Words of Horror in “Song of Napalm”
“Song of Napalm” by Bruce Weigl is meant to express the horrors seen by soldiers during war and how the witnessed events affect them for the rest of their lives. This poem deals with a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it shows how a common event can invoke memories of the tragedies he witnessed. The goal of the poet is to show the readers how terrifying these events can be twenty years later. In the poem, a thunderstorm forces a Vietnam veteran to recall a horrible memory. During the war he witnessed a girl burned alive by napalm. This terrible image haunts his mind and dreams. The memory is described to the readers in great detail as the narrator relives it. The poem is powerful because it is able to share the terror of the narrator with the readers. Weigl achieves this by using words with powerful meanings, both literally and figuratively. “Song of Napalm” is an effective poem because it contains words that impose a state of fear and urgency upon the reader.
Certain words are very effective in setting an urgent tone for a poem or story. In “Song of Napalm” the word storm is used to do this. In the poem, the storm causes the narrator to recall the horrible scene of the burning girl. The very first line of the poem tells the reader the storm was over. This should lead to a scene of serenity, but the narrator's attitude contains worry and dread. He is beginning to recall his war memories, and he knows the feeling as they manifest. A storm is a weather phenomenon consisting of rain, thunder, lightning, wind, and sometimes snow. It is a natural event, but storms are known for being dangerous, loud, and depressing to some. Many people are afraid of storms, especially children and superstitious people. The scary qualities of a storm have caused the word storm to be used to describe other things that cause similar feelings in people. In this poem, the word storm can also describe the war in which the narrator fought. Another common use of the word storm describes a flurry of thoughts and feelings. In the poem, the narrator experiences a storm of emotions and memories. Weigl chose to use the word storm because it implies a sense of danger and urgency. Other words for similar weather include cloudburst, downpour, or gale. These words do not imply an immediate sense of danger like “storm” does.
Colors are a very effective way to imply hidden meaning. The human mind reacts in a certain way to every color. It is easy to associate certain thoughts, actions, and emotions with a certain color. Lines 10 and 11 say, “The grass was never more blue in that light, more scarlet (Weigl).” Weigl picks these two colors because of the emotions they imply. The color blue implies depression and loneliness, emotions felt by the narrator as he tried to fight off the war memories. Scarlet is a very interesting word for Weigl to use. Scarlet is a shade of red, a color that in nature and in modern civilization implies danger. Red tells the readers that the narrator was frightened. Why would Weigl use scarlet instead of red or ruby to describe the pasture? The word scarlet implies two things. Scarlet hints of the importance of fire in the poem because scarlet is commonly called the color of flame. By using the word scarlet in describing the pasture, Weigl foreshadows the fire and pain that the narrator witnesses. The other important meaning is that scarlet is commonly used to describe the color of fresh blood. This hints to the bloody memories that the narrator experiences. It also refers to the spilling of innocent blood by both sides during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was a horrible human tragedy and has been the subject of countless novels, movies, and poems. The war is remembered for the protests surrounding it, the lack of public support, and the horrors the soldiers experienced in the jungles of Vietnam. In “Song of Napalm” Weigl uses the word jungle to describe the location of the narrator's memories. The word is best understood when read in the complete sentence, found in lines 30 through 34, which says, “I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings beat inside her until she rises above the stinking jungle and her pain eases, and your pain, and mine (Weigl).” Literally, the word jungle describes the location where the memory took place. By definition, a jungle is a very dense forest, populated with much vegetation and many animals. That accurately describes much of Vietnam. In today's culture the word jungle is used to describe any place or situation that has no rules or laws. The word jungle tells the reader that there is chaos and anarchy. The term “jungle law” has become popular lately. It describes a place where the strongest have the most power. This is exactly what the country of Vietnam was. It was a jungle in both geographical terms and in social terms. The war only added to the chaos in the country. Weigl used the term jungle to describe Vietnam instead of a similar word such as rainforest or wilderness because jungle implies lawlessness and violence, unlike the other possible choices.
When reading “Song of Napalm”, the reader feels the horror of the narrator and the heat of fire because of the descriptive words used in the story. Bruce Weigl picked certain words such as storm, scarlet, and jungle to place a feeling of urgency and chaos to his poem. The reader understands that these words have deeper meanings than just the literal interpretation. Understanding these hidden meanings leads to a heightened alertness and feeling of fear when reading the poem. This is an indication that Weigl meant to use these certain words to help convey his message of the horror felt by Vietnam veterans.
Weigl, Bruce. "Song of Napalm." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Education/Longman, 2009. 1188-1189. Print.