Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Up Rising” is a poem fixated on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet despite people’s forgetfulness and the passage of time, the poem does not exclude readers the way poems reliant on historical fact risk doing. This condition results from the fact that virtually all Americans have heard of the Vietnam War and most understand, at a minimum, that the war was somehow problematic. Duncan’s emotional ferocity in “Up Rising” is therefore credible even to readers who disagree with his political stance.

Indeed, the predominant thematic legacy of “Up Rising” may be that the Vietnam War aroused torrential emotional reactions which have been absent in America’s brief wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Vietnam was such that it moved a poet capable of writing such lines as “O Swan, the lover has taken away/ your covering cast at the wave’s edge” (from “Four Songs the Night Nurse Sang,” Roots and Branches, 1964) to create “Up Rising,” containing such passages as “this specter that . . ./ would corrupt the very body of the nation/ and all our sense of our common humanity,/ this black bile of old evils arisen anew,/ takes over the vanity of Johnson.” Vietnam sundered America, and the scars of its wounds show clearly in Duncan’s poem.

Being grounded in a particular time, “Up Rising” contains some abstruse historical details, and shedding light on them will allow readers a fuller understanding of...

(The entire section is 499 words.)