Memorial Day, In Poetry and Prose

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Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins said poetry preserves events "so that they don't slip into the waters of amnesia."

On Memorial Day, it's fitting war poetry and verse comforts a grieving public, especially in light of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Alan Bennett's play, "The History Boys," the eccentric Hector teaches a young student the meaning of Thomas Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge." It is about the death and burial of a young, unarmed drummer boy during the Boer War. The poem describes how the boy's remains are casually thrown into a grave, and Hodge becomes a teenage stranger in a strange land, lying cold under a mound of foreign earth. Few mourn his death.

In Walt Whitman's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field," a father tends to his soldier son's wounds for hours, then goes off to fight himself, and returns to find his son dead.

Such glimpses of everyday life remain unchanged over time, while powerful nations and leaders rise and fall, long after wars have been forgotten. People remember their loved ones lost. They often care little for the reasons why the wars were fought.


Memorial Day came into being to honor the Union's Civil War dead. Today, it commemorates the men and women who have died in all our wars, from Crispus Attucks, a black man killed at the Boston Massacre, believed to be among the first Americans to die for American liberty, to Lori Pestewa, a Hopi Indian mother, the first American to die in the current Iraq war.

Jess Winfield, in his book "What Would Shakespeare Do?", refers to "Titus Andronicus" a sad tale of a Roman general who gets little respect for his service. The Bard used that story to remind us, as Winfield wrote, "No matter how we feel about the justness of a particular war, we should always take care of our veterans."

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Bammer.

Richard Bammer is an Army veteran and son of an Army veteran. He works now as a journalist in Vacaville.