Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
V-Letter and Other Poems is a collection of poems about war, written in a time of war by a mind occupied by the effects of war upon his real-people heroes. However, Shapiro’s collection neither celebrates war nor condemns it; it is not a patriotic call to arms, and it is not a protest against violence as is so often found in Vietnam War-era poetry. Rather, V-Letter and Other Poems examines the human dimension of warfare, from the brotherhood of “Troop Train” and the realization that any one of those friends playing cards may be traveling toward death to the love poem “V-Letter,” which clings hopefully and furiously to the security of love.
Perhaps love is a primary theme of V-Letter and Other Poems. While the poet may not necessarily love the war, he loves the human aspect of the war: the human isolation, the human discovery of unusual and unnatural relationships (“The Gun”), the human need for pragmatic heroes, the human stage of the movie house and of locale, and the human dignity despite the indignity of death. Shapiro’s purpose is to embrace his world and the life in it despite the destruction raining down upon him and his comrades. It also seems to be his desire to use his poems to write home about the war experience. Historically, the “v-letter” was a correspondence mailed home from the front, read and censored by military personnel before being sent to the United States. The actual, graphic details of war never made it across the ocean, locations were never specified, and secrets were kept secret. However, through Shapiro’s metaphors and language, his poetic “v-letters,” he tells readers more about war and the human position in war than the most realistic account. The war is a mood, a tone, a shadow settled in people’s souls. It is a dark humor and a deep, lasting love. In “V-Letter” he writes, “I pray nothing for my safety back,/ Not even luck, because our love is whole/ Whether I live or fail.” This is Shapiro’s “v-letter” to all of humanity.