Beach Burial

In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes,  there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.

Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your  answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.

Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!

Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?

So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.

Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.***  I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.

Kenneth Slessor war corespondent

Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent

 

I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial”  needs only your attention to make itself felt.

I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial”  are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.

Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.

As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.

 

 

 

*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton  as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.

***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.

The Temple of Summer

I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.

To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the word “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks drove, giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.

postcard mesabi iron range

“Making your own Grand Canyon”

 

Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.

How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.

Virginia MN Bridge view

A view from the highest bridge in Minnesota spanning part of a no longer active open pit mine now filled with water outside the town of Virginia. The landscape you are viewing is man-made, not a natural feature.

 

An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.

So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.

Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge and thought, maybe somehow, even subconsciously, this landscape gave Bob the idea.

Iron Range Truck

“Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus/All kinds of children they was hollerin’ at us…”

 

Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest possible snowbank. As you exit the Temple of Summer, listening to the music using the player below, I remind you that the Parlando Project appreciates your attention, but still needs listeners and readers. If you can, let others know what we’re doing here, and if you’re new to us, you may want to check out our archives with 250 other audio pieces combining various words with original music.

In Memoriam Easter 1915

Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.

First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.

Edward Thomas Easter Bike Trip 1913 crop

Can’t tell the model, but from the front it’s clear that Thomas was riding a classic English “roadster” on his tour.

 

This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.

The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring  and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.

“How so?” asked Thomas.

Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.

So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.

And World War I breaks out.

I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”

Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”

Edward Thomas' company in training with Thomas in rectangle

Thomas’ company in training camp

 

The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of this, two years after he’d started the trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed for a while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.

But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Nearly every word is telling, even ones you slide over in the first line. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,”  condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea to Thomas’ poem. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along with. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should,” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.

And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that, will, do, never, again.

To hear my performance of the poem eventually published as “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)”  use the player below.

 

 

 

Additional notes:  There’s a new paperback edition published a couple of years back of In Pursuit of Spring,  which includes for the first time the photographs Thomas took during his journey, and it’s available from booksellers. Yes, English people do take up the idea of trying to duplicate Thomas’ bicycle trip today, for example Kimberly Rew, the  guitarist alongside Robyn Hitchcock in The Soft Boys and songwriter and guitarist of Katrina and the Waves, and also the Nick Drake estate manager and vintage bike enthusiast  Cally Callomon, whose plans included riding the trip on a period-correct English roadster bike.

I recognize that Memorial Day is an American Holiday, directly derived from the post American Civil War Decoration Day. I know this blog has a large segment of U.K. readers, so to explain: in the U..S. we have two holidays celebrating the armed forces, Memorial Day, which retains some of it focus on honoring the dead who served, and Veterans Day, which is the U. S. holiday that coincides with Remembrance Day. For readers on either side of the Atlantic who’d like to hear the LYL Band present a performance of an American poet for Memorial Day, here’s Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”

 

Grass

In the last post, I presented Ezra Pound’s rant about the society that lead so many to their deaths in WWI, deaths that included several of his own modernist artistic circle. Taking it personally, Pound exclaims that their “fortitude as never before” for change and their “frankness as never before,” lead only to equally great “disillusions”. He sees lies and liars leading others into the war and their sacrifices, and only liars as triumphing.

Speaking repeatedly about liars and lies and illusions, Pound’s “These Fought” would not be a very popular choice for a Memorial Day speech then, just as it probably would not be one now. If you agreed with him, you might enjoy his precise inventory of folly. If you didn’t, you’d say he was unappreciative of his friends (and so many others) sacrifice, and that his disbelief in the stated high motives for the war could be mere cynicism. I can hear what some voices must have said then (and would say now): “You can complain about what is imperfect, perhaps even foolish, but what’s your solution, other than to stand to the side and write poems?”

Alas for Pound, he did propose a solution. It was a solution chosen by many others disappointed after WWI, a fresh modernist conflation of race hate, nationalism, technology and authoritarianism, the fascism that lead to WWII.

Commonwealth-war-graves-WWI-cemetery-Belgium

What place is this? Where are we know?

Today’s episode: “Grass”  by Carl Sandburg is just as pure a modernist, imagist poem as any by Pound, but it’s statement about the sacrifices of war is more indirect.

