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Having an epiphany about Edgar Allan Poe


Passing from the ranks of 'undesirables' to the front line
Richard Wilbur Poet
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At that time when I was training at Camp Edison in New Jersey to be a cryptographer, we were often shown films which were meant to let us know why we were in the war. They were indoctrination films, so-called. There was a splendid one, which had been directed by Frank Capra, and the message of it was simply this: we should have stopped them in Spain. Now, that's what they were telling us in indoctrination, but you were not supposed to walk out of the movie and say on the company street that we should have stopped them in Spain. They wanted you to absorb the lesson but not be vigorously political. And because I shot my mouth off a little too much about politics, I found myself thrown out of cryptographic training, sent to a camp for undesirables in North Western Pennsylvania, and then shipped overseas as a general replacement.

After a time - I won't describe the entire journey - but after a time I found myself in a huge hippodrome near Naples, the Hipodromo Daniamo, where soldiers were being placed in this or that unit. I was about to be sent into a line company I think without ever having been trained with a Girand rifle. That alarmed me a little and happily one day as I was on my way to volunteer for the paratroops, because they would have given me some training, I was summoned to talk with Captain Charles Wingo of the 36th Division Signal Company. And I've since turned my interview with Captain Wingo into a kind of a Vaudeville turn, but it did go somewhat like this. Mr Wingo, Captain Wingo had my service record in front of him, and he said, 'It says here you want to overthrow the government'. And I said, 'No sir, I do not'. And he said, 'All right. Well, one of our cryptographers just went crazy. We need a cryptographer, we'll take you in, but if we catch you overthrowing the government, out you go'.

So, from that point on I was in the 36th Division and went with them to Monte Cassino and Anzio, the Southern France invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. I was lucky to find myself amongst Texans. Most of the people I served with in the 36th Division were east Texas country boys and they were very good soldiers. They were also wonderfully playful in their language. They made up new ways of saying things, all the time. They never cussed twice in exactly the same way, and as somebody who was going to turn out to be a writer, I found it stimulating to serve with people for whom language was a lot of fun.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: New Jersey, World War II, Spain, Pennsylvania, Naples, Montecassino, Battle of the Bulge, France, Frank Capra

Duration: 4 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008