Ode for the American Dead in Asia Analysis

Thomas McGrath

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 Korea. The poet manifests supreme pensiveness bordering on depression as he mourns the deaths of these soldiers throughout the poem, but especially in the last lines: “We will mourn you, whose fossil courage fills/ The limestone histories: brave: ignorant: amazed:/ Dead in the rice paddies, dead on the nameless hills.” Also apparent in this last sentence is that the syntax itself of such expressions is often formal and convoluted. McGrath saves the punch for the end of his lines. Some of the lines are disjointed, with half stops or full...

(The entire section is 490 words.)