The PJ Tatler

A Day of Remembrance Is Nothing Without Poetry

I have always been deficient in expressing emotion through anything other than the written word. It’s one reason I always return to poetry when the occasion calls for some depth of feeling.

My favorite American poet, the late Richard Hugo, is a forgotten figure. You will not see his sinewy free verse quoted during special occasions in the manner one might invoke Shakespeare, Whitman, or Frost. But his strong, declarative style is appropriate for times of remembrance like Memorial Day.

A bombardier during the Second World War, Hugo continually returned to that conflict in his writing. His 1969 collection “Good Luck in Cracked Italian” distills many of the feelings he took with him from his combat missions in Europe. Here, for example, is the opening stanza of “G.I. Graves in Tuscany”:

They still seem G.I., the uniform lines
of white crosses, the gleam that rolls
white drums over the lawn. Machines
that cut the grass left their maneuvers plain.
Our flag doesn’t seem silly though plainly
it flies only because there is wind.

The last two lines might strike you as flippant. But what appears to be frivolity or cynicism, in a Hugo poem, often turns out to be simple bewilderment: something seen through the eyes of a broken man whose honesty has an unintended comic effect.

In “April in Cerignola,” Hugo ponders his own role in war and death:

I was desolate, too, and so survived.
I had a secret wish, to bring much food
and feed you through the war. I wished
you also dead. All roads lead to none.
You’re too far from the Adriatic
to get good wind. Harsh heat and roaring cold
are built in like abandonment each year.

This is a poetic voice lacking in any kind of self-dramatization; it’s almost clinical in its description. It might be why the poem sounds so odd and, in a way, so dated.

Poetry is how I make sense of strange times. Perhaps it can help you as well. With these modest offerings, I give endless thanks to our fallen guardians.