Poet Returns Home
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
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
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
“It was at Oberlin that anyone first told me I could be a
writer,” Weigl said at the reading. “So this is a very
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
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.