Before Bob Barth started reading from Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone, 2021) on Friday, he noted that April 30 was an anniversary some would rather forget. On that day in 1975, Saigon fell. More than 58,000 Americans had died in Vietnam in the preceding sixteen years. Here is the introductory epigram in the section of his book titled “Small Arms Fire”: “Why not adjust? Forget this? Let it be? / Because it’s truth. Because it’s history.”
Barth gave his video reading from Roebling Books in Covington, Ky. The event was sponsored by the Mercantile Library, across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. In 1968-69, Barth was a Marine serving as a patrol leader in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam. “You know you can’t explain combat to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” he said. Barth tries instead to “approximate what war might be like” in his poems. Except for letters, he didn’t write while in Vietnam. He credits English teachers at Northern Kentucky State College in Covington with encouraging him to write. He studied the classical tradition and learned from Simonides of Ceos and Martial, among others.
“I’ve always thought I could talk to a Roman legionary,” Barth said. Asked by Cedric Rose of the Mercantile Library how he reacts when someone says, “Thank you for your service,” Barth replied: “I don’t like it. It’s a verbal tic. It’s like the 1970s’ ‘Have a nice day.’” He read twenty poems, beginning with “Saigon: 30 IV. 1975,” which he explained is spoken in the “collective voice” of our South Vietnamese allies: “We lie here, trampled in the rout; / There was no razor’s edge, no doubt.”
Barth’s epigram recasts a poem by Simonides inscribed on the tomb of the Corinthians who fell at Salamis in 480 B.C.: “We lie here, having given our lives to save all Hellas when she stood on a razor's edge.”
Barth read a longer poem, "A Letter to My Infant Son," one he claims to dislike but is a favorite of his wife, Susan. It reads, in part:
“War is not the story
That you would have me tell you, as I heard it.
And what is courage? Too many things, it seems:
Carelessness, fatalism, or an impulse.
Yet it is none of these. True courage is
Hidden in unexpected terms and places:
In performing simple duties day by day;
In sometimes saying ‘no’ when necessary;
In, most of all, refusing to despair.
Even suppose a man is brave one time—
Is truly brave, I mean—will he be brave
A second time? In other ways? Perhaps.”
Most poetry reading are tiresome and often embarrassing. Not so with Barth's, He doesn’t linger for "dramatic" effect. He doesn't emote. No histrionics. He reads briskly and never stumbles. Asked by Rose why he has written about war almost exclusively for more than forty-five years, Barth said: “To understand combat. And, I suppose, Vietnam.”