War has long figured as a theme in poetry--after all, some of the world's oldest surviving poems are about great armies and heroic battles. But while Homer may have idealized his combatants and revered their triumphant, incessant fighting, the treatment of war in poetry has grown increasingly more complex since then.
The numerous conflicts of the twentieth century produced poets who sometimes chose to concentrate their writing on the horrifying effects of war on civilians. In Pablo Nerudaís famous poem about the Spanish Civil War, "I Explain a Few Things," he discards metaphor entirely to say: "in the streets the blood of the children / ran simply, like the blood of children." At the end of the poem he implores the reader to look at the devastating results of war:
Come and see the blood in the streets,
Likewise, in "The Diameter of the Bomb," Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai finds that poetic descriptions can falter and fail in the face of violent tragedy:
And I wonít even mention the howl of orphans
Some poets have focused on another devastating effect of war: the fear engendered when citizens and nations are forced to take sides, to answer the questions, who is "good?" who is "evil?" C. P. Cavafy explored this problem in his allegorical poem "Waiting for the Barbarians," written in 1898. The poem describes a citizenry so fully afraid of a barbarian invasion that the society has stopped functioning. The poem concludes:
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
Other poets have recognized the ironic blurring of opposing forces that often occurs in wartime. Yusef Komyankaa's book Dien Cai Dau, for example, written from the perspective of an African-American soldier fighting in Vietnam, includes the poem "Tu Do Street," which describes not only the relationship between Vietnamese and American soldiers, but also black and white soldiers:
Back in the bust at Dak To
Finally, in the face of irrational and unthinkable destruction, such as genocide, the space of words becomes a problematic one, and language appears to dissipate. The poet Paul Celan, who survived the Holocaust, often struggles with describing the events he witnessed and how to escape them, as in his famous poem "Death Fugue":
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
How do people recover from the devastating conflict of war, especially if their homelands have been ravaged? In "Foundations," the Polish poet Leopold Staff describes how his attempts to "build" have "tumbled down," concluding: "Now when I build, I shall begin / With the smoke from the chimney."
For more poems about war, consider the following:
"The Diameter of the Bomb" by Yehuda Amichai