Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?
Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.
So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.
What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.
This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant” can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?
Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.
As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.
My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.
As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.
The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.
In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?
Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.
*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War One, let’s bring in a writer not primarily known as a “war poet,” Thomas Hardy. Hardy is one of those bridge-poets between the era of the romantic and sometimes sentimental Victorian poets and the Modernists. Though I’m told Hardy never felt at ease in London artistic circles (he was country-born, son of a stone-mason and largely educated through apprenticeships as an architect) his poetry was admired by some of the Modernists. Why might that be? While his language can sometimes seem antique to modern ears, it was his language, the language of a rural 19th century working class Englishman. And while he will write about sentimental subjects, he’ll balance that with a cold eye.
The horse-drawn harrowing time of the Breaking of Nations. But what’s that woman doing behind the horse?
Hardy grew up in a rural, farming district, as I did, and it may have been natural for him to relate the violence of the Great War to that setting. And I love how he does it here with three spare quatrains: the boustrophedon horse-drawn disk or rake plow that is literally breaking the earth*, in contrast with the prophetic “Breaking of Nations” warning from Jeremiah used for the title. Then there’s smoke rising, not a razed town after an army has swept through it, “only” the burning of invasive weeds. And finally, a mysterious third stanza with a mysterious word: wight.
It’s an old word, one of those that came to English with the German Saxons centuries ago. Chaucer knew it, used it in The Canterbury Tales, and as best as I can tell it meant a sort of unimposing person or creature. Sometime later, perhaps after Hardy learned the usage of the word and after this poem was written in 1915**, it’s taken on a supernatural connotation. It’s fairly easy to trace that back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the word in The Fellowship of the Ring written decades after Hardy’s poem. Tolkien was a scholar of the ancestor languages of modern English. Did he know of other usages of the word, or did he simply take a very old word and choose to use it for an undead-spirit slain in battle?
So, in this last stanza, what does Hardy mean by his whispering maid and “her wight.” A flirting young couple? Are they whispering merely to shield their romantic bantering from others? Or is it something weirder? Is this a young woman whose man is off to battle, or even one of the battle-dead? Or, as part of Hardy’s theme are they both immortal ever-returning spirits, whispering because you only barely sense them in our time-bound world?
I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge to know how depopulated the farming areas of England were by the need for soldiers during WWI. From Edward Thomas’ poem from last month, “Gone, Gone Again” I get the idea that the absence of farming men was noticeable. And it was at least enough of an issue that England formalized an effort to recruit and train women as replacement farm labor.
Not just whispering to her boyfriend. “There’s not enough labour at hand to cultivate sufficient land to keep people from starvation.” Recruitment ads for the Women’s Land Army in England during World War I.
Well, I just like it that this is blurred. Do the final two lines give us any clues? Why does Hardy say that “War’s annals will cloud into night?” In early drafts, Hardy wrote “fade,” and “cloud” seems a more peculiar choice. In the context of the 2nd stanza weed-burning, I’m thinking he’s saying they will disappear in a cloud of smoke. Also in context of the 2nd stanza, this would make such war records in some future as valueless as weeds, but smoke/cloud again reiterates that there’s something unsubstantial about the couple.
“In the Time of the Breaking of Nations” demonstrates a lot of what I like about short lyric poetry. T. S. Eliot could write a Modernist masterpiece like “The Wasteland” extending to the farthest lengths of lyric expression, 15,000 words—but a poem like this can touch a lot in its 63 words.
It may not be apparent due to the instrumentation used, but I might have been subconsciously inspired by Bob Dylan’s repeating chord progression used for his masterful three-short-stanza song “All Along the Watchtower,” which is very much in the same mode as Hardy’s poem.
Here is my performance of Hardy’s poem. Use the player below.
*Note too, Hardy’s pun on “harrowing.” For another discussion of boustrophedon plowing and time, see this earlier post. Near the end of his life, while visiting a farming museum, my father wanted me and his grandson to know that he’d walked behind a horse-drawn plow.
It’s 1956. World War One had ended less than 40 years ago, instead of 100. Robert Frost is the most celebrated living American poet, and he has traveled back to England to receive honors from both Oxford and Cambridge universities, a symbolic laurel helping to mark the 20th Century acceptance of American poetry into the pantheon of our polyglot language.
