Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut during this week that will mark the 99th anniversary of his birth allows two things to cross and connect, for he was born in 1922 on what would have been called Armistice Day then and will be called Veteran’s Day tomorrow in the US. Two decades later as a 20-year-old, he enlisted in the Army, served in WWII, and was rather famously a prisoner of war incarcerated in the German city of Dresden when it was subject to a massive firebombing raid from his own side.
As one might imagine that experience impressed itself mightily on Vonnegut, who as a writer eventually dealt with the matter in his best-known novel Slaughterhouse Five. But that was not his first novel to deal with WWII. That would be 1962’s Mother Night.
The short plot summary for Mother Night is that it concerns the story of an American who was in Nazi Germany during the war, and who tells us that all-the-while working with American undercover efforts he made fulsome fascist propaganda broadcasts. This situation gives us all kinds of resonances: with important American Modernist Ezra Pound for example,* with America’s own fascists, and with anyone who has ever found themselves working (for whatever reason) with a cause that they themselves feel they are not in alignment with.
The novel’s protagonist wrote “The Great Machine” in the novel as a poem explaining how he and his beloved German wife had done what they felt was necessary to survive, and once again the novelist while in character allowed Vonnegut license to write poetry.
Abstracted from the novel, and as a stand-alone poem, it mentions nothing of the fascist double-life theme of Mother Night however. Heard in this way, as the LYL Band performed it during the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, “The Great Machine” speaks instead to refugees trying to escape violent situations by whatever means they can muster. In such events it’s not uncommon for the “you really must understand” class of commentators to mention that the refugees should not be fleeing but should stay and try to counter the violence in their own countries. I don’t know if it’s absolutely required, but such commentators almost never seem to have been in similar situations themselves. In the saddest reportage in Vonnegut’s poem, it says that most people do not, in fact, flee in these situations, but ignorantly or fatalistically accept becoming victims of The Great Machine that is History.
After our first two installments of our Vonnegut series it’s gotten darker here, but you can hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem found in a novel with the player gadget below, or by clicking this highlighted hyperlink.
*Living during the war in Italy, Pound (who had been attracted to outsider political ideas, not just fresh approaches to literature) made propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists. Pound, as with several other Axis broadcasters from Allied countries, was arrested at the war’s end and faced charges of treason, with a possible death sentence. American literary figures helped lobby to have Pound instead declared insane, reducing his culpability. British humorist P. G. Woodhouse was in Germany during the war and made Axis broadcasts, which his literary admirers and defenders characterized as not propagandistic.
It’s easy for us at this remove to forget how close at hand these issues were when Vonnegut was working on his novel. WWII was as close as September 11 2001 and the wars that followed are to us now in 2021. Oddly though, American fascism, which had been a considerable issue during the ‘30s and ‘40s and is again now, was considered something of a comic non-entity in the 1962 world of his novel.
Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*
In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.
But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.
This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.
Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,” was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through! It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.
In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.
*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.
**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn” it’s not a cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.
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.”
*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.
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.”
Tomorrow is called Veterans Day in the United States, but originally it was Armistice Day, celebrated on the day that World War I ended. WWI was a dark dividing line between all that came before and after. Books have been written about only one or two aspects of what changed, but a whole shelf of books could not tell all.
And this year is the hundredth anniversary of one year in that dark dividing line, 1916, when those that thought war was simple, or had to be simple, brought the 20th Century efficiency of the assembly line to killing in the battle of the Somme, where over one million men were killed or wounded.
One of the soldiers in that battle was a poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Last time we took a look at a funny and pious story from World War II, The Deck Of Cards, and had a little irreverent fun with the form of that story in my parody. In this piece, Sassoon’s Christ and the Soldier, the humor is very dark. I’ve heard that it was dark enough that Sassoon did not, or could not, publish it until the war was over.
As usual, I’m largely going to let he piece speak for itself. One thing I like about it is its use of dialog. For some reason, most poems eschew dialog entirely, and I think poetry misses out on a useful device by avoiding it. Musically it’s a mode that the LYL Band visits often, combining organ or piano with electric guitar. I play the guitar part on my Jaguar, a guitar that was once associated with “surf music” but has since had a revival in indie-rock circles. I play it often because its short scale and spring-softened action are friendly to my arthritic fingers.
To hear Christ and the Soldier, click on the gadget that should appear below.