Poetic License: the American Soldier at War

A long-distance friend of mine, Dr. Sonnet Mondal — who Wikipedia labels “…an eminent Indian poet … writer (and) Poet Laureate" — asked me to write an essay on poetry. I had no idea what to write — I’m a ba-ad poet — when an old junior high and high school friend, and a Vietnam combat veteran, wrote me recently. He had opted to do so … in poetry(!). His name is David John Sims: and what follows has been largely motivated by two of his poems, and story.

by Donald Croft Brickner

A not-so-sober beginning to an otherwise overtly sobering account:

Is there a kid, anywhere in America, in any era, who decides, oh, at the age of 5, that he or she wants to become a poet? If there is, I’m not so sure I’d care to meet his or her parents.

Poetry was always beyond namby-pamby to this former child: it was totally hoity-toity!

When a South Florida teacher, maybe as far back as elementary school, had asked our class to write our own original poems, I went all limerick — the only type of poem that was at all fun. And here is my first-ever submitted poem (which, God only knows why, I still can recite now, 58 years later):

"…Once there was a young clod, who was constantly playing in sod; one day he was dirty, mostly on his shirty — and his mother got mahd.” (“Mahd” meant either “mad,” or “mod.”)

If memory serves, I was graded a “C.” My teacher didn’t know if I was making fun of the “art form” of poetry, or not. (Alas … I was. On what planet was that stuff considered an art form?)

I wasn’t alone in my fun-poking dismissal of poetry, apparently. When I was older (but still an adolescent), my favorite cartoon show was Rocky & Bullwinkle – and within that, my favorite ongoing segment was Dudley Do-Right of the Canadian Mounties. I can still hum the tune for the ‘toon.

In one of my favorite episodes, Snidely Whiplash (the sneering bad guy) constructed a robot version of Dudley whose apparent intention, acting as his double, was to make our hero look bad. For good or for ill, Snidely solely programmed the robot Dudley to recite one paragraph: the first half of the closing stanza to an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem, Tommy:

"…it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy than, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’ But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country,’ when the guns begin to shoot…”

Then robot Dudley acted-out by firing an imaginary machine gun (…Tommy gun?), and saying something like, “Rat-a-tat-a-tat!”

(Wonderful — simply wonderful!! Just about everything seemed hilarious back in my youth!)

It was so-o cool being a kid when I grew up on Key Largo Lane in the early-middle 1960s.

But I had no idea then, or now, that those Kipling stanzas would prove so prophetic for David John Sims.

According to Wikipedia, “…Tommy is a term for a common soldier in the British Army that was already well established in the nineteenth century, but is particularly associated with World War I.”

How apt.

* * * * *

I have no doubt my old friend was also a fan of Dudley Do-Right, although we’ve never discussed it. After graduating from Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale in 1965, we each went our separate ways — although ironically, and without knowing it, we both ended up in North Carolina shortly thereafter.

I first went to college there, while Dave and his parents moved up that way to stay. He lives in Burlington yet today.

We met during our junior high school years, and among our activities was playing slow-pitch baseball on a sandspurs-free elementary school ball field in our South Florida neighborhood.

What I remember of Dave back then was the natural sweet kindness and enthusiasm of his personality. Years later, when I’d learned he’d joined the U.S. Army and was sent to fight in Vietnam (I had joined the Navy back then, but I’d spent much of my tour stateside), I was deeply concerned about Dave’s safety. As things turned out, my fears were warranted.

None of us really wanted to enter the military (we never clearly understood why the U.S. was involved in such an unpopular war), but without a college deferment in those pre-lottery days, a lot of us were either drafted or enlisted. Running away to Canada as a protest was never a consideration for either Dave or me, or anyone else we knew. Still, most of our classmates successfully remained in college, and thus avoided the military altogether.

Contact between Dave and me was sporadic at best over the years — although lately he and I would exchange brief emails, about mostly nothing. Then, earlier this month, Dave emailed an attachment he’d written and asked me to read — which was a little odd, because I never knew him to be particularly drawn to the arts outside of choral music. His first email didn’t reach me.

And here is where Sonnet Mondal’s “poetry essay request” to me, Dave, and I came together:

Dave’s email attachment contained two poems, which he’d labeled “Opus 50” and “Opus 51” — the first 49 poems, he’d told me, were mostly his often pro-military thoughts about life, living and loving; and “global warming, pollution and deforestation” — and when I’d read them, I was floored. Not only was he writing about a side of Dave Sims I’d known little about, but he chose poetic styling as his conveyor of both his pains and lifelong unrest — most of that due to his experiences as a foot soldier in Vietnam combat. That was the focus of both of these poems.

