We have all been touched by a song, lyrics that seemed to speak our own feelings, our own experiences. Songs are quite literally poems that have been translated into musical notes. Words carry meaning, but music has a way of evoking the emotional tenor of those words. They have worked together this way since the most ancient of times.
You see, poetry from the beginning was sung. Poetry is older than writing by thousands of years. It was a way of passing on traditions, the stories of the heroes of the people, which also passed on the cultural values from generation to generation. Poets were the keepers and the singers of those stories, and they always held a high position of importance in the community. Music is as old as poetry in that they went together.
This story is about the ancient connection between poetry and music. It is rooted in an experience as ancient as poetry and music as well – the experiences of war. William Smith, the poet, is a Vietnam veteran. He served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division during the bloodiest year of that war, 1968. It was the year of the Tet Offensive that began in late January of that year. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) South Vietnamese rebels, began major offenses up and down the entire length of South Vietnam from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta.
The largest and most costly battles of that war happened during the Tet Offensive. Their names are well known. They took place at small forward combat bases like Khe Sanh, in the old Imperial City of Hue in the I Corps area of South Vietnam, and in dozens of cities, towns, and military bases, both American and South Vietnamese, as well as in the capital city of Saigon.
William Smith was like most of us, just a young kid serving as a grunt with the 25th Infantry Division. His experiences in Vietnam, as such experiences have done throughout human history, would change his life forever. He came home from the horrors of war with the unresolved pains of so many memories of lost friends, of the things he had seen and done in the midst of combat, and living with them has not been easy. Indeed, Smith suffers still from the effects of PTSD that are associated with those memories.
After living with the pains of those memories for decades, Smith turned his memories into a poem. I have written about how writing can be a powerful way of getting the hard stuff, the pains of the mind and the soul, outside of oneself. Words help us define the feelings, the images, that we carry inside of us. They help us give those feelings and images “names.” They become something more concrete when we put them on a blank page and can see them and speak them. Writing helps us to own those feeling, to have some power over them. Was Smith consciously aware of all of these things? Did he know that it would help to get all of that “stuff” out on the page? Maybe not. But he was following a very old tradition in making this poem.
Smith collaborated with a friend, a songwriter, who put his words to music, which, again, whether either Smith or his friend realized it or not, was connected to that ancient marriage of words and music to tell a story and to express its emotional depths. This video will introduce you to both men, and you will hear some short elements of the song and how important it was to both men to have done this together. Maybe it can serve as an inspiration to other veterans by giving them an outlet for their own painful memories. Maybe it can provide a little healing for all who are combat veterans.
The Veterans Site thanks William Smith for his service and for giving us the power of this poem and this song.Whizzco