America, Viet Nam, and the Poetics of Guilt
Hill, Matthew Blake
Wyatt, David M.
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The "war poem" has, since Homer, served as a means for non-combatants to access the experience of warfare; evolving over time, the genre reflects and revises cultural attitudes toward war. Since the Great War, the war poem has become a tool of political protest, a declamation of war's destructiveness and a plea for understanding on behalf of the soldiers forced or duped into fighting it. As a "literature of trauma," this poetry is often seen as therapeutic exercise through which veterans can transcend the "nightmare" of war through cathartic expression. The American poetry written on Viet Nam challenges this interpretive model. Previous war poetry casts the soldier as war's ultimate victim. From Sassoon's Christ-like trench soldiers to Jarrell's eviscerated ball-turret gunner, it is what happens to the soldier, not what the soldier does that is the primary poetic focus. The violence the soldier does is a marginal concern in these poems, subordinated to a larger metaphysics of war's suffering. In Viet Nam war poetry, however, this sublimation seems impossible: the poems are overwhelmingly concerned not with the overall victimizing experience of "war," but rather with the soldier's acute sense of personal moral transgression. Many Viet Nam veteran poets resist the catharsis of an uncomplicated victimhood; instead of transcending the war experience, they dwell in it, asserting their place in the horror of war as both a victim and as an active agent of its suffering. This dissertation argues that American veteran poetry on Viet Nam is governed by a "poetics of guilt," an obsessive poetic need to articulate a sense of personal responsibility for the atrocity of modern war. The five poets discussed hereinMichael Casey, Basil T. Paquet, John Balaban, Bruce Weigl, and Yusef Komunyakaaexplore and formalize this sense of intensely personal, private guilt, creating war lyrics that, while advancing the traditional anti-war political agenda of modern war verse, resist the cathartic "renewal" or "transcendence" that in some way relieves the individual of responsibility for perpetuating war. The Introduction is an overall history of individual culpability in modern war poetry. Subsequent chapters deal with the moral isolation of American GIs, the use of images of "merging" as a response to suffering, "survival guilt" and the elegy, the attraction to violence, and the mechanics of repressing empathy.