The Prisoners Of War Analysis

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"The Prisoners of War,” a relatively short poem by Tom Disch, written in 1972, is riddled with

imagery and deeper meaning. Even in the opening line, Disch cuts to the point. “Their language

disappeared a year or so after the landscape: so what can they do now but point?” (line 1-3).

Here it does not take much to get an interpretation. He is saying that our society has lost

something. We have lost our “language,” meaning our ability to have intimate face-to- face

conversations. That language, he says, disappeared after the “landscape,” which is a reference to

the rapid urbanization, loss of natural areas, and increasing percentage of the population shifting

toward city life. The loss of which has propelled our lives into ever increasingly
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However, if put into context, his feelings are substantially

more understandable because it was written in the 1970’s which were a time of monumental

changes, technological discoveries, and economic hardships. Not to mention that the first half of

the decade was also the tail end of the war in Vietnam.

Initially referenced in the title of the poem, “The Prisoners of War,” alludes to the Vietnam

war, which ended only three years after Disch wrote this poem. Throughout, both the country’s

social upheaval and turmoil due to the war, are strong themes. Toward the end, “at moments that

may still suggest such concepts as “Civilization” or “Justice” or “Terror,” (line 9-10), there is a

feeling of hopelessness. Earlier he spoke of the lost “language,” here he says that there are still

glimpses of goodness and real emotion not clouded by the haze of war and chaos. He is saying

that the country’s population has collectively become “Prisoners of War” because of the impact

that it had on, not only the military and soldiers, but also the entire nation. Even though it was

not fought on our soil, it impacted an entire generation and its posterity.

In the last two lines, “and at ourselves, those still alive, who stand before what might
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Following the

theme of the war, he talks about, “those still alive” (line 11), where he mourns the loss of life

from the deadly war, but at the same time, does not sound grateful to be left behind. There is a

loneliness to his words here. The door is a metaphor for what could have been had something (or

somethings) gone differently. The “year” is most likely a figurative length of time that

encompasses the entirety of the war.

Something to note about Disch’s work here is the structure, or lack thereof. The entire poem is

twelve lines long and has no end rhyme. Most of the poem is a list of things that the languageless

Maris Kenny

CRW 1301

Close Reading 3

September 23, 2016

people point at: “at parts of bodies, at what they want to eat, at instrument panels, at new

highways and other areas of intense reconstruction, at our own children smiling into cameras,”

(line 3-7). Despite the lack of rhyme there is a flow and overall melodic feel. The layers

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