Friday, September 03, 2010

"Bomber County" and "The Firebombing"

Thanks, again, to Dwight Garner of The New York Times for pointing out this important passage in "Bomber County," Daniel Swift's extraordinary story of war, family and poetry:
“Bombing was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First,” Mr. Swift writes, “a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss.”

Where poets like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon brought us nightmare visions of muddy trench warfare, Mr. Swift looks to writers as disparate as T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis (“a secret war poet”), Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi and James Dickey to describe the multiple horrors of the air war. Not all of these men actually fought in World War II, of course, but each seriously contemplated the world those bombers left behind.

Mr. Swift writes particularly well about why good poetry about air bombing is rare and valuable. “The poetry of air bombing requires a particular imaginative sympathy absent from other war poetry, and it must play between telling and deferring the tale: between the poet who survived and the others who died that night,” he writes.

In other words, the poet must confront the experience of those unfortunate souls on the ground — often civilians — as well as his own. He must speak in a voice “pitched between condemnation and celebration, between terror and relief.”

It’s a pleasure to walk through this verse with Mr. Swift. His tone is serious but open, scholarly but solicitous of the general reader’s ability to unpack sometimes dense poems. He performs worthwhile tasks, like reading the issues of The Times Literary Supplement that were printed during the war.

Near the end of “Bomber County” he makes the declaration — and this will astonish some poetry critics — that Dickey’s long poem “The Firebombing,” from his 1965 collection “Buckdancer’s Choice,” is “the finest, strangest poem of this kind of warfare.”

Dickey’s poem depicts a bomber 20 years after the war, older, fatter and now living in the suburbs. “Twenty years in the suburbs have not shown me/Which ones were hit and which not,” Dickey’s narrator says. “My hat should crawl on my head/In streetcars, thinking of it.”
At the end of the poem he is haunted, “still unable/To get down there or see/What really happened.”...

The complete text of the poem "The Firebombing" is available among the excerpts form James Dickey's "Selected Poems."

No comments:

Post a Comment