Robert Graves observed that to write a real poem is like getting struck by lightning. If it happens six or a dozen times we aren’t going to stop talking about you.
W.D. Ehrhart is a lightning rod. We printed one of his real poems on Constitution Day.
His work is the focus of the study of literature from the American soldiers in Viet Nam that reaches the most general conclusions and speaks to those furthest outside the field. Kali Tal devotes a chapter of Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literature of Trauma to Bill’s work.
In the print edition she concluded that a man who won’t shut up about what war is like for infantry and those civilians in their way is not going to fit into society. Kali was speaking from her own predicament.
Bill had in fact been offered a career screaming at young men about war as a Marine drill instructor. Instead he became a poet.
When Graves spoke of lightning he was making the practical observation that you can’t write real poems nine to five for a career. Graves himself, soldier-poet of the Great War, instead wrote a best-selling memoir and removed to Majorca from where he issued an historical novel every year or so.
Bill wrote three memoirs which take the reader, especially a young man with notions of military service, from small-town America to killing an old man and a child in Viet Nam, resisting the war at home, and riding around in a Volkswagen with dead teen-age friends in the back seat who want to call on Richard Nixon. All three books sell steadily.
He became a high school teacher, like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. He set to work as a scholar, achieving publications that would fit in at a research university or make him the star of a liberal arts college.
He moved on or back to our war in Korea and edited a collection of poems and stories from the Americans who fought there. He earned his doctorate from the University of Wales with a dissertation on that work.
Lightning still strikes.
For entree to his oeuvre, what you call it when a poet writes prose and conducts research, see the W.D. Ehrhart website. For a sense of his life scroll through the photos on this post.
They start with one of him and Ken Takenaga in the Marines in Viet Nam. The two men were later wounded by the same rocket-propelled grenade at the battle for Hue City.
In between are happy shots from the active life of a lucky poet. W.D. Ehrhart has been hit by lightning many times and is burning to warm us all.
Happy birthday, Bill!