Thomas McGrath’s “Ode for the American Dead in Asia” is poem composed of three numbered stanzas of fourteen, fifteen, and fourteen lines, respectively. The subject of the poem, indicated by the title, is taken up with an extremely somber tone. Each of the stanzas, at least in significant part, is addressed to a “you”—the dead American solider in Korea. Too, in each stanza it is clear that many of the lines are addressed to a plural “you.” This, however, does not provide the poem with confusion and ambiguity; rather, it provokes in readers a realization that these deaths—so pointless and futile—are also so numerous.
McGrath begins his poem with the lines “God love you now, if no one else will ever,/ Corpse in the paddy, or dead on a high hill.” He goes on to describe the circumstances of this singular dead soldier, in actuality referring to all such dead American soldiers. The words “your false flags were/ Of bravery and ignorance” indicate a certain disdain for the youths who have given their lives for some reason which is not discernibly good or necessary, but “false.” He records that the “safe commanders sent/ You into your future” with words that display both irony and sardonic terror, for that future is death. In the last lines of the stanza he calls the dead youth a “changeling,” truly a curious word choice that can be explained only when one realizes that the “safe commanders” have exchanged this soldier’s life for his death.
The poet continues in the second stanza by speaking of a “bee that spins his metal from the sun” and a “shy mole drifting like a miner ghost/ Through midnight earth.” These, he explains, are “happy creatures” that run on “Blind instinct.” He then, again, directly addresses the dead soldier and mentions both church and state, which provided “elders to confirm you in your ignorance.” They have given him a “tennis racket” as an “Ark against the flood.” In other words, the guns with which he was equipped failed miserably, for the “blind mole dies,/ And you on your hill, who did not know the rules [also die].”
Recalling wasteland imagery from T. S. Eliot and others, McGrath begins the last stanza with references to a crow, swallows, and a scarecrow. He turns from the war fields of Asia to his home state of North Dakota, where, presumably, this youth is either buried or remembered, but dead in either case. In the last two lines (“The limestone histories: brave: ignorant: amazed:/ Dead in the rice paddies, dead on the nameless hills”), bravery and ignorance are once again equated. Moreover, while the rice paddies of Southeast Asia are not comparable to the slag heaps of North Dakota, the “dead on the nameless hills” are the same in either geography.
In writing this ode, McGrath followed many of the usual conventions for this poetic form. It is organized into three stanzas, identifiable as the strophe, epode, and antistrophe, in that order. Consistently, lines contain ten to twelve syllables with no discernibly repetitive meter. In a few instances, the poet uses end rhymes, but there is no pattern (“see” and “eternity”; “kill” and “hill”). Also, he also includes a few examples of half rhymes: “ever” and “war”; “gaze” and “gone.” Most of the lines have at least one instance of alliteration, such as “And God (whose sparrows fall aslant his gaze).”
It is in matters of subject and style that this work is most demonstrably defined as an ode. The serious, exalted subject of death—enhanced by the fact of its senselessness and futility—is even more compounded because of its mass occurrence; some fifty-four thousand Americans died in...
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