Friday, May 28, 2010

World War II

Edward Field (b. 1924)
From Poets of World War II

This Memorial Day, as we remember Americans who died while in military service, we call upon an eyewitness to one of the many tragedies (“a minor accident of war”) during World War II.

A second lieutenant in the 8th Air Force, Edward Field served in Europe as a navigator for heavy bombers. During the period he was flying missions over Germany, he frequented the Officers’ Club in the evenings to relax and there met Coman Leavenworth, his “first poet ever,” and he soon began writing poetry himself. After the war, Field’s first published poem appeared in London’s Poetry Quarterly, but he never saw the issue containing it until a friend tracked down a copy for him almost six decades later. It was not until 1963 that his first collection of poetry, Stand Up, Friend, With Me, was published and was chosen as the year’s Lamont Poetry Selection.

“World War II,” which appeared in 1967, looks back a quarter of a century, remembering those who died and recalling the “time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world, / even if, when opportunity knocked, / I instinctively chose survival.” In a recent interview, Field summarized the background of the poem:
The European war ended just before I completed my tour of duty. On twenty-five missions, I'd helped bomb numerous historic cities. I had five planes destroyed by flak under me. That meant forced landings at any airport we could get to, but once, we had to ditch our plane in the North Sea, as I've described in a poem called, “World War II.”

*   *   *
It was over Target Berlin the flak shot up our plane
just as we were dumping bombs on the already smoking city
on signal from the lead bomber in the squadron. . . .
If you don't see the full poem below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
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3 comments:

Carl Rollyson said...

What an astonishing, what a vivid poem. The documentary effect is startling, and yet is poetry--so precise and economical. I just had to find out what would happen.

Anonymous said...

This is an unforgettable poem. It would have been easy to sentimentalize this material, but because of Field's matter-of-fact tone the poem achieves the purity of feeling one encounters in the great Greek tragedies.

Roddy said...

This is one of my favorite poems in the world.

Among its many felicities: the sea described as "scary"; the omission of the second "in" from the line "water rushing in like a sinking-ship movie"; the "convenient" door in the roof to climb out by. All of these unwriterly details remind that not just the incident is real; the teller is, too.

A poem to be grateful for.