Two elderly women follow an invitation to an upstairs to-do in London, where the American poet has just landed. Eleanor Farjeon is one of the pair, then 75 years old, and here’s how she described what happened:
We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. ‘It’s Helen and Eleanor, Robert.’ He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little…. Robert muttered, ‘Well, well, well.’ Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren.
Who are these ladies that broke off the tête-à-tête between the two Modernist poetic titans?
One was the widow of Edward Thomas, the man who Robert Frost called “the only brother I ever had.” The other was the woman who had introduced Edward Thomas to Frost in 1913, Eleanor Farjeon. The poet Edward Thomas is not well known outside of Britain, Farjeon even less so, but none-the-less she had a long and varied literary career as a poet, playwright, children’s book author, and songwriter in a life that spanned from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carnaby Street.
Eleanor Farjeon early and late in her life
Back just before and after the outbreak of WWI, the Frost Family, the Thomas Family, and Eleanor Farjeon were a sort of an extended pod of friendship and affiliations. The Thomas marriage had strains, and Farjeon was in love with Edward Thomas. Thomas’ spouse, Helen, surprisingly cast Eleanor Farjeon not as a rival but as a balm to Edward. And so, between her own writing, and typing manuscripts to help D. H. Lawrence (also hanging around this circle*) Farjeon, like Robert Frost, took to accompanying Edward Thomas on his indefatigable walks around the countryside.
Eleanor Farjeon was still a literary stem cell at the time. She later said “In my youth I dreamed of being a ‘real’ poet, but half way through my life that dream died, and whatever figments of it remained went into writing songs** and verses for children.”
When Edward Thomas decided to enlist and volunteer for the front lines in the war, the pod all shared correspondence with Thomas, a correspondence that continued right up to the very week of Thomas’ battle-death. And after that, they all shared the task of putting his literary affairs in order and promoting the poetry of the man who had only started writing it during that short pre-war period.
Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon both wrote elegies for Edward Thomas. It may surprise you, but I’m choosing to use Farjeon’s memorial sonnet here to cap off our Armistice Day series on Edward Thomas, instead of Frost’s poem. Farjeon might have thought of herself as not a “real” poet, but it’s us, the audience, that decides. Her poem may seem to be made of genteel English stuff: gardens, Easter eggs, love tokens, so that it has the patina of an antique valentine—but that’s just the surface. How about those relentless repetitions? You can hear James Joyce or Gertrude Stein tuning up in the distance if you listen for those. Did she mean the punning subtext of the repeated “Eve” with the repeated apples? If this were a Joyce poem we’d assume yes, so why not here? And that surface? It’s a paper scrim she means to tear, to rip—and yet when she does it in the last line, there’s no sound, only an invisible gap, an understated “apology”.
Here is what Eleanor Farjeon said, shortly before her own death, writing again about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost when recounting her last, 1956 meeting with Frost in the company of Thomas’ widow: “We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them.”
Here’s my performance of Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)” that you can hear using the player below.
*Sounds a bit unconventional for an Edwardian village in 1913 doesn’t it—but any bets on who did the housework?
**And it’s in this guise that Farjeon is likely to be best known in the U. S. Back in 1972, three denizens of that Sixties London: Cat Stevens (later Yusef Islam), Rick Wakeman (later caped-keyboardist of Prog Rock fame) and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer and former bass-player with the Yardbirds) created an arrangement of Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken” for a best-selling LP and eventual #6 hit single on the Billboard U.S. charts.
In my roundup of World War One War Poets earlier this week for the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day, I only mentioned Edward Thomas in passing. He shares the military service and the battle-related death of the others, but his writing about the war is different. Though he was working on notes that could lead to poems during his short front-line service, I’m unaware of any Thomas poems that tell of his experiences of battle. Many of his poems instead deal, intentionally, or inherently in their time’s context, with the change in norms that the war brought.
A poem like his much loved “Adlestrop,” if read in the context of the war’s coming outbreak, speaks even more intensely of the peace and unnoticed wonder that pauses in the muddle of an unscheduled train delay.
“Adlestrop” doesn’t mention the war though, and it’s based on one of Thomas’ journal entries from before the war. On the other hand, a poem like his “Gone, Gone Again” speaks intentionally and masterfully about the changes in his beloved countryside “before the war began turning young men to dung.” His highly condensed “In Memoriam, Easter 1915” is another that intends to mark the war’s changes.