Sandburg has a reputation as a clear-spoken poet who makes his points straightforwardly, as if plain words mean simple thought. I believe this is mistaken. Sandburg’s mind was not a simple, unicameral mind.  Sandburg was leading multiple lives at once during the WWI era. He was writing, sometimes under a pseudonym, for radical leftist/labor IWW publications, while writing for the mainstream Chicago dailies, while writing modernist poems. When Sandburg was protesting the jailing of IWW antiwar activists, and writing today’s compressed, Imagist, “Grass,”  Sandburg had also published a long, Whitmanesque populist and blood-thirsty poem “Four Brothers” lauding the urge of Americans to go overseas and put the German Kaiser’s head on a pike. “Grass”  too has its echoes of Whitman—not the martial revolutionary Whitman, but the Whitman who wrote of grass as “the beautiful, uncut hair of graves.”

So, this is a complicated and perhaps self-conflicted man who is writing this, and when we move in “Grass”  from the catalog of history’s deadly battles, ending with two great battles of WWI, Sandburg’s poem takes a turn.

In two years or ten years, what is this sacrifice? In“Grass”  the places of these battles become nowhere. Is this a hopeful statement, that after this “War to End All Wars,” we will now be able to forget war? Is this an anti-war statement that would say, as the radical Sandburg or Ezra Pound would have said: that after all such strife, the liars and those that run things will continue to run things anyway, as if the war settled nothing? Is it a statement of reconciliation to come, when elderly soldiers from opposing sides meet and speak of their common experience and equally lost comrades? Is this a statement of the democratic socialist Sandburg, that the forces of inevitable Marxist proletarian revolution will come and obsolete all that was before? Or is it a cool and detached statement that all human efforts are transient?

I don’t think it’s an accident that this divided man wrote a poem about the sacrifice of war that lets it be all those things.

To hear the LYL Band present Carl Sandburg’s “Grass,”  use the player below.

 

These Fought

The lives, outside of art, of artists bear only a mysterious resemblance to their work. The concentration of time that must be brought to creating work drains many a writer’s life of incident. And so, an artist like Emily Dickinson can lead an outwardly constrained life while creating an inward empire. Or the man who would eventually be charged with the establishment of the first modern democratic republic could be, as a teenage poet, a love-struck supplicant. Nor does general good character align with artistic success—saints can write bad poetry and flawed people may write good poetry.
 
Today’s post features the words from an American who as much as any single person launched Modernist poetry in English. His associates and admirers, added to his detractors and opponents, make up an encyclopedia of 20th Century English literature. In the first part of the 20th Century, some of them would be profoundly influenced by his artistic ideas, and some would even be directly edited or personally mentored by him. One hundred years ago, in 1917, Carl Sandburg would say of him:

“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends up with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”

Pound would live more than another half a century after this, his literary revolution flowing outward until few could see back to its instigator. And there’d be reasons his influence would be discounted: by the end of WWII, when Modernism, no longer insurgent, was about to become the established artistic order, Ezra Pound was a 60-year-old man confined in an outdoor steel cage open to the elements, awaiting to be charged as a war traitor with a likely sentence of execution.

Ezra Pound Booked for Treason

This guy is most responsible for English literary modernism, but that’s not what got him arrested.

 

The customary quiet and inward life of a writer, even an unnoticed one, looks good in comparison.

Though this treatment was inhumane, and the charge not without controversy, it was not unsubstantiated. Pound had spent the years leading up to WWII making common cause with the European Fascists that the United States eventually fought in that war, and when that war was being fought, he broadcast eccentric propaganda in his native English in service of his adopted country of Italy and Mussolini. Furthermore, his attraction to the Fascist cause was not an accident, a casual side-effect of his adopted country of residence. Pound wholehearted seemed to believe in the crackpot and yet deadly racist theories bolstering Fascism.
 
Remember earlier this month when we talked about the popular folk song celebrating Jesse James, versus the reality of James’ life as a racist terrorist?  Pound lacked the actual bloody hands of a Jesse James, but not the thought behind them.

So much more could be said on this, but that would take more room that we have today, and besides your thoughts and judgements on matters like this, as I said when talking about Jesse James, are more important than mine. Not only are they more numerous, but you are likely younger than me, and will get to use those judgements on things like this to guide your life.

Today’s audio piece, “These Fought,”  was written by Pound at the height of his fame and good influence—not after WWII, after WWI. Unlike some younger Modernists, Pound did not actually fight in WWI, but situated in England during that war, he saw the patriotic recruitment and the creation of cases for the war, a war that soon became mechanized slaughter beyond all previous imaginings, and he lost friends in that staggering slaughter. So, in “These Fought”  Pound caustically calls out the cases for the slaughter, and leads us to note that bravery in fighting WWI, or fortitude in opposing it, were in some sense equal in valor and, alas, equal in success.

To hear the LYL Band perform this, use the player below.