Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


War Poet Wednesday

James A. Winn

poetry-of-war.jpgJames Winn shows us that language, too, is broken down during war. The words employed by soldiers are quick, acronym-heavy, and devoid of flowery, unnecessary syllables, but in some cases, language is “eroded” by those off the battlefield. Winn is the author of The Poetry of War; you’ll see him soon in The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education.


One form of “collateral damage” inflicted by war is the emptying and debasement of language. In a passage from a poem written at the height of the war in Vietnam, Denise Levertov takes that debasement as her subject.

Prologue: An Interim (excerpt)
‘“It became necessary
to destroy the town to save it,”
a United States major said today.
He was talking about the decision
by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town
regardless of civilian casualties,
to rout the Vietcong.’

O language, mother of thought,
are you rejecting us as we reject you?
Language, coral island
accrued from human comprehensions,
human dreams,

you are eroded as war erodes us.

As the double quotation marks show, Levertov begins by quoting an actual news bulletin, which in turn quotes an Army spokesman. But then her tone becomes elegiac. She addresses language as the “mother of thought” and laments its erosion by war. The danger Levertov fears is real. The disinformation, propaganda, and empty slogans of war can erode the coral island of language. Fortunately, her own poem, even as it sounds the alarm about the erosion of language, constitutes a stand against that erosion. Thanks to its capacity for irony, poetry is one of the most expressive media for showing how traditional symbols have lost their meaning while simultaneously lamenting that loss.

Poem Source:

Denise Levertov, “Prologue: An Interim,” in Poems, 1968-1972 (New York: New Directions, 1987), 130–31.

About The Author

James A. Winn

James Winn is Professor of Literature and Music at Boston University and is the author of The Poetry of War (2008)....

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