Words of War: A Literary Lifeline for the Battlefield

Even the newest of correspondents knows not to go into a war zone without the right training, the right gear and the right exit plan. But some seasoned reporters have learned that they need something more to sustain them through the bleak days and nights of carnage. Something to remind them of the humanity beneath the inhumanity. For some, it is poetry.

Few correspondents are more seasoned than Alissa J. Rubin, who in 15 years at The New York Times has served as a bureau chief in Baghdad, Kabul and Paris and before that covered conflict in the Balkans. We asked her to talk about what she reads when her job brings her to the battlefield.

When I think about poems for a war zone or really for covering anything sad or traumatic — so much, of course, is sad that isn’t war — some of the ones that come to mind may at first strike some people as off the point. But each one I describe here calls on us to find the humanity amid the brutality, to pay attention to the details, and shows us how the smallest thing can be infinitely large, that it can convey tragedy but also remind us that beauty still exists, that there can be life even in the rubble — and, yes, even love.

Space is limited when you are on the road, but I always travel with paperback collections of two poets: W.B. Yeats and W.H. Auden. There are also others (listed below) who can offer solace and insight both to those covering conflict and those reading about it.

For me, the book on war that I keep rereading is one that I was reluctant to take up and then, when I was persuaded to, never expected to finish, much less to be transfixed by: Homer’s “Iliad.”

I first read it during the war in Iraq, and was amazed by its immediacy. How could something composed 2,600 years ago make sense to me? But it did.

There are extended metaphors drawn from peaceful moments in the natural world. Yet when these metaphors are used to describe the terrible barbarity of warfare, they remind the reader of the violence inherent in human existence, but also of a kind of nobility.

Here the Greek warrior Patroklos throws his spear, killing one of the Trojans’ best fighters — and his death becomes that of a noble tree:

It struck right between Sarpedon’s midriff and his beating heart.
Sarpedon toppled over,
As an oak tree falls or poplar or tall mountain pine which craftsmen cut with sharpened axes, to harvest timber for a ship —
That’s how he lay there stretched out before his chariot and horses, groaning and clawing at the bloody dust.

The “Iliad” is also startlingly psychological.

After the hero, Achilles, kills his enemy, Hector, the leader of the Trojans, he drags the body around the Greek camp over and over and over. Hector may have been vanquished, but Achilles cannot rid himself of the fury he feels at Hector for having killed Patroklos, his best friend, in an earlier battle.

Nowadays, we might speak of Achilles’ rage as PTSD. But above all it is a reminder that for many on the battlefield, the nightmare moments of war simply will not go away.

The “Iliad” hit me hard back in Iraq, and it stays with me today, and so the first poem I have chosen is based on a scene from the epic. It is by an early 20th-century Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, and is about the horses of Achilles, which were given to him by Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. The horses are immortal — but when they see Achilles’ best friend killed, they cannot help but weep.

My last selection is taken directly from the “Iliad.” It recounts a visit to Achilles by Priam, the father of the slain Trojan hero, Hector. Priam has come to plead for the return of his son’s remains, so that he can be buried properly. (This will be recognizable to any war correspondent: Whatever the era and whatever the culture, proper disposition of the bodies of the dead is sacrosanct.)

Priam is an old man, and his courage in confronting the warrior who has been desecrating his son’s body in the Greek camp, and his plea to him, are a powerful and moving moment. Priam asks Achilles to think of his own father, and somehow, in that moment, Achilles is able to let go of his anger.

The poems in between those two bookends are just works by poets I love, and who I feel have taught me something about loss, about violence but most of all about the duty — my duty — to observe closely with mind and heart what is being lost, overlooked, forgotten, destroyed. It is all that I have to give, my way of showing respect for all who are suffering.

When I am in ugly places, I also try to read poems that focus on one or two small things that take my breath away, that call me to pay attention. The bird sitting on a branch and offering inspiration in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” by Sylvia Plath comes to mind. So do the shoes that Robert Hayden recalls his father polishing in “Those Winter Sundays” — an act of love the boy does not recognize until years later, when he is a man.

Then there are poems about writing, like “From The Frontier of Writing” by Seamus Heaney, which is a brilliant depiction not only of the small-scale war of putting words onto paper but also of what it is like to go through a checkpoint. Auden’s incredible “Musée des Beaux Arts” is about how disaster can strike — a boy can fall to his death from the sky or, in my world, a bomb can wipe out an apartment block — and yet there are people who never seem to notice the catastrophe.

