The Literature of War, taught by rural Colorado teacher Harvey Starbuck, uses the poetry segment of his class by the same name as an introduction to poetry for students who may not have had the opportunity for meaningful poetry exploration in the past. Students begin by developing a poetic vocabulary through the study of a single poem and move to more complex readings in the remaining four lesson plans. Students pursue an examination of the effects of war on those involved in the fighting and those they leave behind, moving chronologically through time with subsequent lesson plans. The unit concludes by looking at the world's most recent acts of war, the effects and ramifications of the events on and following September 11, through the reading of poems written since that date. As a culminating activity, students are asked to respond with a poem of their own that they illustrate with relevant images found on the web. All poems are accessible online.

Unit Length: 8 to 16 Class Periods



This poetry unit was presented as part of a larger course titled Literature of War. This course is designed to acquaint students with works of literature pertaining to the issues of war, the men involved in war, the families left behind, the innocent victims of war, and war itself. The prose contents of the unit consisted of a series of short stories from War edited by James Gibson, Hiroshima by John Hersey, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Poems other than those used in this part of the class were "Arms and the Boy" by Wilfred Owen, "Grass" by Carl Sandburg, and "Does It Matter?" by Siegfried Sassoon. Following the time spent in creating the unit, the poetry component itself took about 8 class periods (90-minute classes) to present and for students to complete. 

The poetry unit is broken up into five separate lessons. The first assignment ("A Starting Point") also includes an introduction to Charles Bernstein's "Poem Profiler" and how it can facilitate in a discussion of the elements of poetry (1 90-minute class period). The second lesson ("The Soldier") involves the first written assignment. The students are to come up with traits that they think a good soldier should possess. Using that list, they are to read three poems by three different authors in which the narrator is a soldier and make a decision as to which of the three comes across as being the best soldier. Using the model for a five-paragraph essay, they are to write an essay to defend their choice (2 90-minute class periods). The third lesson ("At Home") involves a look at the people left at home by the departing soldiers. They will be looking at three poems that present that perspective. The students are asked to critically look at some poetic elements and respond to questions. They are encouraged to cite specific lines to validate their response (1.5 90-minute class periods). The fourth lesson ("Contemporary Issues") involves a look at poetic responses to the September 11th tragedy and the aftermath. In this lesson the students will be asked to review three poems and answer questions that pertain to elements of poetry. Specifically they will be asked to comment on the mood and tone of each poem (1.5). The last lesson requires the students to formulate a personal view of war and express it through a reworking of an existing poem and illustrating it through images of their choosing (2 class periods).

Assignment 1: A Starting Point

In 1942 Randall Jarrell entered the Army Air Force, but failed to qualify as a flyer. He became a celestial training navigator in Tucson, Arizona. During his nearly four years of service, he wrote many poems about the army and the war. Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" serves as an introduction to the poetry unit of Literature of War. Consider your response to the following questions:

  • What is your reaction to this poem?
  • What do you know about the gunner?
  • How would you describe the content of the poem?
  • What visual images does Jarrell present?
  • Who is the speaker in the poem?
  • What is the author's attitude toward war as presented in the poem?
  • What information/words must the reader know in order to understand the poem?

To facilitate your understanding of poetry, you will be given an adaptation of Charles Bernstein's "Poem Profiler" as presented by him to participants in the 2001 Summer Institute of the Online Poetry Classroom program. This will assist you in your discussion of the various features of individual poems.

Assignment 2: The Soldier

The role of the individual soldier has been diminished by the "push-button" capabilities that technology has produced. Previous wars/conflicts did, however, focus on the individual soldier, and certain phases of modern warfare also emphasize the capabilities of the individual.

  • Prepare a list of 7 to 10 character traits that you would deem essential for someone to be considered a good soldier.
  • Read the following three poems: "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" by William Butler Yeats, "The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy, and "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke.
  • Consider these questions about each of the speakers in the three poems: Why has the speaker gone to war? What is the speaker's attitude toward his own country? What is the speaker's attitude toward his enemy?
  • Look at each poem with regard toward your 7 to 10 character traits and the answers to the questions above. Selecting from the speakers in these three poems, pick the one you believe is the best soldier. Your assignment is to write a well-organized, five-paragraph essay in which you defend your choice. Use quotes (or line numbers) to illustrate your contention.


