I’m back to reading more of those collected works I bought many years ago thinking that I would find time to read them, but never did. Most of the time these were contemporary poets I discovered while majoring in poetry at UW and whose collected poems I bought when it appeared later.
Howard Nemerov probably belongs more to my father’s generation than mine since he fought in World War II. The difference is clear in the first section of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, poems published in 1947. Eliot’s influence hangs over most of the poems with an almost palpable air of despair.
Many of the poems seem generic, but a few like this one:
FOR W_______ , WHO COMMANDED WELL
You try to fix your mind upon his death,
Which seemed it might, somehow, be relevant
To something you once thought, or did, or might
Imagine yourself thinking, doing. When?
It was, once, the most possible of dreams:
The hero acted it, philosophers
Could safely recommend it to the young;
It was acceptable, a theme for song.
And it was wrong? Daily the press commends
A rationed greed, the radio denies
That war is right, or wrong, or serious:
And money is being made, and the wheels go round,
And death is paying for itself: and so
It does not seem that anything was lost.
seem to give deeper meaning to the overall despair. Poems like this one remind us that Nemerov was a pilot in the WW II and was undoubtedly still trying to make sense of a country that seemed more intent on making up for economic sacrifices made during the war than on honoring those who sacrificed their lives.
This is also a major theme in one of my favorite novels, Catch-22, where it’s symbolized by Milo Minderbinder. I’m not sure whether society’s greed is an issue for everyone who fights in a war, but it was an issue for many of us who fought in Vietnam and came home to discover that we seemed to be the only ones making sacrifices. It’s hard not to admit that the very same thing is going on today.
Perhaps this poem means more to we “old-timers” raised to believe in “heroes” than to today’s younger generation who’ve too often seen “hero” equated with “victim,” as in he “died a hero,” than by reading Greek or Roman classics. Perhaps their view is closer to reality, but that doesn’t make it any easier for those of us raised with a different definition to accept that a friend’s loss was meaningless.
It’s not just people who are lost in combat; whole belief systems are swept away, and victims are left to try to make sense of a meaningless world.