Vietnam Poet Returns Home
By Douglass Dowty

Vietnam war poet and Oberlin College Alumni Bruce Weigl (OC ’73) read to a packed King lecture hall on Tuesday. Weigl’s vivid and concrete poetry brought to life the war with a firm but lyrical accuracy that stirred emotion in the audience of politically aware Obies.
The event had a more universal tone than most in the series of poetry readings sponsored annually by the Creative Writing Department. For those in attendance, it could not help but bring reflection and respect for a man who fought in a war that America often tries to forget. His poetic accounts of the horrors of the average soldier remain quite relevant, especially in this new time of strife for our country.
An Oberlin resident, Weigl is recognized as one of the foremost poets to emerge from the Vietnam War and has published 13 collections. His compilation of poems, Songs of Napalm, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In these poems, as well as the other Vietnam sketches sprinkled heavily throughout most of his collections, he takes a non-judgmental view of the conflict. Weigl seems more interested in sharing the horrors of war than politicizing it by drawing any administrative conclusions from his experience. He does not condemn the war or extol it, he simply brings it to the reader in the form of something beautiful and artistic, making the contrast to reality that much more powerful.
Following his discharge from Vietnam in 1970 after eight months of active combat and a wound from mortar shrapnel, Weigl worked in a foundry in his hometown Lorain, and took writing classes at Lorain Community College. After a short time there, he applied for the writingprogram at Oberlin College. Upon being accepted, he studied with current faculty member David Young and former faculty member Steve Friebert.
“It was at Oberlin that anyone first told me I could be a writer,” Weigl said at the reading. “So this is a very special place.”
Weigl has also published a plethora of non-war poetry in his numerous collections. He did not begin to write specifically about the war until after he left Oberlin, so much of his formal training is in a style that is rarely seen in his poetry.
“[My Oberlin teachers] influenced me more in terms of how and what I thought about poetry and influenced me more in terms of how and what I read as opposed to how and what I wrote,” Weigl said in an interview for the Reflector, the literary magazine of Shippensberg University.
Weigl has an acute sense of humor which he uses to great effect, counterbalancing the somber, if beautiful, nature of his wartime poetry. One of the poems he read Tuesday recounted Weigl’s lifelong
ineptitude for math.
“If only they had told me it was all a metaphor / I might have learned it,” the poem begins. It goes on to account in high schoolish detail the silly cat-and-mouse games that the poet played with his math teacher on a daily basis.
Weigl also uses motives from everyday life in his poems. In one he describes his frustration after trying to teach his daughter, rigidly-trained in classical piano, how to play the free-spirited blues. In this case, however, Weigl again returns to his poetic roots, and the poem is set in the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi.
Weigl returned to Vietnam in the 1980s. In an article in The Cleveland Free Times, Weigl compares this foreign capital to Lorain. “(Both are) urban, working class, somewhat austere and full of hardworking, trustworthy people,” he said.

After Weigl graduated from Oberlin and began working on his own, the attraction to writing poems about the war became apparent. In a conversation with fellow poet Thomas Lux, he remembered one of his experiences in the jungle of Vietnam when he could hear Chinese tanks, loyal to the North Vietnamese, being repositioned in the woods. Lux told him to write down exactly what he had just said, word for word. It was doing this that Weigl said changed his life. It was then that he realized his experiences during the war would be the ideal subject matter for poetry.

For those who attended the reading, Weigl’s voice brought a power and consciousness to his work that was undeniably riveting. While his most recognized poems are about war, they all contain a precision and craft that can keep the attention of any audience, no matter how trained in the ways of poetry.
The last five lines of the war poem, “Elegy,” which Weigl read at the reading, were especially well received: “The bullets sliced through the razor grass/ so there was not even time to speak/ The words would not let themselves be spoken/ Some of them died/ Some of them were not allowed to.”

Bruce Weigl’s poetry can be found at the Oberlin Bookstore or through online merchants such as Barnes and Noble.


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