Edward Thomas, a British nature poet that events bent into a War Poet
If you look at a continuum* from his “In Memoriam” through today’s “The Owl” to “Gone, Gone Again” you can see a journey from a short and moving, though impersonal, elegy/pastoral through “The Owl’s” introduction of a linkage of his own corporal experience to those on the front, and concluding with the even more personal and aching conflation of his own state with his country’s situation in “Gone Gone Again.” For this reason, I’m going to put the audio player gadgets for all three in the post today, so that you can follow Edward Thomas’ journey as he decided as a middle-aged family man to enlist—volunteering for the front-lines, and his eventual death.
Here’s “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)” as Thomas begins to weigh the costs of war.
And this is today’s new addition, “The Owl.” It’s not important to the poem, but the pendant in me wanted to know what species of owl Thomas heard. England helpfully has fewer species of owl than North America, so it must have been a male tawny owl, as the other candidate, the barn owl, has a screechy call that couldn’t have been cast as melancholy.
And finally, here’s “Gone, Gone Again.”
*I don’t actually know what order that Thomas wrote them, or even if “The Owl” was written before the war, as some particulars of the journey he describes echo the book he wrote about a bicycle tour he took from the suburbs of London to the border of Wales in 1913. But for performance reasons, seeing the three poems as a narrative seemed defensible to me, or at least no more anachronistic as having the artificial tang of Mellotron strings and flutes to stand in again for England in the music.
As we enter the week in which we note the ending of World War One a century ago, I want to call attention to some the ways we’ve shown poets wresting with that war in their own time. It’s a longer post, but each one of these pieces presents something different for Armistice Day.
I didn’t start out to feature the WWI generation here. I first intended to include more modern poets’ words, but to do so I would have needed to try to negotiate the issue of finding the copyright holders and getting them to respond to requests for permission when I thought I’d located them. That turned out to be frustrating.
This left me with the pre-1923 generation, the original Modernists, as the most recent voices I could consistently present. Like many limitations this brought an unexpected return. This generation’s members were the pioneers in the new poetic voice that I had to deal with as a young man and young writer, and to some degree we’re still dealing with them now. Even the basic and incontrovertible truth that the majority of published poetry has been free verse in my lifetime is not some inevitable thing, someone had to suggest and prove its efficacy. And the kind of imagery we take for granted as allowed or desirable in literary poetry? That too is their doing.
WWI did not start Modernism. Americans and the French were experimenting with many of its tactics as early as the mid-19th century, and British Modernism was already emerging before 1914. But the events of WWI bent the development of Modernism by their tremendous gravitational pull. Sometimes directly, by poets and artistic allies who were killed, but also by propounding the idea that the established artistic order was incapable of describing the world of the first world war or it’s aftermath. Pre-WWI Modernists writing in English could be straightforward and modest in their poetry. They often valued shorter forms that assumed the elaboration would occur in the minds of readers rather than in endless lines on the page. Post-WWI, the longer poem and much more elaborate and opaque imagery came to the forefront, and the form of the irrational became a large part of the reflected world, even for writers outside the movements like Dada and Surrealism that were formed around that.
It’s been an adventure here reliving those changes. Some of the Parlando Project’s most popular pieces have come from that WWI moment, and here are the six most popular WWI poems we’ve presented here.
6. Christ and the Soldier. Siegfried Sassoon seems to have been somewhat superseded by his friend Wilfred Owen as the representative British War Poet of the anti-war stripe. Owen may have “benefited” by dying in the war, rather than having the long career that Sassoon had. Sassoon was a highly decorated veteran of the trenches when he started to publicly oppose the war, and this lead to the danger that he could have been charged with treason, and a weird compromise was worked out where he was treated instead as a man suffering from mental illness caused by the war instead of being put up on trial, the kind of outcome that Joseph Heller would have relished writing of decades later. “Christ and the Soldier” is not politically anti-war, but it’s stark, darkly-humorous, and yet serious account struck me from the first time I read it. As WWI poems go, it deserves to be much better known.
You probably haven’t heard this one, so use the player below.