Immediately I realized that poems could prove to be highly substantive on a number of levels, not the least of which is as a form of deep, heart-felt expression for the “everymen” among us. My old friend — we both turned 63 earlier this year — said he agreed with that assessment strongly. He admits he’s had very little psychotherapy over the years, despite having access to the VA.

Before I post both poems for you, let me turn the next several paragraphs over to Dave:

"My parents moved up here with my brother and three sisters in 1969 while I was in Vietnam,” Dave explained in an email. “Dad was working for Southern Bell, and transferred up to the Greensboro area. So when I got out, I came up to visit and stayed. My marriage was in a mess. My soon-to-be-ex had moved to Washington State (her home) while I was in ‘Nam so I had no reason to go back to Fort Lauderdale.

"I was drafted, and went in Dec. 6, 1968. Went to Ft. Jackson in South Carolina for Basic and Advanced Infantry training,” Dave continued. “Arrived in Vietnam in May 1969. Was wounded a couple times — the second time on January 1970. I spent the next three months in hospitals in Vietnam, Japan, and Madigan Hospital in Ft. Lewis, Tacoma, Washington State.

"By March I was assigned to a new post in Ft. Riley, Kansas. The ex -to-be came for awhile, be we couldn’t make it work, and she went back to Tacoma… I finished out my tour getting a trip to Germany for two months… Got out Dec. 4, 1970, Honorable Discharge in hand. I got out with the rank of Specialist 4th class.(Corporal): basic infantry, ground-pounder with Air Cav. Units choppered in, and dropping us off, just like in the movies. That’s me.

"As for staying in, I lost most of my hearing when a mine exploded, so it really wasn’t logical to stay,” said Dave. “I’ve been married and divorced three times. I have a girlfriend now, and we’ve been together for eight years. I guess I’m a Tar Heel now. I’ve had many jobs over the years: bartender at Lum’s, bakery manager for Winn-Dixie, deputy sheriff for three years, and I was a jewelry store manager for Kay’s.” And he later added this: “Am I anti-war? No.”

He’ll have a little more to share with us after these, his two combat poems:

* * * * *

Opus 50

 War, War, War!

I’ve been there

Long dark nights on patrol

Sticky, humid heat ridden jungles

Smelly rice paddies

The terrible scent of death

To make friends, just to see

Them get injured, or die

The sound of choppers coming in

Bring supplies, ammo, hot chow,

And mail from home

The nights, so many dark nights

Fear of what’s just beyond

Your vision

Ambushes, patrols, trails,

Walking point searching for

The enemy and the nasty things

He leaves behind

Mines, booby traps, pudgy stakes.

Death at every turn

Buddies that were there just

Moments before, gone, dead.

Or sometimes worse, in pieces

And screaming in pain

So many friends

So much pain

Could it have been stopped

Could it have been changed?

So many lives affected

Families, sweethearts, wives and children

Mothers, fathers, grandparents.

None of them will ever be the same

Death in wars touches everyone

Changes everyone

God how I hate what war has done

You learn how to hate in war, so sad

* * * * *

And here is David J. Sims’ second poem, Opus 51, a followup to the one, above:

* * * * *

Opus 51

 Trying to understand

I am trying, but it’s hard

I keep asking myself

What could you have done?

What could you have said?

And the answer comes back

Nothing

Why, I ask again?

Why nothing?

Because you can’t change the past

My mind answers!

I know you’re right, but–

No buts, it can’t be changed

My mind screams at me.

And so goes the war

Replaying in my head

Lookout! Don’t’ step there!

Watch out!

It’s always the same

Death wins, we lose!

I close my eyes at night

And I’m replaying fight after fight

Night after night

I tried so hard to keep

Us all safe

It’s not guilt I feel, honest

It’s sorrow and their pain

So many times things went very wrong

And friends paid the price in blood

And I stood there without a scratch

Lucky me?

No, someone higher up was looking out

For this poor stupid soul

And again I ask,

Why?

* * * * *

Here’s Dave once more, to me, in another email:

"I have tried to put into words what I saw and how I feel,” Dave wrote. “It wasn’t until a close friend, Marty, kept after me to express my anger to him about what happened in Vietnam that I wrote these poems.”

For those who would like to chat with Dave about his war experiences, or about this essay, he offers his personal email address where he can be reached: djs972@triad.rr.com.

