Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.“I was going to hold forth on arms, and the violence of warfare, in a meter suited to the manner,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid at the outset of his Amores, “but Cupid, laughing,” he continued, “stole one foot from the second line,” shifting the meter out of the heroic hexameters used by Virgil in his Aeneid and into elegiac couplets, thereby lightening the line into one more “suited to the manner” of love poetry. In antiquity, the meter matters when poets speak of kissing rather than of killing. Ovid’s sly invocation of Cupid alerts his readers: only a slim line separates erotic poetry and war poetry. The two modes have more in common than we might think. Poets craft their singular versions of history by choosing which stories to tell. But how we tell the story matters, too: the poetic modes and genres we use when we write, as Ovid knew, change everything.
The difference between writing in the heroic manner, itself an idealized and elevated mode for depicting war’s visceral brutality, and writing in the direct, ground-level present tense of first person experience, is in fact the difference between writing the epic and the lyric poem. Today, the subject of war continues to compel, though the meter has changed. Think of Yusef Komunyakaa, of Bruce Weigl, and, more recently, of Brian Turner. But think, too, of the poet whose war took place right here at home. Though Walt Whitman never picked up a rifle, he saw at first hand the catastrophic aftermath of what bullets and cannons can do to a man.
Say you are twenty years old. Say your father died and you felt cut adrift. Say, as Richard Hugo does, your life broke down. This is my brother’s story. On March 20th, 2003, the United States First Marine Expeditionary Force drove its tanks through the center of Iraq, along Highway One, destination Baghdad. My youngest brother had joined the Marines in a fit of indecision about his future. My father, who died when my brother was thirteen years old, had served as a Marine stateside in between the Korean and Vietnam wars. My brother wanted to follow, somehow, in his path. I don’t think he ever imagined he would find himself on the front line of a full-scale invasion.