5. These Fought. Ezra Pound did not fight in WWI. Pound was an American living in England, which would have complicated his enlistment before and after America’s entry into the war, but in either case a determined man could have overcome those obstacles. Pound’s friend, and co-founder of English Modernist verse in the years leading up to the war, the lesser-known Englishman T. E. Hulme, enlisted, as did others in his wide circle of acquaintances. So, when this post-war poem was published, excoriating the waste and propaganda of the war years, it was in the context of a longer poem that it’s only a section of, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” In the entire poem, Pound, who’s personality seems to have been a strange mixture of generosity and egotism, stubbornness and self-admonishment, also charges himself with failing to decisively deal with the titanic issues of the war. I’d muse that this sounds like survivor’s guilt is mixed in with the contempt for the war stated after the fact. In Pound’s case, his self-correction found him supporting his next foreign home, Fascist Italy, against his native country’s side during the next World War. Ironically, this lead, like Sassoon, to the compromise of “Well, maybe he’s a traitor, but let’s treat him as crazy.”
Still, as a piece of invective, and as a condensed statement of art’s challenges in dealing with monstrous events, I have to hand it to Ezra for his set of words. Pound helped “popularize” the use of phrases from many languages in High-Modernist English language poems, much to the benefit of footnote writers, and in “These Fought” he drops a variation on the same Latin phrase used by Wilfred Owen in Owen’s best-known anti-war poem: “Pro patria, non dulce non et decor” in Pound, “Dulce et decorum est” in Owen. In either case, the Latin phrase, from Roman poet Horace, is about it being sweet and proper to die for one’s country, and neither the veteran Owen or the non-veteran Pound meant to endorse that phrase when they used it. In our 21st century world, large portions of proper Americans would agree with Horace’s original thought, and take umbrage with Pound, or possibly even Owen denying its validity—yes, I could see that being charged against even Owen who gave his life, however sweet or properly.
The gadget to hear Pound’s rant about the waste of it all is below.
This large American military cemetery engraved Horace’s maxim in 1915. And whether for solidarity, guilt, or respect for duty, many will endorse it still. Some will stand by it with their lives not just a chisel.
4. Trenches St. Eloi. Another poem by a front-line veteran of WWI, one who didn’t survive the war, and a man who was important enough to the founding of English language Modernist poetry that his war death might have alterned post-war Modernism to some degree. T. E. Hulme helped form Pound’s own views on how poetry should “make it new,” and was admired as well by T. S. Eliot, but his own poetry is now little-known because of its sparseness in number and length. Though he was known as a pugnacious talker in person, and was a writer of audacious criticism, his surviving poems have a shocking modesty about them, something I find quite admirable. Though he wrote dispatches to English home-front periodicals during his service (from those I’ve read, they support the English cause) this is his only poem about his experience of the war itself, and it was composed, or rather transcribed, while he was back in England being treated for battle wounds before going back to the front and his death.
To hear Hulme’s ode to soldierly persistence, use the player below.
3. The Death of Apollinaire. Speaking of influential casualties of the war, Guillaume Apollinaire, must be right up there. The man coined the names “cubism” and “surrealism” after all, and his verse influenced not only countless French poets, but Americans like E. E. Cummings. The exact cause of Apollinaire’s death is open to attribution. He was still weakened by war wounds when he was struck down by the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic just two days before the end of WWI. The poem used here is a surprisingly sincere elegy written by a frank shirker of military service, Tristan Tzara, who as a teenager fled the tinderbox of the Balkans where the world war started for neutral Switzerland, where he participated in the invention of Dada at the famous Cabaret Voltaire. Dada had no respect for the pieties of the warring parties, but Tzara’s respect for Apollinaire comes through in my original translation of his poem.
Thinking of Hulme and Apollinaire as front-line soldiers in WWI makes me pause and wonder at the differences in my own time. Can you imagine John Lennon and Bob Dylan serving as grunts in Vietnam? Or Damon Albarn and Jay Z being deployed to Iraq? Of course, there are differences in poet/critics and pop-stars however artistic the songwriters are, but still it’s a different world, and Modernist artists both reflected and helped to form it.
To hear my performance of my own new translation of Tzara’s poem about Apollinaire’s death in the autumn of victory, use the player gadget below.
2. Grass. Carl Sandburg didn’t serve in WWI. He was a Spanish American War vet however. His personal position on WWI is somewhat hard to figure. He was writing for the stalwartly anti-war IWW under a pseudonym and explicitly supporting there the radical IWW line that the war was the Capitalist class enjoying their profits in a cage match between the working people/cannon fodder of both sides. Yet also during the war he wrote pro-war pieces under his own name, taking the same stance as some other parts of the US left: that the Central powers were evil empires lead by ruthless kings that needed to be defeated by the democracies Britain, France and the U. S. In 1918, Sandburg published “Grass” and attempted to synthesize both sides of Sandburg.
