Thursday, September 25, 2008

To Lucasta, About That War

Last week, as I was prepping for my current section of poems about war and politics this semester, I came across a poem by John Ciardi that I'd never seen before, the one this post is named for. It's a clear reference to Richard Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," a fairly abstract piece that casts Lucasta as a symbol of chastity and purity, the perfect woman for whom Lovelace must prove himself worthy of by having an affair with a mistress named war. It's a poem I teach almost every semester, not because I have any great fondness for it, but because it serves as a nice contrast to the more reality-based poems that come out of World War I and afterward.

Ciardi's poem falls into that latter category--his Lucasta may be just as pure and chaste as Lovelace's, but Ciardi's speaker has no illusions about his lack of traditional honor. He says "I did / what booze brought me, and it wasn't you." Of course, Ciardi's speaker isn't a nobleman running off to claim a king's favor. He is, rather, "a swag-man, under the clock," on a ship headed for Europe, "over the hump where the wolf packs hid."

Ciardi's soldier isn't in it for the glory, which is just as well, because there's precious little of it to be had. He's an earthy type, dealing with each day as it comes, and drowning what memories he can in drink or sex, and his mistress certainly isn't battle.

Ciardi's poem ends with a clang, shutting the door pretty tightly, but given what he's responding to, I don't think that's a total mistake:
and the gulls blew high on their brinks,
and the ships slid, and the surf threw,
and the Army initialed, and you
were variously, vicariously, and straight and with kinks
raped, fondled, and apologized to--
which is called (as noted) war. And it stinks.
So it's not a surprising end to the poem, and it doesn't offer much room for the reader to roam around, but I don't know that it needs to offer that room. The thing about war poems, I've found in my limited experience with them, is that the ones that glorify it are always dishonest, and the ones that reject it completely are often simplistic. Poems like this one, and "Dulce et Decorum Est" for example, aren't so much anti-war poems as they are poems that seek to be honest about the ugliness of war. They don't take a stand and say "war is wrong"--the poets both volunteered for military service, after all--but they do demand that people be honest about what war is like, and not glorify it or hide it behind abstracts and euphemisms.

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