How can you share your response to a major world event? Today, you have many options. You might send a private message just to your inner circle, but you could also broadcast your thoughts to a worldwide audience in any number of media, from a few short words to a lengthy video.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, you might have put your thoughts down in a poem and sent it to a newspaper, where it could be read by thousands—or millions—of people, right next to the news, weather, and sports. The 1918 entry of the United States into World War I triggered an especially dramatic outpouring of these personal responses in verse.
A quick search for “war poem” on the Library’s historic newspaper site, Chronicling America, for 1918 finds a wide range of writers and styles. One U.S. Army private acknowledges America’s debt to France, while another soldier crafts a response to the famous Canadian war poem “In Flanders Fields.” Meanwhile, the New York Sun includes several verses from “Miss Gertrude Stein” that the editors believe “will be read with interest.”
One of the greatest troves of poetry about the war, though, can be found in the pages of one publication—the American soldiers’ newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. The paper included a regular feature, “The Army’s Poets,” and after a year had received more than 18,000 poems. “The Army’s Poets,” one editor wrote, “are the spokesmen of the Army’s soul,” and the poems range from lighthearted accounts of camp life to thoughts on sacrifice, patriotism, and being a long way from home. A search using the term “army poets” will find hundreds of examples of U.S. soldiers and sailors who took up the pen to make sense of the greatest war of their time.
Newspaper poems like these provide rich opportunities for students to explore the popular responses to major events. Because so many were written by everyday people, not professional writers, these poems can provide a glimpse into differing and very personal perspectives on events that students might only know from official accounts.
At the same time, they raise interesting questions about the role gatekeepers might have played in their publication. Because these poems were chosen for publication by professional editors, they can lead to questions about whether the poems were selected—or even edited—to conform to acceptable standards of content.
- Poems triggered by a major event can provide a useful comparison to other accounts of the event. Browse Topics in Chronicling America for another event and consider challenging your students to find a newspaper poem on that topic. Students can then compare their textbook or other accounts of the event with the poem and address the different approaches to the subject.
- After exploring some of the soldiers’ poems in the Stars and Stripes, encourage students to talk to veterans in their lives and ask if they had similar outlets for their thoughts on their military service. Students can compare the Stars and Stripes poems with soldiers’ poems from today and identify changes in style or in the points of view expressed.
How can your students–or you yourself–use poetry to respond to events of your own time?
I tried the same search (basic and as advanced) for war poem (and war poems and war poetry) for different time periods – 1898 and 1862-1865 and really didn’t find poems – some references to a poem – but mostly just selections with the word “war” in them. Any reason this search doesn’t work outside the 1918 one by the author of the blog article?
Try army poets
I’m looking for a war poem that is important to my grandfather. He remembers it from Stars and Stripes during WWII. It is a parody on James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “When the frost is on the punkin”. He remembers the first line and would really like to find the whole thing.
It starts – “When the frost is on the pyramidal and the GI’s in his sack”
Is there a searchable collection of these war poems from Stars and Stripes anywhere? Any help would be greatly appreciated!
Chad, thank you for letting us know about this intriguing poem! Our poetry specialists aren’t familiar with it, but if you can provide any more information we’d be grateful.
Do any of our other readers have clues they can offer?
Thanks for the reply! I really appreciate you getting back to me!!
He thinks it was in either 1943 or 1944 and actually remembers the first verse.. He says it was most likely in Stars and Stripes but possibly some other small pamphlet that was printed by army.
Here is the whole first verse – (as accurate as he can remember)
When the frost is on the pyramidal and the GI’s in his sack
then as sure as shootin’ that you’ll start to thinkin’ back
of the warmth and the convenience of the good ol’ thermostat
and the smell of eggs and bacon a’ sizzlin’ in the fat
twasn’t quite so hard to rise and shine at wifeys cheery call
but now you’re rudely wakened by the sergeants blaring bawl.
Thanks again for putting energy into the search! It’s much appreciated!
P.S. – Has anyone though of putting the war poems from stars and stripes together in a publication?? Maybe a book for WWI and another for WWII. I would buy them! 🙂
Going through my grandfather’s stuff and came across many “poems.” They are ones that would not have been published in a newspaper, but pertain to girls met in France. A little racy!