Assignment 3: At Home

The general focus of war is on the battle itself and the people who are involved in the actual fighting. Casualties occur at the front, but the victims of any war would also include the loved ones left behind. Read these three poems for a look at this perspective:

"War Is Kind" by Stephen Crane
"Come Up From the Fields, Father" by Walt Whitman
"My Father Leaves for Vietnam" by Lenard D. Moore

Discuss the following:

  • Who is the speaker in each poem? (There may be more than one.)
  • What is the time frame for what is being described in "My Father Leaves for Vietnam"? For "Come Up From the Fields, Father"?
  • Explain the irony of Crane's "War Is Kind"
  • What is the tone of each poem?
  • How do lines 3 to 10 of "Come Up From the Fields, Father"contribute to the overall effect?


Assignment 4: Contemporary Issues

It is an understatement to say that the tragedies of September 11th have changed us. It has also heightened our awareness and sensitized us to other conflicts around the globe. These events have prompted outpourings that have expressed grief, outrage, comfort, patriotism, compassion, restraint, and observations. The following three poems are among those that have appeared.

"Today is the next day of the rest of your life" by Charles Bernstein
"Palestine" by Lorna Dee Cervantes
"The Daisy Cutter" by Louise Rill

Read these poems and respond to the items listed below.

  • "Today is the next day of the rest of your life": How would you explain the seemingly contradictory statements in the last 2-4 lines?
  • "Palestine": What images speak to the events of September 11th?
  • "The Daisy Cutter": Describe the content of this poem. Explain the allusion to John the Baptist.
  • All three poems: Discuss the mood and tone of each of these poems.


Assignment 5: Poetry Final

The perspectives on war are as diverse as the people who are affected by those conflicts. You are to convey your view by using what you have discovered through the various poems and your reaction to the various images and pictures that have been presented. To complete the poetry unit, you are to construct a poem and incorporate appropriate visuals to complement it.

  • Decide on the view of war you wish to convey
  • Find an existing poem and imitate it, retaining the same style but having it reflect your viewpoint on war.
  • You are to find relevant images/pictures to accompany your poem. (Possible sources for images may be found by clicking on all images in the previous assignments or you may click on Google Image Search to find others.)
  • Using Microsoft Word, copy the images on to a blank page, or you may save the pictures in a file and then access them by going to the main toolbar and pulling down the Insert menu to the Picture option. Once you have the picture on your page, go to View on the main toolbar and go to the Toolbars option and make sure that both the Picture and Drawing options are checked. Use the Picture toolbar to modify your pictures.
  • Once you have the picture(s) the way you want, go to the Text Box on the Drawing toolbar and enter your poem. Be sure to include your name, the title of your poem, and the name and author of the original poem.


Teaching Strategies

Various teaching strategies were used to try to accomplish the objectives. Having first done a unit on short stories helped the students understand terminology such as setting, point of view, irony, historical perspective, and the author's attitude toward his subject matter. We had discussed at length whether the author was presenting his story objectively, or as a vehicle for speaking out against war, or as a way to extol the virtues of heroism and patriotism. In our study of the book Hiroshima (John Hersey), students were asked to search sites on the Internet for additional information and pictures related to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an assignment, they were to download a picture and bring in some factual information regarding the bombings or the atomic bomb itself. In the course of the short story and novel portions of the unit, the students were given copies of the poems "Arms and the Boy," "Grass," and "Does It Matter?" We discussed these in terms of content, point of view, and tone. Once we started the unit, we accessed Charles Bernstein's "Poem Profiler" and discussed the contents and how having vocabulary that would be pertinent to the discussion of poetry would be useful for their future assignments. We went back to the poems we had already covered to discuss them again in light of the profiler. Next, we accessed the poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" and discussed it using the relevant terminology from the profiler. (Even though we accessed the poems through the Internet, hard copies were also given for those that we read with the exception of those in the "Contemporary Issues" assignment. There was nothing to prevent them from running copies themselves). For the first assignment concerning the soldiers, students were given the option of making it a collaborative effort or attempting it on their own. This option was exercised due in part to the accessibility to the computer lab and competition for its use by other classes, as well as a desire for students to have to come to some kind of agreement in their selection of the best soldier. Most chose to do it with company. On the same page as the assignment I created a link to a site that offered assistance (particularly useful information on introductory paragraphs and transitions) in writing a five-paragraph essay. Subsequent assignments up until the last one brought them into more contemporary war settings. The last assignment required the most independent work in the unit. It was extremely helpful at this point to have the expertise of our resident tech person, as well as students who were well versed in the in the utilizing the various tools available in Microsoft Word.