- Among the Nightmare Fighters: Americans Poets of World War II by Diederik Oostdijk
Among the Nightmare Fighters offers an illuminating if partial survey of World War II’s importance in the history of American poetry and poetics. Oostdijk argues that, despite their stereotype of belonging to a “silent generation,” mid-twentieth-century poets who experienced the war either first-hand or on the home front did in fact speak out, albeit often “in a quiet and undemonstrative way” and sometimes years afterward (3). Their reticence, he explains, stemmed partly from having witnessed “events […] too devastating to capture in words” but also from a belief that “the history of World War II was already fixed in the American imagination and that their personal musings would have no major impact” (2–3). To illustrate the value of what soldiers, veterans, and conscientious objectors did manage to write, he focuses on a single “tight-knit circle of poets,” “a generation of white, male, so-called academic poets who published their poems in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review” and who “came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s” (5). These writers—including John Ciardi, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Lowell, [End Page 88] Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, and William Stafford—“collectively […] show that the effects of war are ultimately shattering to all individuals caught in it,” especially any simple “equation of war and masculinity” (5).
The book is carefully organized. Its four parts each take up one of “four fixations in the works and lives of the poets of World War II that are distinct but interrelated” (13): the literary “traditions” that intertextually “haunted” them, namely, the example of “the English poets of World War I,” the Anglo-American high modernists, the New Critics, and W. H. Auden (70); a “preoccupation with the self” that “resulted in many autobiographically tinged poems” (75); a rejection of “the soldier as a masculine ideal” and a redefinition of manliness as founded in “intellectual curiosity, broadmindedness, and […] independence from social pressure” (176); and uncertainty whether to write or remain silent about their “traumatic experiences” during the war years (234). Each of the book’s four parts is further subdivided into four chapters, some of which are wide-ranging and others of which delve in an extended manner into particular writers and bodies of work. Throughout, Oostdijk blends careful close reading and historical reconstruction. He makes particularly good use of archival material, and is able to reintroduce familiar lyrics, such as Lowell’s “Christmas Eve under Hooker’s Statue,” as well as to bring to light war-themed poems that his favored authors wrote but, for whatever reason, chose not to publish, such as Ciardi’s “Sarko,” in which he “speaks as and for a Holocaust survivor” (118).
In some cases, Oostdijk’s narrative revisits well-trod terrain. It is no surprise, for instance, to hear that “Jarrell aimed to create a type of democratic poetry that reflected the reality of people’s daily lives, mostly as victims of forces they could neither change nor fully understand, written in a language that was immediately accessible” (111), nor is it jolting to hear that Lowell, despite his “erratic” and perhaps “opportunistic” flip-flopping between support of and opposition to the war, nonetheless consistently “channeled his confusion” about his identity and place in the world into strong public stands on politics and religion (108). More impressive, as well as admirably balanced, are his retelling of other, trickier stories, such as Shapiro’s flirtation with Catholicism and Dickey’s occasional, insufferable bouts of hypermasculinity. Among the Nightmare Fighters truly comes into its own, though, at moments when its author’s enthusiasm for the subject at hand becomes palpable. For instance, he seems to relish Kirstein’s campy Audenesque Rhymes of a Pfc (1964; rev. ed. 1981), and he draws effectively on poems such as “Load” (about masturbation) and “Snatch” (prostitution) to provide insight into war-time sexuality, a topic, he asserts, more usually downplayed or repressed...