Poets of World War II
Editor: Harvey Shapiro
Review Posted By: Carrie E. Byrd (Gryph)
Review Posted: July 30, 2003.
Poets of World War II attempts to gather a selection of the poems of a generation that was largely defined by war. The bulk of the collection is devoted to poets who actually served during the war with about a quarter of it devoted to civilians, protestors and the children who grew up in the shadow of the war. The book contains poems by 26 poets including Kenneth Koch, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Tate.
Perhaps because Shapiro himself was a serviceman, the book seems more than slightly skewed. Many of the poems indulge in the myth of the glorious war and the idea that to die in battle is to die a glorious death. Even the poems that supposedly deal with the gritty reality of day-to-day life during the war gloss over what was often a painful life. However, neither Shapiro nor the poets included in the volume could avoid all of the realities of war entirely, and in some poems the stark truths of the war stare back from the black and white page.
The attempt to categorize every style of poetry from that era led to the inclusion of some poems that are mediocre at best. The volume also fails to reflect the best work of some of the poets included, which is always a risk when dealing with a topical volume of this nature. For the most part, these poems reflect the best of a generation. They show stylistic innovation, pride, patriotism, and knowledge of the craft that the current generation of poets can only hope to mimic.
This volume includes only American poets. When I first picked it up I didn’t realize it was part of the American Poets Project and so the lack of diversity is understandable, but no less unfortunate. While I appreciate the support for America’s poets I feel that a collection of this nature would benefit from the inclusion of poetry by authors from other countries as well.
Editor Shapiro includes two of his own poems as well, which seems to me to show both an unfortunate amount of ego and proof that he is not capable of objectively assessing the poems that were included in the volume. I am of the opinion that with very few exceptions editors who are working on collections of this nature would do well do exclude their own work – even at the expense of their often sizable egos.
This book contains poetry that is well worth reading, but that could be found in dozens of other collections that are more interesting and cohesive. In the end, this book seems to be less a collection of World War II poetry than a tribute to editor Shapiro’s own war experience.