‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ was written in 1972 and was included in Nemerov’s award-winning book of poetry, The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, published in 1977. The title clearly hints at the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam during 1970-1973. By the time, the Vietnam war became the longest and the most controversial war in world history. Nemerov’s poem introduces the Greek mythological legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. It relates the history of the Vietnam War with the mythical Labyrinth.
Explore On Getting Out of Vietnam
‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ by Howard Nemerov alludes to the Greek legend of Theseus, who defeated the Minotaur, a monstrous beast with a body of a man and the head of a bull.
Nemerov finds it hard to believe the Greek legend of the Theseus and the Minotaur. He uses the symbol of “labyrinth” from Greek mythology in order to compare it to modern wars. Wars have always been part of histories like legend and folklore. Whether it is the history of America, Asia, or Europe, the topic of war has always been there. It leaves a lasting mark on people’s minds, causes indelible scars, and terrifies their hearts.
In this poem, Nemerov ingeniously co-relates Greek mythology and the Vietnam War in the lines, “still the elders sent/ Their quota of kids to Knossos.” He ironically comments on the younger generation’s fascination with the “Good War” in the last line, “They would find something to die of, and for.”
You can read the full poem here.
Howard Nemerov is known for his inclination towards fixed forms and poetic meter. He was a formalist poet and wrote almost in fixed meter and rhyme scheme. His poem ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ consists of seven lines, with somewhat symmetrical line lengths. This poem can be considered as a satire on the American people’s fascination with the “Good Wars” (World War II and Vietnam War). It follows the rhyming pattern of ABBACCA. Nemerov wrote this piece in iambic pentameter with a few anapestic foot variations. The scansion is as follows:
The-seus,/ if he/ did des/-troy the Mi/-no-taur
(It’s hard/ to say,/ that may/ have been/ a myth),
Was care/-ful not/ to close/ the la/-by-rinth.
So Af/-ter kept/ on look/-ing like/ Be-fore:
Back home/ in A/-thens still/ the el/-ders sent
Their quo/-ta of kids/ to Kno/-ssos, con/-fi-dent
They would/ find some/-thing to/ die of,/ and for.
Theseus, if he did destroy the Minotaur
Was careful not to close the labyrinth.
Howard Nemerov’s poem ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ talks about the similarity between Greek mythology and the real history of America. War has always been the way to control, exploit, or annex some territory. No war has bought peace, though it is said wars are fought to maintain peace. The irony is no war can ever bring peace. It only brings disaster and causes pain to humankind.
In this poem, Nemerov alludes to the legendary king of Athens, Theseus, who defeated the sinister, uniquely unnatural monster, the Minotaur that lived in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus. He was careful not to close the network of passages after defeating the creature. Here, the “labyrinth” denotes the memories of war; though the Second World War ended, and concluded with peace, the dreadful memories still haunt the speaker.
The passage where the Minotaur (the evil) roamed was not entirely perished. Thus the “labyrinth” also denotes a necessary evil such as the Cold War. Even if many died in the past wars, powerful nations fuelled proxy wars across the globe. The memories the wars left behind will always act as a reminder to humankind.
Furthermore, the “labyrinth” is also a reference to the Vietnam War. Nemerov is overwhelmed by the mental state of withdrawn US troops from Vietnam. They left behind many friends they would never meet again and had memories that would haunt them until their last breath.
So After kept on looking like Before;
They would find something to die of, and for.
In the last four lines of ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam,’ the speaker overcomes the feelings of grief. He ironically says that the war “kept on looking like Before;” it never stopped. The world looks the same as it was before. Just like the elders kept sending their kids to the Labyrinth at Knossos, the elders of America did the same during the Vietnam War. According to them, the wars and combats test human resilience and build up courage in the younger generation. They must find a practical reason to die. Dying for the nation on the battlefield is undoubtedly one such cause. In contrast, when the younger generation learned their mistake from the in-hand experience of the war, they instantly became disillusioned.
Nemerov writes the poem in protest of the Vietnam War. His terse statement, “They would find something to die of, and for,” demystifies the glorified deaths of young soldiers in Vietnam. It seems the elders pushed their younger generation towards their own doom, intoxicated by the harangues of demagoguery.
In ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam,’ Nemerov uses the following literary devices:
- Irony: Though Nemerov knows that the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur has been passed down for generations, he finds it hard to believe: “Theseus, if he did destroy the Minotaur/ (It’s hard to say, that may have been a myth).”
- Consonance: The consonant sound “k” is heard repeatedly in the lines, “Was careful not to close the labyrinth” and “Their quota of kids to Knossos, confident.”
- Alliteration: Readers can find a number of juxtaposed words starting with the same sound. The line that shows alliterative words include “Theseus, if he did destroy the Minotaur” and “So After kept on looking like Before.”
- Simile: The poet uses the words “After” and “Before” in the fourth line. He compares the future (“After”) to a blatant repetition of the past (“Before”).
- Enjambment: The poet excellently uses punctuations and enjambment to maintain a swift and unbroken flow from one line to the next. The use of this device can be found in “Back home in Athens still the elders sent/ Their quota of kids to Knossos, confident/ They would find something to die of, and for.” In this excerpt, a single line continues without any break.
- Allegory: At first, it seems that the poem is about a Greek legend. As one unfolds the layers, they find a different meaning of the text. The poet remarks that the hero Theseus did not close the “labyrinth,” which symbolizes the Vietnam War or the Second World War. Allegorically, Theseus represents the Americans who continued waging proxy wars by keeping the “labyrinth” (political discourse that glorified war as a means to strengthen America’s hold in the world economy) open.
The poem ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ was published in Howard Nemerov’s collection, The Collected Poems (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize. The poem was written in 1972 when America decided to withdraw its troops from Vietnam and declare peace. Several intellectuals, poets, and writers spoke against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Literature from this period contained references to this proxy war.
Nemerov’s contribution to war poetry can never be neglected. He was twice elected as Poet Laureate. During World War II, he served as a pilot and earned the rank of first lieutenant. The direct experience of war is there in Howard Nemerov poems; for instance, ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ is filled with the feeling of guilt, pain, and cynicism. He wrote this poem in reaction to the public support of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The comparison of the “Good War” to the classic mythological symbol of the Labyrinth makes it clear that the vicious cycle of wars will never end.
Howard Nemerov’s ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam’ talks about the haunted memories that the Vietnam War left on the speaker. It alludes to the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in the early 1970s and satirizes how the “elders” kept sending their youth to the battlefield as if it was some sort of ritual.
The poem taps on many themes, such as war, death, illusion vs. reality, and the memories of war. It is a political poem written in response to public support for the Vietnam War. To be specific, this poem criticizes the US involvement at first hand even though they withdrew the troops later. By alluding to the Greek myth, Nemerov satirizes heroism, bravery, honor, and the legacy of soldiers. Though classical writers celebrate the bravery of the Greek hero Theseus, this poem subverts the ideas.
Nemerov tactically relates the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur to the Vietnam War. According to the poet, Theseus would have kept the Labyrinth open. In a roundabout way, it is a reference to America, one of the most important actors of the Cold War, and how they kept the “Labyrinth,” a symbol of war, open.
Theseus is a legendary hero of Greek mythology who killed the Minotaur. In this poem, Theseus represents American soldiers who fought in World War II. The Minotaur is nothing other than the nations which opposed America, apparently representing the “evil” side.
Greek and Roman mythology has been a constant source of inspiration for poets down the centuries. Nemerov uses his great intelligence to co-relate the Vietnam War with the legend of Theseus, who defeated the half-man, half-bull creature Minotaur that lived in the Labyrinth in Knossos.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Howard Nemerov’s ‘On Getting Out of Vietnam.’
- ‘Facing It’ by Yusef Komunyakaa — This poem details Komunyakaa’s reaction to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Vietnam War.
- ‘What Were They Like?’ by Denise Levertov — This protest poem describes the damages caused by American troops to the Vietnamese people during the infamous war.
- ‘The Green Beret’ by Ho Thien — This poem alludes to a tragic incident of the killing of a Vietnamese boy’s father by an American soldier named Green Beret.
- ‘History’ by Carol Ann Duffy — In this poem, Duffy compounds all the events in history into one woman.
You can also explore these vivid war poems.