Because that Auden poem is so well-known (Times readers may recall the “Close Read” we did on it this year), I wanted to include another Auden work that is often overlooked, one that he wrote as Nazi Germany invaded Poland, marking the seemingly inexorable advance of war across the continent. The poem, “September 1, 1939,” is — like so much of his poetry — prescient about human beings’ ability to destroy their own civilization.

I have included another great poem about war: “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” by Yeats. I am in awe of the poet’s breadth and depth, and this poem is one I’ve spent so many hours with. The opening line pulls you up short: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone,” he begins. A later stanza describes a moment of violence in a period of civil war that erases past and present alike. Yeats is talking about the brutality of soldiers in Ireland’s War of Independence — 100 years ago — but I see the horrors of fighting in Syria, in, Afghanistan, in Bosnia.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free.

I always try to read a few poets from the places that I cover when I am there. That means I have often spent time with the pre-Islamic poetry from Iraq (sadly, in English translation since I do not read Arabic).

But recently, with the war in Ukraine and the refugees in Eastern Europe in mind, I have also been plunging into the work of the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. Her poem “Could Have” sums up my feelings about having been spared over and over, not just from the threats one encounters during conflicts but also from all the terrible other things that could have dragged me into the abyss, both psychological and physical.

I have also spent time with the work of Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet who wrote in his native land and in Beirut and Paris. He is the quintessential poet of exile, a successor to Dante, forever searching for paradise but condemned to life on a broken earth. I love his poems because they are so specific to place. They remind me that as a reporter, I have to be loyal and true to the place I am covering, and understand that for those I am writing about, it may be holy ground, even if I cannot see it that way.

I struggled with this in Iraq, because it isa land of scrub desert, whose grandeur only grew on me slowly. But for the people I covered, it was home, its flaws barely visible. Where I saw the Tigris and Euphrates as slow moving and sometimes clogged with trash, the people I wrote about saw them as the rivers that gave them their place in history as Mesopotamia.

Darwish writes about seeing things as they are seen by others in his poem “The Cypress Broke,which I have included. Reporting in a time of war requires a kind of radical empathy, something that takes you deep into a time and place. Poetry like his helps remind me how focusing on the particular can offer the best path to grasping the universal.

There is also “Journey of the Magi,” perhaps my favorite poem by T.S. Eliot. It is told from the point of view of one of the three kings bearing gifts for the Christ child.

For this king, who is from a long way off, and of a different faith, the journey takes more than it gives. It is above all a poem about doubt. But it offers such vivid description of travel in places that sound like Afghanistan or Kurdistan that I felt I recognized the king’s journey and could imagine riding a camel in his retinue.

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices … Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley
Wet, below the snowline, smelling of vegetation
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness.

Ultimately, for all its talk of doubt, the poem is about the longing to find faith — and the terrible, forever uncertainty inherent in that quest.

There are many more poems that I could recommend for those touched by war and those fortunate enough not to be. But these are a start. I hope one or another catches your eye and perhaps lets you discover a poet you did not know.

The Horses of Achilles, by Constantine Cavafy

When they saw Patroklos dead
— so brave and strong, so young —
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal natures were outraged
by this work of death they had to look at.

Could Have, by Wislawa Szymborska

It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.

Read the full poem.

The Frontier of Writing, by Seamus Heaney

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration —
a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

Read the full poem.

Musée des Beaux Arts, by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

Read the full poem.

September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood …
Children afraid of the night

Read the full poem.

Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, by William Butler Yeats

We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,

O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

Read the full poem.

The Cypress Broke, by Mahmoud Darwish

And the cypress
broke. And those passing by the wreckage said:
Maybe it got bored with being neglected, or it grew old
with the days, it is long like a giraffe, and little
in meaning like a dust broom, and couldn’t shade two lovers.

Read the full poem.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather, by Sylvia Plath

I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality.

Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

Read the full poem.

The Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot

. . . Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here …

Read the full poem.

The Iliad, Book 24, by Homer

The majestic king of Troy slipped past the rest
and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle.
… Dear God my life so cursed by fate
I fathered hero sons in the wide realm of Troy
and now not a single one is left, I tell you.
… Most of them violent Ares cut the knees from under
But one, one was left me to guard my walls, my people —
The one you killed the other day, defending his fatherland,
My Hector! It’s all for him I’ve come to the. ships now,
To win him back from you — I bring a priceless ransom.
Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right
Remember your own father …

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