W. D. Ehrhart Essay - Critical Essays


H. Bruce Franklin, in 1995, spoke for the critical consensus in praising W. D. Ehrhart for his “concision and avoidance of the mannerisms that have made ’poetry’ seem like a coterie activity.” Ehrhart’s “distinctive flat voice speaking in a deceptively plain style,” Franklin contends, gives his poetry a “visceral power” and forms the perfect stylistic complement to the “rare fusion of personal and historical vision” for which he has been widely praised. A constant theme throughout Ehrhart’s poetry is the personal and collective disillusionment his generation suffered as a result of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Many of his poems are unabashedly polemical, and the great majority are written in free verse, Ehrhart’s intention being to reach the widest possible audience. As Vince Gotera has pointed out, however, Ehrhart’s apparent simplicity and earnestness belie a self-conscious artistry that involves a carefully considered selection and arrangement of language and even occasional forays into traditional poetic techniques and forms. Although he first came to prominence with his antiwar poetry, Ehrhart has not confined himself to that theme. His later poems, on a wide range of subjects, reveal a refreshing capacity for self-ironic reflection and an unabashed appreciation for the moments of grace, love, and contentment he continues to find in his own life.

A Generation of Peace

A Generation of Peace first established Ehrhart as a truth-teller par excellence and as an insightful interpreter of how the American cultural narrative failed the United States in Vietnam. His Vietnam experiences are crystallized in a series of seemingly simple and straightforward poetic vignettes illustrating the existential character of the war. “Guerrilla War,” for example, bespeaks his frustration at finding himself unable to distinguish between friend and foe. The poem concludes with the honest admission that “After a while,/ You quit trying.”

“Hunting” turns on the realization that, contrary to the American mythos that brought him to this point, Ehrhart has “never hunted anything in [his] whole life/ except other men.” However, “such thoughts,” he affirms, are quickly eclipsed by more immediate concerns, such as “chow, and sleep,/ and how much longer till I change my socks.”

One of the most widely praised and culturally resonant poems to come out of this collection is “A Relative Thing,” a title that Ehrhart intended as a play on the adage, “You can pick your friends but not your relatives.” The poem strikes a tone of bitter recrimination over the willful ignorance of the generation that sent its sons to fight in Vietnam and bears dramatic witness to the brutal realities behind much of the sanitizing rhetoric of the era. “We have been Democracy on Zippo raids,/ burning houses to the ground,” the speaker complains, and made the “instruments/ of your pigeon-breasted fantasies.”

“Making the Children Behave” likewise challenges the previous generation’s vision of American rectitude and stands in opposition to a pervasive tendency among veteran-authors to focus on American trauma to the exclusion of the Vietnamese point of view. The poem culminates in an ironic epiphany occasioned by the speaker’s earlier sense of cultural and even racial superiority. When the people in the villages through which he passed “tell stories to their children/ of the evil/ that awaits misbehavior,” he wonders, “is it me they conjure?”

Rootless, Empire, and The Samisdat Poems

The chapbooks Rootless and Empire, along with The Samisdat Poems, contain further reflections on the war’s continuing effects on Ehrhart’s life and the life of the country. The poem “Letter,” for example, is addressed to the North Vietnamese soldier who almost killed Ehrhart in the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive. The backdrop to the poem is the United States’ 1976 centennial celebration, for which “we’ve found again our inspiration,” the speaker wryly observes, “by recalling where we came from/ and forgetting where we’ve been.” The poem ends with the speaker’s fervent hope that Vietnam will “remember Ho Chi Minh/ was a poet” and not let their victory “come down/ to nothing.”

These collections also contain reflections on perennial human themes, such as relationships, aging, and even the consolations to be found in nature. “After the Fire” is especially representative of Ehrhart’s ability to celebrate the experience of love in poignant and even explicit imagery. “Turning Thirty,” in fresh language, bespeaks the confusion of finding oneself suddenly older but not necessarily wiser.

To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired

A maturing of Ehrhart’s vision as a public poet, one committed to addressing a growing political and popular amnesia over Vietnam, is evident in To Those Who Have Gone Home Tired. A restlessness and a self-ironic sense of frustration creep into many of the poems. The title poem is a far-ranging and bitter recrimination over the rapaciousness and brutality that Ehrhart sees as continuing to characterize post-Vietnam American life. “The Invasion of Grenada” likewise bespeaks his despair at popular and political appropriations of the Vietnam experience. Rejecting monuments and commemorative gestures, the speaker declares that he only wanted “a simple recognition” of the limits of U.S. power and an “understanding/ that the world . . . is not ours.” What he really wanted is “an end to monuments.”

The collection also contains some of his finest and most moving poems on subjects other than war. “Gifts” and “Continuity” express Ehrhart’s love for his wife, while “New Jersey Pine Barrens” and “The Outer...

(The entire section is 2405 words.)