The next part of our regular countdown of the most popular Parlando Project pieces from last winter will continue soon, but as the world and U. S. consciousness turns increasingly to COVID-19 and pandemic protocols, a question occurred to me.
Many posts and pieces in the earlier years of this blog used for texts vivid pieces about WWI, often written by participants, soldiers in the “The Great War.” And stepping back just one level, there are also poems about the war from folks who didn’t fight in it, but who lost close friends who did. I made the observation then that WWI was the last war to be extensively covered by poets.
Now of course this doesn’t mean that there is no poetry associated with other, later wars. But the WWI connection with poetry was that significant. Most of the era’s great poets, the canon members and chief modernist pioneers wrote war poems. It was that extensive. The Modernist movement had started before the war, but the war made it seem necessary, the proper way to express what it was.*
But as the war was nearing its end, a great and deadly pandemic, the “Spanish” flu of 1918-1919 struck. Statistical estimates say that it killed more people than the World War did. And in America the deaths were next door, not across the ocean.
Yet I can’t think of one great poem about the 1918 flu pandemic,** and when I did a web search today I found very little in minor, overlooked verse too. Those poems may exist, but like the 1918 pandemic itself, they may have found less retrospective honors. Even other literary arts didn’t seem to have a lot of examples. Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider short novel was often brought up, but that frequency of a single novella being mentioned seems to testify that wasn’t a common subject in serious fiction either.
Why could that be? My first working theory is that war has a long history as a poetic subject, going back to Homer or the classical Chinese poets. While illness, and it’s descendent death, is also present in the poetic canon, illness itself is not a long-standing primary subject, and it’s almost always portrayed there as a singular event, not a great widespread event like a war. My second thought is that war is also associated with maleness and the male role, and is therefore the more “serious” subject. And then I thought of a third factor: war, however arbitrary its casualties are in reality, something the Modernist war poets helped illuminate, retained yet in 1918 some sense of a battle of honor, a test of “serious/male” skills where the winner may have won because their righteous cause added to their valor. Pandemics, not so much. As Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor pointed out, there are tendencies to blame the sick person for their fate across history, but parts of us also know that’s not always so. Arbitrariness can be written about in poetry, but that has difficulties. The kind of caring and loss that is more associated with the female role could substitute, but that would mean that that role would need to be honored.
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*American’s native Modernist revolution was ahead of the British, with our modern American poetry lineage going back to Whitman and Dickinson, who like the WWI era modernists had likewise started their work before the trauma of the American Civil War; but at least in the case of Whitman, their trajectory was re-shaped by that war. Though it’s harder for me to find that war in the poetry of Dickinson, others think it’s there, and the events must have had an impact on her.
**The 1918 flu that finished off wounded WWI vet and indispensable French language Modernist pioneer Apollinaire could be said to be present only by implication in Tristan Tzara’s masterful elegy. And that’s presented as a singular death, not part of the great pandemic.