The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)