War, like love, is one of the most persistent features of human life, and so it is natural that this subject would be a popular one for poets. Indeed, war poetry is probably as old as poetry itself, and there are representative poems from every age, including our own. From poems of antiquity and the Greco-Roman world to more modern sentiments such as those expressed in “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, the themes in war poetry are often similar, despite the vast amount of time that may have passed. Two contemporary poets who have written extensively about war in their work are Yusef Komunyakaa and Wislawa Szymborska. In their poems, “Facing It" and “The End and the Beginning," Komunyakaa and Szymborska are direct and unapologetic in their graphic and moving descriptions of the consequences of war and the toll that they take on individual human lives and communities. Despite the thematic similarity in both poems, however, the poetic techniques and devices that each of the poets uses to write such compact and powerful poems are quite distinct, as are the poetic voices themselves. Komunyakaa’s poem is frighteningly intimate, as the reader accompanies the speaker to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and observes various flashbacks and rituals of grief. Szymborska’s poem, on the other hand, is more objective and a step removed from the first-handedness of Komunyakaa’s “Facing It," but it is no less powerful. Both poems ultimately demonstrate a sophisticated use of diverse poetic devices to convey the same message about the damaging effects of war.
Komunyakaa’s poem, “Facing It," is immediately intimate and candid. The first word of the poem, “My," orients the reader to the personal nature of what is to follow, and the speaker rewards the trusting reader with a display of emotion that he himself finds difficult: “I said I wouldn’t/dammit: No tears/I’m stone" (ll. 3-5). Yet immediately, the speaker yields and admits “I’m flesh" (l. 5). He does not indulge in what would be a predictable confession of his own experiences of Vietnam; instead, he demonstrates a more powerful and profound emotion—empathy—by observing and sharing the silent responses of others to the memorial. “Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse" (l. 19), “A white vet’s…lost his right arm/inside the stone" (ll. 25, 28-29), and a woman appears to be erasing names, but, on second glance, is “brushing a boy’s hair" (l. 31). Although each of these individuals is lost inside his or her own personal grief, the speaker unites them through the shared experience of loss, where they meet in front of the Wall and recall their loved ones. This emphasis on the loss experienced by the living is effective in conveying the senselessness of war to the reader.
Komunyakaa’s careful attention to detail, tone, voice, and pacing are also important devices that give “Facing It" even greater depth. First of all, the detail of the title is an important one. Clearly, “Facing It" can have multiple meanings. There is the literal meaning: facing the Wall. There is also a figurative meaning, and that is facing the demons of the past and the pain that they revive, feelings that the speaker experiences as he returns to visit the Wall. Other details stand out as well. The speaker specifically mentions that there are 58,022 names on the Wall, a fact which conveys the extent of the loss of life, and he seems to “go down" every one of the names, touching one, and though he is alive, “half-expecting to find [his] own" (ll. 15-16). Though the experience is painful and difficult, he is in no hurry to leave the Wall, and the pacing of the poem reflects this. While the poem is relatively compact at 31 lines, and the line lengths are varied, there are certain images and details that the speaker will not hurry over, such as lines 6-8, where he says “My clouded reflection eyes me/like a bird of prey, the profile of night/slanted against morning." There is a certain insistence on the part of the speaker to convey exactly the sensations that he feels while in front of the Wall. In doing so, he is able to both share and evoke complex emotional reactions in the reader, who is left to do his or her own “facing" about the damage caused by war.
Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “The End and the Beginning" is similarly powerful, yet this poet’s power is achieved by a wholly different poetic approach. Where Komunyakaa is intimate and close-up to the war experience, Szymborska’s speaker seems slightly removed and more objective. Her observations, however, are no less poignant, and indeed, may be even more brutally powerful, than those of Komunyakaa. Szymborska’s speaker is unapologetically blunt, opening the poem with an almost accusatory volley: “After every war/someone has to clean up./Things won’t/ straighten themselves up, after all" (ll. 1-4). The subsequent lines build upon this idea, gathering force and power through each new observation: “Someone has to push the rubble/to the side of the road,/so the corpse filled wagons/can pass" (ll. 5-7), followed by “Someone has to get mired in…/bloody rags" (ll. 8, 12). Three stanzas go on in this style, with each stanza relying upon the repetitive “Someone has to" sentence stem to establish a sense of overwhelming pressure. Of course, pulsing just beneath the surface of each of these tasks is the question: Who is the someone responsible for this gruesome task?
By stanza seven, however, the poem shifts. There are some survivors who can recall “the way it was [before the war]" (l. 27), but Szymborska accuses others of “starting to mill about/[and]… find it dull" (ll. 31-32). Despite this accusation, the poet does not allow the poem to lapse into trite adages about the horrors of war, nor does she strike the reader with an obvious didacticism. Neither does she let the reader off the hook, though. She simply observes that one of the outcomes of war, as unbelievable and as disappointing as it might be, is that people begin to forget about the damage that has been done once the necessary clean-up has occurred. In the next to the last stanza of the poem, she writes: “Those who knew/what was going on here/must make way for/those who know little./And less than little./And finally as little as nothing" (ll. 37-42). She does not condone this forgetting; in fact, her poem and its blunt insistence is a testimony against forgetting. Like Komunyakaa’s “Facing It," Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning" is a poem about remembering what war can do to individuals and to society.
Themes such as love and war are so essential to who we are as human beings that they will inevitably persist as subjects in our literary productions, including our poems. Just when we think that there may be no fresh images left to compel us to experience a familiar theme in a completely new way, there are those poets who disrupt the tired and familiar images and offer us fresh interpretations and approaches to well-worn subjects. In their poems “Facing It" and “The End and the Beginning," Yusef Komunyakaa and Wislawa Szymborska do exactly that. While both writers utilize poetic devices that differ dramatically from one another, the effect that they achieve is essentially the same. “Facing It" and “The End and the Beginning" are incredibly powerful poems that leave the reader with a haunted feeling about the consequences of war. Both Komunyakaa and Szymborska urge the reader not to forget, and the insistence of their poems ensures that the images they offer will remain with the reader for a long time.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Facing It." Retrieved on April 7, 2007 from