In Poets of World War II, Harvey Shapiro compiles the work of over sixty poets in illustrating the events World War II. Many of these poets served in the armed forces in the infantry, or even in air combat. Two poets, Randall Jarrell and George Oppen, illustrate their own experiences of war through their poetry. Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” and George Oppen’s “Survival: Infantry” portray the ways in how these two men use poetry to grapple with their own perceptions and experiences of war.In Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force,” the scene described with the puppy and its innocence provides a stark contrast to the war, as suggested by the title: “Eighth Air Force.” In addition, the reference to flowers illustrates that airmen, though they possess the power to be destructive and to kill, they are still able to appreciate the beauty in more ordinary things, like flowers.
Jarrell then moves to the drunk, whistling sergeant, who is representative of the common man who can enjoy the simple pleasures of average, civilian life. The fact that the sergeant is singing an opera presents the irony of the situation, in that he is a relatively sophisticated man, but is performing a duty where he may be killed or kill another. Sadly, he is prevented from a normal and innocent life, as his role in the war forces him to act in belligerent, destructive ways (as is the case for all soldiers in combat).
Oppen’s “Survival: Infantry” is more concerned with asking the why’s of war. Unlike Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force,” which focuses on the description of the double lives soldiers must lead, Oppen writes on his experiences of war in Alsace. His questions, such as “Where did all the rocks come from?” coupled with the smell of explosives, illustrates not only his wartime experiences, but also the road to recovery, and the incessant questions that the act of war begs to all those affected.
Later in the second stanza of “Eighth Air Force,” Jarrell describes banal behaviors, such as sleeping and eating, and how airmen are capable of being normal individuals. However, he refers to the airmen as “murderers,” reminding the reader that their current lives are anything but normal. These men who are capable of killing are also just as capable of being innocent, playful, and carefree like the puppy, whose playfulness they enjoy so much.
Oppen also relates on his experiences of being in abnormal situations, particularly when he mentions that others “address” him, meaning they speak to him and create an experience of awe that leaves him “gasping.” However, he is unable to escape from the devastating world of war, and refers to himself as being “in the same mud in the terrible ground.” Similar to “Eighth Air Force,” in which men are prevented from living normal, less destructive lives, Oppen is restricted from leading a normal life, as he consistently questions the changes he sees in the world. In spite of this, Oppen’s despair is alleviated with the words he is addressed with. Though they cannot save him from the world of war, they become the language of survival for Oppen.
Harvey Shapiro’s Poets of World War II brings together the experiences of men affected by the events of World War II. Though Randall Jarrell and George Oppen’s interpretations of war differ, their experiences of war is similar, as depicted through their poetry. As the two poets describe their experiences through the use of vivid descriptions and comparisons, they grapple and come to terms with their experiences of war, providing an illustrative and insightful perspective in understanding war.
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