, her appreciation for the soldiers she cared for and occasionally a poem or two she wanted her mother to relay to her young nieces and nephews to let them know she was thinking of them.

William T. Supulski, an Army soldier, documented a number of poems he sent in letters during World War I, including a poem he titled “Love Memories” in which he asks his love to wait for him.

V-mail “Thanksgiving Greetings”, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Arnold Barker Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/05900/PM01.

Like Supulski, World War II and Korean War sailor Arnold Barker opted to veer away from the atmosphere and landscape of battle in his letters. Instead, he sent an illustrated poem to his father describing his bleak holiday feast.

While homecomings are a time of tremendous joy and relief, they can also leave servicemembers at a loss for words. Reintegrating into everyday life can be a challenge. Several writing workshops are now geared towards reaching out to these servicemembers and veterans to facilitate their expression of intense feelings, and offer an open avenue of communications.

Edith Porter-Stewart found that writing was an effective and efficient therapeutic tool for her to review and triumph over her discriminations as an evangelical, female, Native American Indian serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy from 1989 to 2006.  Porter-Stewart also penned a patriotic short poem suggesting that despite her challenges, her pride in her service endured.

Like Porter-Stewart, Russel McCabe contributed a poem to his collection entitled “Preparation,” which reflects his service with the U.S. Air Force as a minority. In the poem, he drives others to get educated and work together.

Vietnam veteran James Wollner documented his service and the coalescence of his unit through poetry. During his VHP interview, he shared a few of these poems, reflecting on how his wartime experiences, good and bad, strengthened parts of his character,while they simultaneously demolished others. Wollner wrote about the colorful anecdotes of his uniquely suited tactical unit, the aesthetics of the country, night ambushes, the loss of comrades and the people he met while serving in the Republic of Vietnam.

Thami / Tommy [detail of photo shown during oral history video], 1967. James Wollner Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/04135.

His poignant poem entitled “Thami (Tommy)” paints an image of a young Vietnamese orphan boy he befriended during his time in country. In the short time that they knew him, the whole unit loved and cared for the boy. When the unit departed, they watched “Tommy’s” eyes well up, and realized that he would once again be alone in country. Whatever his thoughts of this confusing war before he arrived in Vietnam, Wollner’s mission became clear: he would fight harder to ensure victory, so that Tommy could enjoy the same freedoms we hold dear.

Collectively, poems written by veterans within our collection showcase the diverse and complex nature of military service. Through their imagery, for a brief moment in time, we are connected to a period, a place, and a person about which we would otherwise have no knowledge. And because they contributed their poems as a part of their Veterans History Project Collection, they will now be woven into our national Library’s historical memory alongside Shakespeare and Sappho.

In honor of Veterans Day 2018, the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, Veterans History Project and Exhibits Office presented a symposium on the veterans’ “road back,” focusing on the use of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction as a means of coping with service experience. You may view the program HERE.

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