There are degrees of literary obscurity. The unjust neglect one writer suffers can seem like renown compared to the utter oblivion that besets another. Weldon Kees (1914-1955) is obscure in that his remarkable poems still do not appear in many anthologies and remain unknown to most academic critics. Yet Kees’s poetry has never been out of print since it was first collected in 1960, and he is fervently admired by many influential poets in both the U.S. and Europe. Radcliffe Squires (1917-1993) is more obscure. His poetry appears in no current anthologies, and there is nothing published about his work beyond its initial reviews except a few remembrances written at the time of his death. Yet any curious reader with Internet access can quickly track down most of his seven volumes of verse and five critical books. He is unknown, therefore, but not unknowable.
The American poet John Allan Wyeth (1894-1980), however, is truly obscure. Compared to him, Kees is William Faulkner and Squires is John Crowe Ransom. Wyeth is not merely a forgotten poet. He was never noticed. Unmentioned in literary histories and critical literature even in his own lifetime, his work appears in no anthologies of any sort—not anywhere, not ever. Several years of research have turned up only a few scraps published about him—a yearbook photograph, three brief obituaries, two passing sentences in Edmund Wilson’s journals, and a 43-word notice in Poetry (Dec. 1932). Why complain about such oblivion? However vast, the Lethean library always has room for more authors. The reason for my protest is simple: Wyeth is the finest American soldier-poet of World War I.
I take no credit for rediscovering Wyeth’s poetry. All I did was recognize its excellence. I would never have seen his work had it not been for the military historian and poet Bradley Omanson, who asked my opinion of the author’s work. Reading the photocopies that Omanson sent me, I felt both pleasure and surprise. Wyeth’s poetry was not only vividly realized; it was unique. Cunningly combining traditional form and modernist methods, realistic narrative and imagistic lyricality, Wyeth was the missing man in the history of 20th century American poetry—an important soldier-poet from the Great War.
Wyeth is not a major poet. His body of work is too small, and his literary ambitions too circumscribed. He lacks the tragic vision and mythic resonance of Wilfred Owen—or even the best of Siegfried Sassoon. But to define the limits of Wyeth’s achievement is not to deny it. Although his poems have an almost documentary quality in their narrative details and language, they remain, 75 years after their publication, fresh and immediate in their impact. He is a powerfully expressive and distinctively individual poet.
There is nothing available on Wyeth or his work. Here are the facts of his life as I have been able to discover them, mostly from school records and family members. John Allan Wyeth Jr. was born in New York City, the third child of a noted surgeon. His father John Allan Wyeth Sr., a former Confederate soldier and published poet, was a founder of New York Polyclinic Hospital and Medical School. Wyeth attended the Lawrenceville School, a private preparatory school in New Jersey, where he was president of the drama club and class poet. In 1911, he entered Princeton, where his literary acquaintances included fellow undergraduate Edmund Wilson, who called Wyeth the “only aesthete” in the Class of 1915. After graduation, Wyeth went on to earn an M.A. from Princeton in 1917. He enlisted later that year in the army to fight in World War I. His fluent knowledge of French led him to an assignment in the Corps of Interpreters with the 33rd Division. By May, 1918, he was in France, and was soon involved in the late battles on the Somme and Verdun. Eventually the 33rd division became part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. Discharged in 1919, Wyeth taught French at St. Paul’s school before quitting to become a painter. In 1932 he began studying with the English painter Duncan Grant. He achieved enough success to have his work exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. He spent much of his life in Europe, though he served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. He resettled permanently in the United States in later life and converted to Catholicism. He never married. (He was almost certainly gay.) He died at age 86 in Princeton.
Wyeth’s literary importance rests solely on one remarkable book of poems, This Man’s Army: A War In Fifty-Odd Sonnets (1928). This striking, naturalistic sonnet sequence chronicles the movements of an American troop division from receiving sailing orders and disembarkation in France through the battles across the Western front. Using slangy dialogue and vivid description, the poems present the war in brief, memorable scenes. Each sonnet begins by creating a narrative scene but ultimately rises to a lyrical conclusion. Wyeth’s poems are also technically innovative. For the book-length sequence, he created a new rhyme scheme based on the Petrarchan sonnet, but better adapted to the paucity of English-language rhymes.
While formal, Wyeth’s language is as fresh, varied, and contemporary as that of most free-verse poets of the period. The syntax alternates between provocative fragments and direct narration. There are no inversions, forced rhymes, or stale diction. (Most of the poetry by our soldiers was written in a traditional Romantic style—as in Alan Seegar’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”) Wyeth’s sonnets have the narrative vitality and stark realism of prose but with the concision and lyricism of poetry. There is nothing quite like This Man’s Army elsewhere in modern American poetry. Taken as a whole, the sequence is comparable in scope and quality to the best British poetry from the Great War. Long forgotten, it deserves careful reassessment. Wyeth never wrote another volume of poetry. This Man’s Army is out of print.
Essay published in 2006. John Allen Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets was reissued by the University of South Carolina Press in 2008.
A related essay by Dana Gioia—”The Unknown Soldier: The Poetry of John Allan Wyeth”—can be downloaded as a PDF from the Hudson Review.