Edward Field, WWII (Poem)
Well, Library of America has surprised again. This week it is a poem (6 pages). I wasn’t expecting that, but as I like to delve into poetry every now and then I was rather pleased. The poem, “WWII” by Edward Field, was first published in 1967 in a collection titled Poets of World War II. According to LOA’s notes, the poem “recounts an actual incident” – and that’s certainly how it reads.
It tells the story of an American bombing mission over Europe in which Field’s plane is damaged by flak and ends up having to ditch in the North Sea on its way back to England. It’s a very matter of fact poem that calmly documents the events, until the moment of ditching when, for a moment, the language becomes more expressive. Here is the beginning of the serious troubles with the plane:
Over the North Sea the third engine gave out
and we dropped low over the water.
The gas gauge read empty but by keeping the nose down
a little gas at the bottom of the tank sloshed forward
and kept our single engine going.
Pretty plainly descriptive. It sounds like they’re in a tight situation but they’ve got everything under control. And then, just nine lines on, that engine’s in trouble and we get:
listened as the engine stopped, a terrible silence,
and we went down into the sea with a crash,
just like hitting a brick wall,
jarring bones, teeth, eyeballs panicky.
Suddenly we get adjectives, a simile and a shift in rhythm, and we are right there with him. He then describes the exit from the plane, the rush for the life rafts which aren’t in a condition to accommodate them all, and the resulting loss of life among the crew. This, though, is not one of those heroic “band of brothers” war poems. It is about survival – our poet is not a coward, but neither does he risk his life to save others. He’s a realist. Soon after the plane ditches, he (the navigator) and the radio operator find themselves still on the plane, with the rafts already pushed off. Their colleagues tell him later that the cords holding the raft to the plane broke. He’s not 100% sure of that:
… but I wouldn’t have blamed them
for cutting them loose, for fear
that by waiting for us the plane would go down
and drag them with it.
Back to plain speaking. And it prepares us for when he too opts for survival – not by any sin of commission but by not engaging in heroics:
I chose to live rather than be a hero, as I still do today,
although at that time I believed in being heroic, in saving the world,
even if, when opportunity knocked,
I instinctively chose survival.
The poem ends – surely this is not a spoiler? can you spoil a poem? – with the idea that “This was a minor accident of war”. Life and death – all in a day’s work!
I liked this poem. It was not what I expected when I started it: it has few of the usual hallmarks of war poetry. There’s no breast-beating patriotism, no histrionics; its tone is neither tragic, nor melancholic, nor heroic. It’s a plainly told story about one man’s experience of one event in war, and its power lies in that and the understated style in which he tells it. Thanks, once again, to the Library of America for presenting me with something a little different.
*B-17 Bombers were flown by Field’s company, the Eighth Airforce. Attribution as requested: “This image comes from Airforce Image Gallery and has been modified and can be found at Planes of World War II page”.