Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans

Vince Gotera

Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994
(ISBN: 0-8203-1510-9)


Cover art by Richard J. Olsen


Although poets have written about warfare since at least the time of Homer, the Vietnam war has struck many observers as being immune to the interpretations of poetry and myth. "Lyric poetry of a traditional kind," writes one critic, "has proved inappropriate to communicate the character of the Vietnam war, its remoteness, its jargonized recapitulations, its seeming imperviousness to aesthetics." Nonetheless, the past two decades have seen an unprecedented outpouring of poetry that seeks to describe and come to terms with that bitterly divisive conflict.

In Radical Visions Vince Gotera argues that poetry written by Vietnam veterans underlines the failure of traditional American myths to help Americans understand the war and its aftermath. The book blends sociohistorical commentary with close readings of individual works by such poets as Michael Casey, Walter McDonald, and W. D. Ehrhart.

In the book's first section, "The 'Nam," Gotera examines several key mythic structures -- the Wild West (a violent extension of the mythic virgin land), the machine in the garden, the city on the hill, regeneration through violence -- all of which helped delude Americans about Vietnam and the war being fought there.

In the second part, "The World," Gotera shows how another myth, the American Adam as an exemplar of ahistorical innocence, proved unusable for returning veterans attempting to readjust to American life. In addition to exposing these failed myths, Gotera argues, the poetry by Vietnam veterans reflects an effort to construct new myths -- most notably that of the "warrior against war," an oxymoronic structure arising from the difficulties faced by returning veterans. In the book's final chapters, Gotera examines the work of Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa, two poems whom the author considers most successful at portraying the moral absurdity of the Vietnam war without sacrificing lyrical aesthetics.

The first comprehensive study devoted exclusively to poetry by Vietnam veterans, Radical Visions argues that this body of writing registers an important advance in the aesthetics and poetics of war literature and offers a cogent antiwar statement rooted in personal experience. (Text from the dust jacket.)

Praise for Radical Visions . . .

Radical Visions is a book we have all been waiting for -- and by "we" I mean all Vietnam veterans, all people who care about good writing, and anyone who would like to understand what the war in Vietnam was all about. . . . Radical Visions will amaze anyone who thinks he or she knows anything about the Vietnam War.

-- John Clark Pratt

Perhaps the greatest and most rewarding surprise of all is Gotera's . . . flexible critical prose that eschews jargon and is capable of engaging the non-specialist reader. . . . Radical Visions is not just a book for college libraries. It is a book for all those interested in contemporary letters, cultural issues, and -- of course -- our longest war.

-- Philip K. Jason  

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URL: www.uni.edu/~gotera/books/radvisn.html
Created by Vince Gotera on 29 November 1997.