November 11th was first celebrated as Armistice Day, the day that World War I ended 99 years ago. As wars—even World Wars—continued after that war, the day has been pressed into other service. In the United States it’s Veteran’s Day, a day to think of and thank those that served in the armed forces. In the UK and Commonwealth Countries I hear it’s celebrated as Remembrance Day, making it more akin to the US Memorial Day.
Because I like modern poetry, and the most recent poetry I can use freely here is from before 1924, and because we are marking the centennial of World War 1, I’ve performed a lot of things from the the WWI era here, including poems about that war. Since many of you are new to this blog (traffic has grown considerably since this summer) I’m going to take this day to point out a few poems about the experience of soldiering, many of which are written by the veterans themselves.
“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli” has turned out to be one of the most popular pieces here. It’s my adaptation of a fragment written by Rupert Brooke. Brooke was a believer in the British cause in WWI, and this piece comes out of words he wrote shortly before his death of an illness he contracted while on the ship taking him to the front in Turkey. It’s a testament to people willing to put their life on the line for an idea.
“The Trenches St. Eloi” is nearly a dispatch from the front in poetic form. It was written by T. E. Hulme, one of the founders of Imagism and modernist British poetry, though his own poetry is less known than it should be. St. Eloi was a major front in the trench warfare that stagnated for much of WWI. Eventually elaborate tunnels were dug at St. Eloi by Welsh coal miners in hopes of gaining an underground advantage. Hulme was wounded there serving in the British Army, came back to England to heal, and then returned to the war where he was later killed in action.
“South Folk in Cold Country” was published in this form during the time of WWI, but it’s a translation (by Ezra Pound) of a work by classical Chinese poet, Li Bai. In it, the lot of the soldier sounds eerily similar to that Hulme was experiencing a thousand years later. Li Bai is the same poet that Pound used as the source for the more commonly anthologized poem “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Anthologies, and perhaps readers, seem to prefer love poems to poems about war.
“Christ and the Soldier” is by Siegfried Sassoon, who was a decorated hero of Britain’s army in WWI. However, he was at least as courageous in publically taking a stance against the war while still in service. A compromise was reached that he would be treated as a casualty of “shell-shock” at a asylum in Scotland rather than charged with treason or some other serious crime. Sassoon published poetry about the war during the fighting, but this one was held back and was not published until later.
As a break from the gravity of these men’s experience, let’s remember that the experience of soldiering, even in wartime, is not without absurdity. After WWII, several artists had a hit with a spoken word record written and originally performed by T. Texas Tyler called “The Deck of Cards.” And it’s been occasionally revived, slightly revised, for later wars—which is only right, as the original concept of the disreputable deck of cards that symbolizes what is holy goes back to at least the 18th century. The song’s performer usually follows Tyler’s model and says at the end of the piece that they know it’s a true story because “I was that soldier.” Well, Tyler wasn’t from Texas and I’m not even sure he served in the second great war, but its enduring popularity says that the story of a disrespected common man who shows the brass that he’s just as pious and knows a thing or two is just so satisfying. English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock performed a parody of Tyler’s song from a more Dadaist angle a few years back, and this is my version inspired by Hitchcock’s. I’m not a soldier, but the story is true: B. B. King did ride a bicycle out of the Mississippi Delta to Memphis.
Finally, a complete change of mood, and perhaps more in the Remembrance Day or Memorial Day spirit, but here’s Spanish American War veteran Carl Sandburg’s elusive elegy to the peace all wars fail to, “Grass.”