Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

“Up Rising” is a poem fixated on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet despite people’s forgetfulness and the passage of time, the poem does not exclude readers the way poems reliant on historical fact risk doing. This condition results from the fact that virtually all Americans have heard of the Vietnam War and most understand, at a minimum, that the war was somehow problematic. Duncan’s emotional ferocity in “Up Rising” is therefore credible even to readers who disagree with his political stance.

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Indeed, the predominant thematic legacy of “Up Rising” may be that the Vietnam War aroused torrential emotional reactions which have been absent in America’s brief wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Vietnam was such that it moved a poet capable of writing such lines as “O Swan, the lover has taken away/ your covering cast at the wave’s edge” (from “Four Songs the Night Nurse Sang,” Roots and Branches, 1964) to create “Up Rising,” containing such passages as “this specter that . . ./ would corrupt the very body of the nation/ and all our sense of our common humanity,/ this black bile of old evils arisen anew,/ takes over the vanity of Johnson.” Vietnam sundered America, and the scars of its wounds show clearly in Duncan’s poem.

Being grounded in a particular time, “Up Rising” contains some abstruse historical details, and shedding light on them will allow readers a fuller understanding of the poem. Readers might miss the connotative spectrum of “this Texas barbecue/ of Asia, Africa, and all the Americas” without knowing that President Johnson—a large, gregarious man given to extremes of mirth and rage—was from Texas and enjoyed entertaining enormous groups with lavish barbecues at his ranch. Many readers will recognize “Lawrence” and “Blake”—whose writings on America Duncan quotes in “Up Rising”—as novelist D. H. Lawrence and poet William Blake. Even more will know “Adams and Jefferson” as two of America’s founding fathers who, according to Duncan, held higher hopes for America than the reality that Johnson delivered. The name “Goldwater” at the end of the poem, however, needs explanation.

Barry Goldwater ran unsuccessfully for president against Johnson in 1964. During the campaign, he gained a reputation as a dangerous right-wing extremist who would not only intensify the Vietnam War but also risk a suicidal war with the Soviet Union. By default, Johnson became a peace candidate, yet after his landslide victory, he did in Vietnam what many Americans had feared that Goldwater would do. Knowledge of these details allows readers to experience the full meaning of Duncan’s climactic assertion that the “glint of Satan’s eyes . . ./that I saw in/ Goldwater’s eyes/ now shines from the eyes of the President.”

As a political poem, “Up Rising” contains some dated material, but the poem’s artful declamatory rhythms, its moving emotional intensity, and its focus on the Vietnam War—an issue that remains potent in America—contribute enormously to the timeless value of “Up Rising.”

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