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Poetry and the Vietnam War: The Power of Words to Motivate
March 23, 2009

Contact: Part I of an article by David Beard, Ph.D., assistant professor of rhetoric in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at dbeard@d.umn.edu.


Basil Clark’s Starkle, Starkle, Little Twink is a landmark event, and the performance this Friday, March 27th will be an experience not to be missed.  (INSERT DATA ON PERFORMANCE HERE.)  

The ongoing discussion on Vietnam in American culture has changed in the last four decades.  In the 1970s, Vietnam was a wound, covered over by bandages that we were afraid to remove. When the bandages came off in the 1980s, movies like Rambo and Platoon made the scar, fresh and purple, visible.  In 2009, the distance from the war makes it possible to approach wartime poetry in a new way.  We can talk about the power of poetry to motivate soldiers in times of war.

Patriotism as Love of Country
The poetry of the Vietnamese expressed their patriotism. Duc Thanh gives us a very literal account of his passion.
My life is hard and miserable, my friends. 
I am the son of the Vietnamese,
Under siege for a hundred years
By the French and the Americans
-- “In the Forest at Night” in Poems from Captured Documents
For the Americans, Vietnam was a war of decades; for the Vietnamese, attempting to carve out their own nation, wars against the French and Americans stretch back for a hundred years. 

Patriotism is often called “love of country,” but such comparisons are not always pretty.  Nguyen Dinh Ti compares love of country to love of a woman.  In his poet’s voice, he is speaking to his lover when he says that
I love you as I love our country,
In pain, hardship and with great passion.
--“Remembering” in Mountain River:  Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars 1948-1993.
After a hundred years of fighting, love of country is a matter of pain, hardship and passion.  Duc Thanh stretches the comparison with a lover further, comparing the reunification of North and South Vietman to the meeting of lovers on a riverbank:
I remember the path we walked to the river
Where we came together and talked.
…I hope you will wait for me.
I long for the day of my dreams
When North and South are one.
--“Remembering Past Love” by Duc Thanh in Poems from Captured Documents.
As lovers come together at a river, so too, Duc Thanh hopes, will North and South Vietnam.  These hopes kept him fighting in the war.

This passion for their country, whole and undivided, was a real difference between American and Vietnamese soldiers.  Americans were fighting against the Vietnamese, sometimes for reasons that American soldiers found hard to fathom.  The Vietnamese were fighting with passion to reunify their country for the first time in a hundred years. 

The Heat of Battle
Not all of poetry from war is about high-minded patriotism.  In the heat of battle, anger and a thirst for revenge can be just as strong. Hoang Loc gives us a sense of the mixing up of the patriotic and the personal in the minds of the soldiers.
Who took that fatal shot? / What gun hit the mark?
Please, sacred spirit, show me / The murderer, call out his name.
He’s an imperialist. / He’s a colonialist. / He’s a bandit, / Or a traitor.
--“Condolence to a Friend” in Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars 1948-1993.
Why does Hoang Loc want to kill his friend’s killer?  Is it to strike a blow against imperialism or to avenge his friend?  In war, the motivations of the soldiers can never be simple.

Soldiers on both sides were just barely surviving and watching their friends die around them.  They were making it, day by day: as Ngyuen Duy tells us, “…their arms clasp the AK, a weapon in the day, a pillow at night (“Lullaby for the Soldiers” in From a Distant Road).  Basil Clark, author of Starkle, Starkle, Little Twink, depicts the everydayness of death in war:
Jose was propped against a tree,
His eyes were glazed in death.
He never felt the bullets
In his forehead take his breath.
--“Jose” in Poetic Healing
For those of us who have never been to war, poetry is as close as we can come to understanding the experience of those who risked their life every day in Vietnam (or who risk it everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Conclusion:  Experience Starkle, Starkle, Little Twink at UM-Crookston

The poetry of a soldier both expresses the experiences of the individual and speaks to the community as a whole.  As we must encounter our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who come home from service in the Middle East, we might some extra value in exploring the power of this literature at the performance of Starkle, Starkle, Little Twink on Friday, March 27th.