Sunday, April 27, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - America at War

From the Introduction:
America at War is not about war. It is about the poetry of war. With poems divided into eight sections, warfare is traced from the American Revolution to the Iraqi war via poets' pens.
America at War presents raw emotions of warfare as seen and felt by poets--including past masters such as Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Stephen Crane, as well as over thirty works--more than half of the selections--especially commissioned for this collection. The focus is not solely on the atrocities, bloodshed, and gort that come with battles. What is emphasized is the emotional impact--the torment, grief, angst that men, women, and children feel as war becomes part of their present-day lives, their future and forever-afters.
I've been reading this book for the last few weeks, wondering when and how I could write about it. What can you say about poems that leave you silent and still? How do you respond to a book that shakes you to your very core?

America at War, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, is a collection of 54 poems by more than 40 poets. With watercolor illustrations in a variety of styles, some cubist in nature, the images capture the essence of the ideas contained in each poem. Divided into sections, each war is preceded by an introductory page that contains the name of the war and the dates it was fought, a quote about the war, and a brief summary of the conflict. I was started to read the page for the Iraq War, which simply lists (2001- ) as the date. To get a feel for how these introductions are set up, here is an excerpt from the first section of the book.
The American Revolution

"These are the times that try men's souls."
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
United States Founding Father
* * *
The American Revolution began as a result of taxation by the British
without representation of the colonists.

On April 19, 1775, the day after Paul Revere's famous ride, the
"shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington, Massachusetts, and
colonial Americans and British soldiers then fought for over eight years.
One of the most astounding things about these pages is the number of dead attributed to each war. As hard as this information can be to fully understand, the poems bring the impact of these numbers home. The poems are raw and emotional. They are hard to read. However, they are honest and true and deserve to be read. Here is an example. This poem comes from the section on the American Revolution.
by Anonymous

Eyes of men running, falling, screaming
Eyes of men shouting, sweating, bleeding
Eyes of the fearful, those of the sad
Eyes of exhaustion and those of the mad.

Eyes of men thinking, hoping, waiting
Eyes of men loving, cursing, hating
Eyes of the wounded sodden in red
Eyes of the dying and those of the dead.
The Prologue and Epilogue nicely open and close this exceptional volume. The Prologue highlights a poem by Joan Bransfield Graham entitled Wish for Peace. It begins:
that war
could only
rage upon the
battlefield of the page,
The Epilogue contains a poem by Ann Wagner entitled Vocabulary Lesson. It begins:
We don't have wars.

We have
      preemptive strikes.

We don't have soldiers.
You can read more of the poems in this collection at the Simon & Schuster web site.

I can't say enough about how amazing this book is. It is a gift to every teacher who has ever wanted his/her students to understand that war has a human face and takes a human toll.

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