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.
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.
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.
Another short break in the Dave Moore series to present an unabashedly ecstatic poem by E. E. Cummings.
The kind of Modernist poetry we often use here rarely presents itself like this, as the early 20th Century pioneers tended to be a downbeat and skeptical lot, even before the great tribulation of the First World War. Cummings isn’t the only exception, but a poem like this is so extraordinary in its exuberance that it will always stand out.
Lipping flowers…the ecstatic poet’s self-portrait in pencil
As a page poem, “Crepuscule” is laid out on the page in staggered lines sans punctuation, something Cummings may have picked up from Apollinaire, but the syntax isn’t as jumbled as some E. E. Cummings poems. It actually reads fairly easily once I lined-out the dismembered sentences. The images are surreal, though written before official Surrealism, and paradoxical sensations and states come one after another. Can one gather what is happening in the poem beyond the welcoming of sensation and exploration?
Cummings’ “Crepuscule” as a page-poem.
The title is “Crepuscule,” an antique word for twilight, and so the poem is set in that proverbial border time. The poem goes on to either explore sleeplessly and fearlessly in the unknown darkness, or launch itself into the imagination of dreams, which surreally complete and supersede the “mystery of my flesh”—at night exploration, or dreams, at once, indistinguishable.
I didn’t see this until after I finished performing it, but I suspect the poem may have bookended images near the start and at the end, the twilight beginning with the swallowing of the sun, the ending with the moon setting the teeth (on edge) with the metallic bite-taste of the moon.
As sometimes happens when I compose the music for these pieces I find out or remember that others have done this before me. As soon as I saw the title I thought immediately of Thelonious Monk’s instrumental composition “Crepuscule with Nellie” and the idea was planted to use piano in my music for this. I did end up with some piano, but I reverted to guitar, my home instrument, to express the unrelenting long line of this poem that leaps into the bothness moment of twilight.
Embarrassingly, I had forgotten that Björk had performed all but the last part of Cummings’ poem as “Sun in my Mouth” on her album Vespertine. Björk brings big time sensuality to Cummings’ words, bringing out the eroticism that was always there, not just by her commitment to the performance, but by ending on and repeating the “Will I complete the mystery of my flesh” line, bringing fleshiness to the mystery. But this is a poem of the borderline, and the flesh is also hymned to complete a change to something else.
My fearless borderline tonight is presenting this music which would have difficulty reaching the level of originality of Monk or Björk. To hear my performance of E. E. Cummings’ “Crepuscule,” leap into the ripe air by clicking on the player below.
Earlier this month I announced that my performance of Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire” was the most popular piece here last fall. Seeing this, it’s past time to present a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire himself.
If one was to draw a graphical map of the French Modernists of the early 20th Century, corresponding to the English-speaking ones we’ve been talking about a lot here, Apollinaire would be at a central place like Ezra Pound. Apollinaire knew everybody, he influenced everybody; as a critic, he wrote about everybody. Although, like Pound, he held strong opinions about what a more modern art needed, what little I know about how he was experienced as a living artist says that he was also loved by most everybody that he met as well.
Like Tristan Tzara he was an example of a European, though his work was centered in Paris and he wrote largely in French. His mother’s family was Polish or Belarussian, depending on where the borders were drawn at any one time. His father’s background was never definitively known. Born likely in Italy, he had traveled and spent time in several countries, and spoke several languages, before settling in Paris before he was 20.
“Don’t you be L7!” Picasso’s cubist portrait of Apollinaire
In the visual arts, he invented the word Cubism, and he also was the first to call his work Surrealist. He knew modernists in music, like Satie. He knew the young artists, like Picasso, Chagall, Henri Roussseau. Dadaists considered him an influence and a co-conspirator.
In 1913 he published his best-known collection of poetry “Alcools” (Alcool is the French word for alcohol). In it, Apollinaire set out his direction in modern poetry, using various forms, often imbued with contemporary colloquial speech and connections to modern technology and urban life. One tic he adopted in “Alcools:” he dropped the punctuation from his poetry, emphasizing the flow of his words, an effect that could be seen as presaging a modern rapper’s unstoppable flow.
Am I guessing at that? It just so happens, I’m not. On Christmas Eve in 1913, Apollinaire was recorded reading one of the poems from “Alcools:” “Le Pont Mirabeau” (Mirabeau Bridge), and that recording, encrusted though it is with the scratch and noise of time, survives.
So, today’s piece, with my music and my English translation of his words, leads off with Apollinaire’s own reading of his poem in French.
Mirabeau was the longest bridge in Paris when it was built using using new steel-reinforced methods in 1893.
Translating “Mirabeau Bridge” was a challenge. Having heard and been transfixed by Apollinaire’s intensely rhymed and recited version, I had to bend my usual translation approach, which skips any attempt to keep the original “music” (the rhyme and meter) of the poem. And as I look at the many attempts to translate this poem to English, I see most tried to at least rhyme it. The Pogues used a rhymed English translation for a nice sung version a few years back.
As I approached “Mirabeau Bridge,” I whined to my wife: “Richard F’ing Wilbur tried to translate this, and his version is awkward—and Wilbur’s a master of poetics!”