“Grass” is sometimes considered a straightforward patriotic poem, a reverent poem about the ultimate sacrifice of veterans, and if read in such a context no one is likely to object. But listen closely. Even though he echoes Whitman’s leaves of grass metaphor, even if you may find it next to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” in some presentation of poems about honored war dead where we might be implored to “Take up our quarrel with the foe!” One might even too-quickly think it’s akin to what Sandburg’s hero Lincoln would say in his Gettysburg Address, that we “cannot forget what they did here.” But, Sandburg’s poem’s point is literally the opposite of Lincoln’s: that we will forget what they did here.
How completely true is that forgetfulness as we approach the centenary of the end of WWI? A discussion point.
You could read “Grass” as an antiwar poem, saying that “It doesn’t matter how important and glorious they tell you the cause you are fighting for is, because the same or equivalent crowd will run things afterward and what you thought you were fighting for will be forgotten.” Speaking of WWI, 50 years after it started, Sandburg admirer Bob Dylan could sing “The reasons for fighting, I never did get.”
I just got done earlier this fall performing Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob,” In that poem, Sandburg makes a subtle point. That thing the leftish political vanguard often bemoans about “the people,” that they forget the injustices committed against their best interests, is in fact how they’ve managed to survive and endure. If they remembered their defeats, their sacrifices, they might not go on, they could be immobilized in grief and despair. Is Sandburg saying the same thing in “Grass?” Is he saying “I was never sure if this was the rich man’s war fought with working man’s blood, or a war to save democracy. It’s over now and the rich and powerful will forget us as unimportant. Or perhaps it was a struggle so our imperfect democratic governments can continue in a long battle to perfect themselves, but that in the end is what we need to concentrate on.”
To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s elegy to soldiers graves, use the player below.
1. On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli. These most-popular-here WWI pieces I feature today: it’s a rather downbeat outlook, even Hulme’s piece is not the sort of thing to inspire sacrifice for one’s country. Pound’s rant openly doubts the beliefs of some that did, and is unequivocal on the base motives of those who lead his host country in the war. WWI war poets did write poems that supported the war effort. A personal favorite of mine, Edward Thomas, volunteered and died at the front with a deep belief in the nobility of service that overwhelmed his suspicion of the war’s rationale. Pete Seeger’s uncle, Alan Seeger, wrote his fatalistic but heroic “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Another well-known poem in this mode is British poet Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” If one believes that any active deity must have a dark comic streak, Brooke dying of an infected mosquito bite while steaming to the front lines of one of the most horrific battles of the war could be part of your testimony.
Pound once had to explain that when he was critical of Brooke’s poems he was speaking of their old-fashioned prosody, not his character. When I saw this fragment found in Brooke’s journal after his death I saw an opportunity. What if Brooke’s observation of his fellow soldiers on their way to battle could be shaped to express itself in the mode that Modernists like Pound, Hulme, or Sandburg would have used? You can see the edits I made here, and listen to my performance of my setting of it with the player below.
We’re entering a month in which Veterans Day will be celebrated with additional ceremony, because the 11th will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of the first world war. Earlier in the blog I remarked that World War 1 was the last war which was substantially narrated to us by poets.
That’s so for a complex set of reasons. Modernism, arising before the outbreak of the war, sought to revive a fresh poetry shorn of worn-out imagery and obligatory practices. The war brought both the old poetry and the new Modernist ideas into a great deadly laboratory to test their efficacy. The comfort of the old poetic music survived this test, but it was gravely wounded. The new practices were not exactly proved either, such was the horror and absurdity of the war. Indeed, the post war Modernism that came out the other end of the war’s meat grinder was oddly often much more obscure and seeking after esoteric tactics.
To a large degree, the post-WWI era marks an off-ramp for poetry. 20th century poetry emphasized the language of aesthetics and philosophy that might employ music to sweeten its sound, rather than the music of words that might employ philosophy as one of its harmonies. Eventually, by our current century, it turned again, and it is now largely about memoir and the establishment and explanation of personal identity.
World War 1 broke poetry, and in it’s wake, the Modernists ascendant decided the shards better reflected reality than some dusty Grecian Urn.
