Poetry for Veterans’ Day

This morning I was reading the daily poem to Shane from our Alhambra Poetry Calendar for Young Readers, a superlative anthology of classic and modern poems that are written on an adult level but safe to share with younger folks. I often follow the reading with a little interpretation, pointing out interesting things about how the poem works, or reflecting critically on its message. Maybe it’s silly to get into this with a 19-month-old, but I feel it’s never too early to introduce the idea that he can think for himself about what Mommy and Daddy read to him. He can appreciate a book without agreeing with everything in it, or with us.

Because it’s Veterans’ Day, today we read the well-known poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Army in World War I. The text and history of the poem can be found on the Arlington National Cemetery’s website.

I remarked on McCrae’s conclusion that continuing the battle was the proper way to make the fallen soldiers’ sacrifice worthwhile: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep…” Other war poets, I observed, have drawn the opposite conclusion, that these tragic deaths ought to motivate us to seek peace.

My favorite war poem of all time has to be Wilfred Owen’s “Greater Love“, also from World War I. Owen was a passionate critic of the war’s carnage, yet this poem (unlike, for instance, his “Dulce et Decorum Est“) resists reduction to a pro- or anti-war interpretation. He is simply moved by the holy suffering of the dying soldiers, which is undiminished by questions about whether it was necessary or effective.

For more great poetry on this theme, visit the War Poetry Contest archives (2002-2011) at WinningWriters.com.

Greater Love

by Wilfred Owen

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
   When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care:

Till the fierce love they bear

Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,—

Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,—

Your dear voice is not dear,

Gentle, and evening clear,

As theirs whom none now hear,

Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot

   Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;

And though your hand be pale,

Paler are all which trail

Your cross through flame and hail:

Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

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