Friday, June 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 45: Edward Field, World War II (#22)

Edward Field, "World War II" (1967) from Poets of World War II:

Did you know that the Library of America has an entire book on the Poets of World War II? I did not and I'm not sure if I understand the logic here: are they trying to sell poetry to World War II aficionados or selling World War II to poetry buffs?

And I say that as someone who found this account riveting: Edward Field tells, in step-by-step fashion, how his bomber got hit over Germany; they tried to make it back to England; the crew ditched in the North Sea; several crewmembers died; and the survivors made it home to fly more missions. It was "a minor accident of war" but seems more dramatic and representative. It's told with a straightforward propulsion and telling details, as well as occasionally touching on certain themes of heroism and sacrifice. As a poem, the simplicity and unadornment are incredibly moving. (It helps that I read this on Memorial Day.)

But I would just as easily be riveted by this poem if I found it in a collection of World War II writings. Or even, heck, as a sidebar in a history book. The headnote at the LoA website makes the point that this story is just the truth of what happened to Field. So this poem could do double duty: personal memoir of the event (though published long after, so we might take that into account, which we have to with all sorts of "eyewitness" accounts) and poem.

I also think this poem would be a great teaching tool for students who are trying to write their own poetry. In my experience, first-time poets tend to ape what they think of as poetry, which means rhyming in elementary school and sentence fragments in high school. In contrast, Field's story is told in crystal clear and crystal complete sentences. I'd love to take a verse from this and put it into paragraph form and then ask the students to versify it by introducing line-breaks. Where do they go and how do line breaks affect our reading?

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