Any of these schemes can work (and not work) artistically, but there is a sort of hierarchy of needs and audience here. The old poetry was more universal, the post WWI High-Modernism the most exclusionary, and our current poetry can result in a multitude of voices crying “I’m here!” to the exclusion of “I see you!”
If one sets aside modern literary poetry, the old poetry still survives. One place you might find it is in the library that some carry about in their heads: memorized poetry. How rare is that today? I cannot say, but I can recall late in the last century, observing Garrison Keillor offering some prize (an autographed book? a T-shirt? I can’t recall the exact prize) to anyone in an admiring crowd who could recite a poem of more than 8 lines. I recall no one taking him up on that offer. Poetry started with those libraries in our heads, and we have the Iliad, the Odyssey and other ancient poetic epics because of prodigious memorization before writing. It isn’t just the noise from our glowing palm screens, or giant TVs that numbed this out of us, it started with the silent racket of all those printed books that call us to read them. Memorization seems a mooted point.
Can you pick out the veteran in this picture?
But returning to that portable library in our heads, and returning da capo to where we started. Somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century, a U.S. Navy pilot was captured and imprisoned by the forces of the country they were bombing. Their captors were none-too-restrained in their treatment of their prisoners, torture and physical abuse was part of that; but in-between that and the constant lack of control that all prisoners face, the prison was made up of small solitary cells with deliberate and extraordinary limits on communication between the prisoners. The design was to break their will, not just their bodies.
The captured pilot was John McCain, who survived this and later went on to a long political career, but one thing that he said helped him persevere in his prison was another captured pilot teaching him a poem by Robert W. Service, essentially loaning out a book from the library of one prisoner’s head to the other. And the method of doing this was painstaking: a pseudo-Morse-code of taps on the wall of the cell that the prisoners devised.
Robert W. Service poems would fit well into taps, as his marching poetic feet can make one tap involuntarily—and the rhymes and narratives give a good structure to assist memorization too. Of course, this was a war prison, it wasn’t a graduate class in Modernist poetry, and if any of the prisoners might have known T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” they might have skipped it if they couldn’t add the famous published edition’s footnotes in tap codes.
Other than Service’s poetic aids to memorization that let his poetry be present in these solitary cells without possessions, another reason that it should be a poem of his that helped these prisoners endure is that some of Service’s best-known poems are about fatalistic endurance leavened by dark humor. Service’s poetry wasn’t just available without paper, it shared an outlook that helped sustain the prisoners.
Canadian poet Robert W. Service, not essaying a look that Leonard Cohen would own up to.
So that’s one veteran’s story from a war, decades after WWI. Here’s another.
While McCain was imprisoned, another Navy veteran went into a studio in New York City and recorded an LP of Robert W. Service poems set to music.* While Service’s pre-war “Canadian Kipling” poetic style hadn’t changed, the outlook of the poems used in this record included Service’s rage at the horror and lies of WWI. Robert W. Service didn’t become a Modernist poet, but he showed in these poems the same WWI impact that broke other pre-war poetic outlooks.
The veteran in this case was “Country Joe” McDonald, and even if these Service poems talked distinctly of WWI and the British, French and Canadian experience of it, McDonald no doubt intended it to reflect on the then ongoing war in Vietnam. Of course, there were poems written after the WWI era about war, and McDonald had already tossed off one of the most famous Vietnam war songs himself: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.**” And yet, here he was, drawn to these poems about World War I to express something decades later.
For our audio piece today, here’s a Robert W. Service poem, “The Lone Trail,” more from the endurance side of the poet, performed by Dave Moore with the LYL Band. Here’s the player to listen to it:
*The record War, War, War largely draws on Service’s Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man which was published in 1916. McDonald’s record is a true solo record, just acoustic 12-string guitar, vocals, a bit of harmonica, and some foot-stomping; a straightforward, earnest, and harrowing collection. Parlando Project voice Dave Moore owned that LP, part of the reason he performed today’s Robert W. Service piece.
**McDonald later tells the story of hearing that not only did the North Vietnamese appropriate his song for propaganda broadcasts meant for the U.S. troops, but they even piped it into that POW camp in Hanoi. In the story McDonald heard, the soldiers, and even the prisoners, would laugh. His analysis: the French-educated Vietnamese “Never understood…an American sense of humor.”