Poems in Time of War

In too many countries, people are suffering today. These poems remind me of the families trapped in Eastern Ukraine, and those in Afghanistan and Yemen wracked by hunger and lack of medical care.

The first poem is by Kim Stafford.


Once war begins, you will need to decide
where to draw the line—carnage, after all,
has its courtesies: I will kill soldiers, but not
civilians…and I will bomb barracks, but not
hospitals or schools. In the smoke, though,
once it’s all flash and blur, in fear, thrill, rage
things get confused, something clicks, and soon
your fury spills over. What was a city becomes
atrocity. You shot civilians, then you are gunning
for civilization. You fired at the heart, but now
it’s the back of the head, it’s that boy on a bike,
it’s this grandmother offending by having a face
and hands, so you leave her in a heap. Retreating
through rust and wreckage, you abandon the soul
that leaked from your body, a sheen of slime, a stain.

This poem by John A. Huddart exemplifies the callousness of war, when countries recruit others or appeal to them to help in a war effort, but when the need is gone?

Empire Windrush

Empire Windrush. Grey ghost of war.
Twin-funnelled troopship bringing back
the Forces from their newsreels, outposts,
and jungle camps. From last posts, and lowering flags.

She’s slow and diesel driven – and launched
as Monte Rosa in a German yard.
A cruiser for vacations, and the middle classes.
And then the Kreigsmarine. Berthship
to the Tirpitz, Auschwitz ferry for Norwegian
Jews – endures air attacks and mines. Survives.

Under British hands, she pays the price
of peace. White paint shrouds sides
that buckled under war. Blighty-bound,
half empty, calls at Kingston and offers
passage to a thousand citizens, newly minted
by a government desperate for willing hands.

Curious to see the land so many fought
to save, they find the forty quid and come
aboard. Thus filled with hope she sails
for England, and a place in history the Equal
of Trafalgar, Agincourt or Waterloo.

New waters for the future meet
her prow. At Tilbury, grey frowning
skies rain blessings and surprise.
It’s June, but cool enough to stand
and shiver on the docks, and wait
to fill the shortages they’re here to satisfy.

The Windrush sails away. Empire sunsets
churned froth and pother at her stern. At last,
she burns and sinks, her contribution made.

A generation makes its home, ignoring
cards in doors and shops that advertise
“No coloureds”. The slums and cities make
them room, and heritage adds on another page.

Once enslaved, transported chained, plantation-
bound, then freed to poverty’s thin dreams,
they London’s voices richly spice with sun,
and suffering. Deepened and engaged, English
suddenly awake finds new rhythms in its feet.

It takes a dozen years or more for startled
whites to close the door on opportunity.
Betrayal shakes a hostile hand, minds fill
with wasting tribal fear. The voice of England
forgets the rights of man, the promises of war.

Each party over, every politician clamours
For the closing of the doors, and seeks a way to send
the yearning back to their hovels or the sea.

Windrush rises from the deeps and sails again,
evoked by ministers who bend the rules,
and marks the careless crimes of those whose biros
sign the orders to deport. Black heroes flew
and fought to hold the spread of camps, and
looked for better orders – now fall to age,
feel clerks’ indifference with quotas to fulfill.

The River Windrush flows and flows,
and adds more depths to English as it goes.

Empire Windrush on J. A. Huddart’s website.

And this poem by David Selzer about one of the universal symbols of the cost of war, and a human being whose life was taken too soon, as so many have been, and still are today.

4th August 1944

Anne Frank
The canal dapples the office ceiling.
Upstairs, the fugitives are still as dust.
A siren unpeoples the city.
Into the waiting sky, with the raucous gulls
and the chestnut, her words like breathing…Her life
has turned, beyond all her desires, so
brutally to art…They packed and waited:
beyond, a locked compartment to themselves
and telephone wires curvetting by –
then countrysides of shuddering, noisome wagons.
She died alone. Her father made her grief,
her love public as Europe: spoke her words
into the empty sky.

Here are several poems of hope and resilience as well.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World, by Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet.

Dance of Peace, by Gabriela Mistral

What poem or poems about war and human conflict do you think are the most effective? The most insightful?

5 thoughts on “Poems in Time of War

    • Apparently even if we learn, we find ourselves repeating patterns of violence. We always find justifications. Part of it is changing our penchant for following “leaders” who eventually want more power. Will we ever change?


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