For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”
So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.
For the most part, the poems I’ve used so far would not pass as journalism. Owen and Sassoon use fantasy to illustrate the war’s folly. Pound, Tzara, and Sandburg tell of the subjective emotional impact of the war’s losses. But Brooke’s fragment has the power of a closely observed diary entry, and T. E. Hulme comes closest so far to a straightforward war dispatch with his compressed account of the front at St. Eloi.
Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.
Besides being present at the birth of Modernist English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another Modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.
Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.
1915 reactions to the London Zeppelin raids of World War I
It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time.
Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.
In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,” documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.
Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?
Later that same 20th century, my first drum machine.
In writing and performing the music for Flint’s “Zeppelins,” I wanted to lean toward Techno a bit. I avoid drum machines these days and work hard to humanize my beats on most pieces. Back in the 20th Century I used machine beats, they were all I could afford, and now in the 21st, no matter how skillfully deployed, they remind me of those crudely resolved sounds, a make-do. My 12 year old son however enjoys them, the blippiest tracker pieces or a SID chip 8-bit beats please him with their antique charm. Then listening to Weekes new single this weekend reminded me of that charm (and made me wish I could sing better). So I gave it a go.
You hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins” right here with the embedded player below. Something about those later 20th Century sounds just seemed right for an early 20th Century piece to me.