One final observation here: it strikes me that Dave is not at all alone as a Vietnam combat vet when, despite facing horrors and loss, he came out of it all still hugely supportive of the U.S. military and its efforts, and highly critical of nations our country has identified as hostile. I’ve met many such individuals over the years, only Dave is the first to put his experiences into words.

He was battered psychologically and physically by his experiences, but yet continues to voice his defense of our military, and our civilian leaders who sent him off to war to begin with. I feel no such sympathy for America’s shaky foreign policies, which created winners only out of the military industrial complex that built our machines of war.

But there’s a sense here that our battered soldiers often continue to “go back” favorably to their batterers, the nation’s wars that they alone experienced first-hand — which is perhaps similar diagnostically to behaviors common to battered spouse syndrome. You think?

And if that’s so, even to a relatively minor degree, how has that impacted our society in 2010?

Wherever did we come up with the idea for brutally violent video games, for instance? They simply didn’t exist during my formative years, nor Dave’s.

* * * * *

This topic of war and warriors always warrants further dissection. But, not here. My intention was to express some insights regarding … poetry.

 

I’m still no huge fan of this prose form, and I’ll explain why shortly. Is that to suggest that there is no “real” place for poetry? No, not at all. Look what Dave Sims did with it, above, and with not much formal training. Then there’s Sonnet Mondal’s collected international works, that I’ll encourage the reader toward referentially, with both humility and a straight face.

First, let’s decide what it does for prose that isn’t done in copy such as this, that you’re now reading: apart from various characteristics of style that vary from poet to poet, poetry uses a great deal of space, as punctuation. In my friend’s poems, above, what has been written can be easily broken down into paragraphs — and intellectually, it would still read the same.

Emotionally, it’s a different ballgame. With the placement of key breaks and spaces, poetry is stronger, while retaining a certain poise and calm that’s (also) missing in “objective” writing.

And: by centering the copy — with lots of space, both to the left and right — and breaking the lines in mid-phraseology, as Dave has done, it creates pauses. Now, most writers these days do away with space out-of-hand, not 2 mention certain words (!) — and, so, they do away with pauses … at least formally. But texters, as but one gigantic group of writers active today, send out text messages and emails which all of them easily read, presumably inserting the pauses themselves, on the reader’s end, by implication! It’s a brain trick, learned by lots of practice!

It’s informal, as well, shall we say. There are very few classes in text writing. Yet already, an entire young generation knows how to do it, never mind learning all the brand new rules! :- P

* * * * *

But even with all of its pauses, phrase-breaks and unavoidable “herky-jerkiness,” poetry is not easily accessed by the pop culture — unless it’s dressed up as song lyrics. Hip-hop lyrics are a relatively new form of poetry — for its emphasis falls on the words, and not on the four-beat measures or background music, which are commonly secondary. For that matter, all song lyrics are as often as not poetry — only with music added to further engage its “subjectivities.”

Poetry without added flourishes, however, is not very popular or accessible to the busy public.

We can make that a statement on these times, or not.

To that end, I’d say this: poetry is to prose, as jazz is to music. Some simply love both forms. But they always manage to end up in a clear cultural minority. For in both, there’s often simply too much intellectualizing taking place. You really need to know music theory to play jazz well.

So, then: can poets influence major changes in our off-kilter world? Not likely. Without the pop culture, historical movements of change simply don’t take place. How many number-one “hits” did Albert Einstein accrue over his career? None! Worse, what he had to tell our pop culture of value had to be reinterpreted! Einstein spoke English, to be sure; just not a form of English most everymen-types-of individuals understood.

Poetry, as not just an art form, but as a unique form of communication, simply won’t ring a lot of bells. Worse, the reader is further required to slow down, just to stand a chance of grasping the length, depth and breadth of any given poetic submission: there’s too much nuance! Bleh!

Modern art suffers from the same ills. (Double-bleh!)

You want to change the world? … or at least have a solid shot at being read and understood?

My friend’s poetry, while intended for the everyman, will find its way to too few citizens. It does have the capacity as an exercise to achieve some limited closure for its author — which could apply to almost everybody. Still, it is sure to be read by some — including you, the reader here. (Dave thanks you for that, I’m sure; and I certainly thank you, as well!)

Nevertheless: I’ll repeat my question for you writers out there:

Do you want to influence change in the world today?

Then, you’ve got to do this:

Shoot for the pop culture.

Just be careful you don’t shoot at it.

Unless you bloody well know

                                                    what you’re doing.

 

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