In the heat of war, bullets are not the only weapons piercing the air. Words too are wielded as weapons. And some of those martial messages take the form of poetry.
C.S. Lewis thought and wrote much about poetry. In his monumental study, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he offers this curious insight. “Great subjects do not make great poems; usually, indeed, the reverse.”
Certainly, countless refrains have been penned about historical events and noteworthy personages. But the poetry that seems to speak directly to the emotions is typically unencumbered by dramatic or political reference.
That does not mean poetry and conflict do not possess an intimate bond. One of the tragedies of the First World War was, in fact, that so many promising young poets were cut down in their youth. These brief biographical notes introduce readers to several of them.
C.S. Lewis was a veteran of the grim trench warfare himself. Although most “professional poets” don’t consider his work praiseworthy, I do. I once wrote a post on the subject and included a poem which includes the following stanza.
Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.
Voices of Ukraine
The current conflict raging in Europe carries echoes of the past century. Among those reverberations we hear war-inspired lyrics. Some seek to stir patriotic passions. Others consider the universal grief spawned by scenes of mangled mortality.
Five years ago, a collection of poetry entitled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine was published. It chronicled the Euromaidan Revolution, also called the “Revolution of Dignity,” which possesses direct links to today’s war, and preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Borys Humenyuk fought during that revolution, and appears to be in uniform today, as well. Presumably he will write more about today’s war, once Russia has been repelled and Ukraine’s sovereignty has been reaffirmed. In the meantime, he is likely reexperiencing the moment he captured in these words almost ten years ago.
When you shoot
Even when it’s at night and you don’t see the enemy’s face
Even when night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy
And embraces each of you as her own
You smell like gunpowder
Your hands, face, hair, clothing, shoes —
No matter how much you wash them —
smell of gunpowder
They smell of war
You smell of war
You and war are one.
It is poignant how the suffering birthed by war is also capable of giving voice to such moving sentiments.
Would that war should end. The loss of such heartrending words would be small price to pay.
After publishing this column, I received correspondence from Ukrainian poet, Vyacheslav Konoval, inviting me to share one of his poems. I offer the following, which I found particularly poignant. And I encourage you to visit Slava’s personal website at All Poetry.
Staggering, a drop of dew falls from the green grass,
fog, and even acrid smog, covers the ground,
the cylinder was torn on all sides, so it was gas.
Ragged camouflage with holes,
the Red Sea swallows the corpses
Are they in the field, cartridges without controls?
The tire blazed, moaned and tire finished,
here is the hostility, aggressive appetite has not diminished,
the enemy turned into fertilizer.
A stray dog howls,
recites prayers with a hoarse voice,
stares at the torn soldier’s jaws,
the enemies have made their choice.