In his poetry, one critic observes, Wallace Stevens
...suggests that we live in the tension between the shapes we take as the world acts upon us and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world.
Perhaps, Wallace Stevens employs the image of dry bread, the staple of every meal, because life has grown old and stale as men have abandoned their vibrant lives in order to go to war. For, that which sustains life--love and family--has been abandoned, just as the "river that batters its way over the stones" and the birds are "Flying from burning countries and brown sand shores."
Thematic of the poem are the first two lines: "It is equal to living in a tragic land/To live in a tragic time." The soldiers' lives are like the dry loaf, losing their essence in the futile exercises of battle, "Marching and marching in a tragic time." They are as much victims of war as the birds who "had to come":
No doubt that soldiers had to be marching
And that drums had to be rolling, rolling, rolling.
Stevens once wrote: "The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them." "Dry Loaf" is such a concept of the imagination.
This poem was written in the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression in which many stood in line for bread--tragic lines in a tragic time in a tragic land. Also, the European and other countries were at war, a tragic situation. These tragic incidences are likened by Stevens to the dry loaf that can be used if moistened and reheated; lives can be revived with bread, the essential food. Man must hold to this idea for there to be hope.
In his work On Modern Poetry, Stevens wrote that a poem must be realistic; it must mirror its world and speak its language; it must "face the men of the time and ...meet/The women of the time." War is a necessary component of this language and time, and the poet has spoken to his world in "Dry Loaf."