By Stephen Sossaman
Alan Farrell is probably one of the least known veteran poets from the Viet Nam War, but he is definitely one of the best. Several of his poems are among the most memorable and illuminating American poems from and about that war. Alan Farrell knows what he is talking about and he knows how to say it, having been both a career soldier and a professor of language and literature.
Never mind that he has only 13 poems in Expended Casings (2007). Most American poets are remembered, if at all, by no more than two or three poems, and most Viet Nam War veteran poets are not really known for any one poem in particular.
In the introduction to his selected volume, Farrell laments the laissez faire state of contemporary American poetry. Today veterans and others who never read poetry can write something “formless, rhymeless, pointless” and call it a poem, without being questioned.
He has no patience for contemporary poets who do not know or who reject traditional poetry’s forms, rhetorical devices, rhyme, and imagery. He especially has no patience for typical Viet Nam War veterans’ poems, whether simple and obvious, or cryptic and incomprehensible. He dislikes poems that more closely resemble Hollywood film cliches than actual military experiences.
As if he too is exploiting the absence of rigor that permits anything to be called a poem, the subtitle of Expended Casings is “poems or not.” But these are artfully constructed poems and are not pointless. His poems often employ fractured syntax, truncated words, and soldiers’ patois, but these devices have roots in modernist, surreal, and beat poetry.
Farrell’s style is unique, but his poems do share some similarities with other veterans’ poems from the Viet Nam War. Farrell’s poems are, like most, essentially apolitical, concerned with the experiences of ordinary soldiers rather than with foreign policy, grand strategy, ideology or history. They are about American military culture, not Vietnamese culture.
Most Viet Nam War veterans’ poems are free verse, prosaic, anecdotal, self-referential, and humorless. Some are bombastic, melodramatic, or subtly self-aggrandizing. Many lack such traditional poetic devices as metaphor and synecdoche.
But while Alan Farrell knows and admires traditional poetry, he makes original, comic, sometimes grotesque, use of those traditions. He is skillful at writing parody, and his poems are especially pleasing for readers who are aware of his antecedents, poets like e. e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry Reed.
Farrell’s poems are conversational. Some of his poems are more like short stories than diary entries, as they are spoken by a persona who might not be Farrell himself. Usually the speaker is a hapless young enlisted man or non-commissioned officer (NCO).
Several of his poems employ the verse and chorus structure of songs (evoking Kipling ballads and drinking songs) or the call and response of cadence calls chanted by an NCO and his unit as they run during physical training.
Unlike American poets from earlier wars, Viet Nam War poets were allowed, encouraged, or required by many editors to use obscene words, for the sake of authenticity. Alan Farrell is not squeamish about obscenities.
I do not know what Alan Farrell’s political view of the war is, but I know my own. In my opinion, one of Alan Farrell’s poems has the very best one-line summation of the American experience in Viet Nam to be found in prose or poetry. It powerfully expresses the surprise, confusion, self-doubt, and national introspection that followed Americans’ initial optimism about joining the war.
Nevertheless, this wonderful line will never be taught in schools or widely quoted, because it is spoken with a common soldier’s vulgarity and fractured syntax. It appears in “Funny Paper,” a poem about a small unit lost in the jungle with useless maps, well before GPS technology had been invented. The poem blends comedy and mortal dread.
The lost unit is in serious danger. The great line that says it all is: “where the fuck what the fuck who the fuck Are We.” Starting perhaps in 1965, these three questions (in this and in more polite phrasing) came to dominate America’s intense debate about its role in the war.
Beyond depicting the ordinary discomforts and dangers of a soldier’s life, most of these poems offer brief, understated, and humbling moments of recognition about such large issues as mortality, honor, disenchantment, and fatalism.
Five Alan Farrell poems seem most likely to be read and admired years from now, because they speak central truths about war and veterans, and speak those truths in memorable language.
“Fighting Position” reports a patrol’s discovery of a small, meticulously prepared and maintained enemy position in an inhospitable jungle. The position is permanent, even if the Vietnamese soldiers using it always moved on. The captain admires the Vietnamese for their professionalism and strength of will. The speaker agrees, but is also moved to thoughts of the harshness and brevity of life. Speaking of what Americans would call foxholes, Farrell writes:
They carved these monuments to their own feverish glory to endure in time
A few miserable moments
In “Funny Paper,” the lost unit keeps looking in vain at their useless map because they have no accurate map. The speaker’s remark might also be true of the confusion in Washington once the politicians realized that their initial optimistic assumptions about winning the war were wrong:
You can make the terrain look like that map
If you stare long enough want it hard enough need it bad enough
In “The Man Who Outlived His Lieutenant,” the speaker and his lieutenant disagree about what do if ambushed. The salty combat veteran recommends a prudent retreat, but the lieutenant favors an honorable charge directly into the gunfire. The survivor’s empty pleasure at having been right all along is diminished by his admiration for the courageous lieutenant,
Who died on his feet and face to the enemy I
Would have died in a huddle behind a tree face in the dirt
And now surely shall in soiled sheets old man who outlived his Lieutenant
The speaker in “Separate Peace” is spotting for a sniper in Laos. The lone, weary enemy porter in their gunsight momentarily sets down his heavy load, a humanizing gesture that both Americans simply watch
Till he weaves out of sight and into memory
Lugging his load our load of boredom futility emptiness pettiness inanity
“Joe Lunchbox Went to War” follows one ordinary soldier as he leaves a comforting 1950s America where “the World Made Sense.” After the shock of disease and wounds in Viet Nam, he makes a grim return to an America as changed and fragmented as he is.
When Joe Lunchbox came home from war
Dad looked up from the teevee Mom didn’t live there no more
Men wore highheeled shoes women did
America was losing
Farrell once said that the war was for him “a rich adventure in language and the discovery of how men are. Now. Before. Always.” That is true for Expended Casings. My own experiences in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam and my career as a professor of literature and writing convince me that Alan Farrell is among the half dozen veterans of that war whose poems will last, for their truth and for their way of saying it.
Stephen Sossaman is Professor Emeritus at Westfield State University in Massachusetts where he taught literature and writing in the English Department. He is the author of Writing Your First Play, and poems published in some three dozen literary journals, including The Paris Review, Military Review, and The Formalist. Two of his three chapbooks, The My Tho Laundry and Debriefings, concern the war in Viet Nam. He served in the U.S. Army 1966-1968 as Fire Direction Computer in the 1/84th Artillery, with the 9th Infantry Division, in the Mekong Delta. He serves as editor of Poets and War.