Learning from a Therapeutic Poet
July 28, 2014
W.D. Ehrhart is not the sort of rarified poet readers ponder in The New Yorker. He doesn’t teach at a famous university. And yet, his poetry and memoirs are so widely taught in the U.S. and abroad that a veritable emporium of essays about Ehrhart’s life and literary works has now been published.
“Bill’s writings about war and the aftermath of war spoke to me more than anything else I’d read,” Clint Van Winkle, an Iraq War vet and author, notes in The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart. “I’ve been a student of his since I first read a line of his work … Many veterans from my generation, including my Marine buddies who met Bill as we filmed [a documentary], are pupils of his as well …”
Edited by Jean-Jacques Malo, a professor at the Universite de Nantes in France, this eclectic collection of essays on Ehrhart was written by 20 contributors from the U.S., Europe and Asia who delve into his wide-ranging influence as a poet, memoirist and teacher. The paperback collection is published by McFarland & Company, which previously published several of Ehrhart’s books.
“The writer who first made the Vietnam War ‘real’ to me, validating my trauma and cementing my fellowship with a community of veterans, was W.D. Ehrhart,” writes Edward F. Palm, a college professor who served with the Marines in Vietnam. “In my opinion, Ehrhart remains the best, and certainly the most accessible, chronicler of this process of individual and collective disillusionment” experienced by the Vietnam War generation.
Ehrhart is perhaps best known as the author of Vietnam-Perkasie: a Combat Marine Memoir. He is also the author or editor of a bookshelf-ful of poetry collections, including Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War, two additional memoirs, and three collections of essays. Bill and I collaborated on an early anthology, Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam. I wrote an essay that’s in this new work, an appreciation of what I learned in interacting with Bill for more than three decades, titled “Ehrhart Effect.”
“For students, a visit by Bill Ehrhart is an enlightening and electrifying experience,” attests Martin Novelli, a college professor in New Jersey and Philadelphia. In the wake of Ehrhart’s presentation, Novelli gives his students “a writing assignment to describe their reaction to Bill’s visit. The papers, without exception, for the past couple of decades indicate the enormous impact that Bill’s visit has on them.”
As Malo, the editor, notes: “Many high school teachers and college professors use Ehrhart’s writings to teach the Vietnam War, and he has been invited numerous times to talk to classes in many parts of the U.S. This activity is also a significant aspect of Ehrhart’s oeuvre: he does not remain in his ivory tower. He interacts with people, he argues, he debates as to open minds and get people thinking.”
When not writing and traveling to speak in numerous places, Ehrhart has been teaching high school English and history at various schools, notably The Haverford School, a private prep school in Pennsylvania, since 2001. He was recruited for that job because the headmaster, Joseph Cox, recalled an Ehrhart visit to a class Cox previously taught at the U.S Military Academy at West Point.
“I believed W.D. Ehrhart was the best Vietnam veteran poet,” wrote Cox, who served in Vietnam as an Army officer. “During his visit to West Point, I also could see that the poet W.D. Ehrhart was also an incredible teacher who connected authentically with the cadets. He had an enormous capacity for empathy and never talked down to students. … they respected his perspectives on war even if Bill’s opinions were not politically compatible with the majority of service academy students.”
Ehrhart’s impact on readers and audiences of all sorts is attested to by several other contributors, including several other war veterans, the director of creative writing at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and professors in England, Netherlands, India and Japan.
His impact on other writers is also remarkable. “I didn’t think anybody would want to read, much less publish any of my writings. I was emboldened by Bill’s writing and advice,” notes Van Winkle, who was encouraged by Ehrhart to write about the experience of fighting in Iraq, in a book titled Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In an interview recorded by Malo, Ehrhart says “I dislike the notion of poetry as therapy.” Yet, he adds, “in retrospect I have to recognize that writing about the war was indeed very therapeutic for me … writing was a way of making sense of what had happened.”
Here’s a recollection I included in my essay about Ehrhart’s effect on a fellow poet:
“A couple of winters ago, I was in my usual cold weather funk, exacerbated that season by my wife dying during the Christmas holidays ten years before. When I get blue beyond the soothing realms of jazz, I reach for poetry. The rhythmic kick of well-placed words works better for me than pills or booze. So it was that I grabbed from a pile of books near my desk a copy of Ehrhart’s latest poetry collection, The Bodies Beneath the Table. Through that dark night, I read each poem aloud, awash in thunderstorms of emotions set in motion by Bill’s poems and my life, and got up refreshed.”