Why do I usually skip trying to rhyme-up translations? It adds a great deal of difficulty to conveying the poem adequately. It almost always leads to awkward English, particularly when you try to follow a rhyme scheme from the French, with many more words that rhyme, using English, whose poetic tradition did not grow out of rhyming. Having been influenced by French poetry at an early age, when trying for similar effects I often use a variety of imperfect and near-rhymes, something an audience may accept or find grating, depending on their tastes, and that’s what I did here, along with a free and not regular rhyming scheme.
Give a listen. Consider it a trip-hop battle between Apollinaire and myself. Respect to Apollinaire. Can’t bust his moves.
It’s time to report the most popular audio pieces posted here over this increasingly busy summer. Before I get to this season’s Top 10 countdown, I want to thank everyone who has listened, followed, liked, or shared our posts and audio pieces on social media or on other blogs. I don’t have time (or perhaps the talents) to do all the promotion that some other blogs do, so it’s the kind words and enthusiastic work that you readers/listeners do that has spread the news about this combination of various words with various music.
Lots of changes from our last Top 10, so let’s get started. There should be a player gadget after each piece on the list, so you can easily hear the audio combining those words with music we create and perform as part of the Parlando Project.
10th place? Turns out it’s a three-way tie for 10, and since the three pieces demonstrate the variety I seek to present here, let’s just dispense with tie-breakers and list all three audio pieces that are tied at number 10..
“Sonnet 18” is, so far, our only Shakespeare selection. Shakespeare is, or course, inescapable, and setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music isn’t a rare thing either, but one of the good things that comes from the Shakespeare phenomenon is that a listener can hear a lot of different takes on one text. I choose to bring out the brag in this one.
“A Summer’s Night” uses a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first widely published Afro-American poet who died tragically young in 1906. A lot of Dunbar’s success during his lifetime was with dialect pieces which he had ambiguous feelings about. He sometimes said that he wished to be known more for his poetic work in standard English, something that “A Summer’s Night” demonstrates.
“On the Troop Ship To Gallipoli” demonstrates a small bit of artistic courage on my part to pay tribute to the real-world courage of Rupert Brooke, who died in service to his country in WWI. The “Great War” redrew the world’s maps, overturned several empires, and it also drew a literary dividing line, as post-war poetry embraced Modernism which made the poetic stylings of Brooke seem decades old only a few years after he wrote them. Those who lived through that time often adapted to the new ideas of modern poetry, but Brooke never had that chance. So, in this piece I recast a late fragment of Brooke’s words as if it was an Imagist poem.
In 9th place, we have “Zalka Peetruza (who was christened Lucy Jane),” which uses a poem by journalist and poet Roy Dandridge, who coincidently like Dunbar, was another Ohio Afro-American. By evidence of this poem, Dandridge deserves to be better known than he is, as it’s a tart observation of the art of getting over while Black, in this case by passing one’s self off as exotic.
8th place goes to a bit of a surprise, my slightly Beefheartian musical setting of two sections of Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons.” Don VanVliet (Capt. Beefheart) and Gertrude Stein were both uncompromising artists who hoed their own rows, so I viscerally made the connection in creating this piece.
7th is Sir Walter Raleigh’s damning litany “The Lie.” It’s a poem I’ve loved since my youth and I don’t think one has to add much musical vengeance to amplify Raleigh’s words. 400 years old, and still pissed off.
6th slot goes to one of my translations, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.” I did this translation a few years ago, and it was intended to be a somewhat freer variation. As I learn more, I think my assumptions on what the poem was getting at were wrong, but this looser version got 20 more listens that it’s more literal translation I also presented here this summer.
Halfway to number 1, at number 5, is Parlando Project alternative reader Dave Moore’s tale “I Was Not Yet Awake.” Dave also plays many of the keyboard parts you hear here, including the organ part on this. “I Was Not Yet Awake” is short for a story, but longer than many pieces we present here. Dave’s story is so well told that it still managed to pick up a lot of listens this summer.
At number 4, dropping down from two straight appearance as number 1, is “Frances,” a teenaged George Washington’s acrostic love poem. That’s still a marvel, as week after week I look at stats and see that it’s still getting listens, long after its appearance here last February.
Top 3 time! In position 3 is “The Death of Apollinaire,” my translation of Dada principal Tristian Tzara’s surprisingly sincere eulogy for the multi-national poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who invented the term “Surrealism” and helped weave together many of the strands of European Modernism before he died from complications of wounds he suffered in WWI.
And in position #2, up one place from 3rd in the last Top 10, is Dave Moore enigmatic song “Love and Money.” It may offer an American answer to the question the Beatles once asked in “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
“The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came…”
Position number 1 is another return, and an even higher rise in the chart due to the large number of listens over this summer: “Adlestrop,” British poet Edward Thomas’ famous moment on train platform on a hot June 24th 1914, were nothing much happens, but everything palpably is.
It’s a much-loved poem for many reasons. Some find extra resonance in the lines describing calmness in the tiny village train stop, the literal calm before the storm of WWI, and that’s a fine thought for those that hold it, but I believe the poem exists beyond those associations. “Adelstop’s” closing lines are sublime even without that particular war, that particular trauma to that specific nation, and as it was, to the ending of the life of its author Thomas, who became another of the poets killed in that war.