The Greatest Hits of World War One

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.

 

Arlington National Cemetary inscription

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’sI 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.

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The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 3

Here we go, continuing our Top Ten countdown for the most popular audio pieces from the past Fall as counted by your likes and streaming listens. In the past two posts we’ve done numbers 10 through 5, so let’s move on to number 4.

One thing I enjoy about this project is that I can’t predict which pieces will get the most response, and in 4th place this past Fall we have my rendition of a excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s arch-Modernist “Tender Buttons.”  Not only was it popular last Fall, but it actually improved on its 8th place position from last Summer’s Top 10.

Stein’s experiments have to be seen as the forerunner of what came to be known decades later as “Language Poets”—poetry that reveled in the indeterminacy of our language, that exploited all the cracks and odd turns in our real everyday spoken syntax. This poetry can seem intimidating if one is pressed to extract a meaning immediately, but one value of the Parlando Project is that we’re free to perform the poetry with music and allow any straightforward meaning to take a back seat to the sound and flow of the words. And the poetry of “Language Poets” often gains some singular meanings when read aloud, because our everyday spoken syntax is nowhere near as clear as good written prose would be. We commonly understand meanings when words are  spoken from inflection and our groupings of words that no diagramed sentence can measure.

Musically, I doubled down on the Modernist tilt of Stein’s words by speaking them to my interpretation of the style of Don VanVliet who performed as “Captain Beefheart.” VanVliet took the vernacular freedom of Delta Blues music and expanded on it even further. His own lyrics, like his own music, like Gertrude Stein’s words, don’t seem to make sense at first, until you open up and let them in for awhile, until the off-center is normalized, and you begin to see the facets of the brilliant corners. That journey starts—maybe only starts—when you listen to this piece the first time.

 

At Number 3, we have another returning piece from last Summer, “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli,”  based on my recasting of WWI poet Rupert Brooke’s late fragment, written down shortly before his death on the way to the front in Turkey. If the soldier’s death of Modernist instigator T. E. Hulme (whose “Trenches St. Eloi”  was earlier in our Top 10) cost him the opportunity to solidify his position as a founder of British Modernism, Brooke’s death gave him no chance to outgrow or adapt his 19th Century poetics to the new realities of warfare that WWI revealed to many others.  So, while maintaining my respect for Brooke’s experience as he wrote it down, I tightened and modernized his language and presentation to create the kind of poem Hulme, F. S. Flint, Ezra Pound, or Siegfried Sassoon would have written.

I tried to work the time-worn musical tactic of the slow build in my setting for this one. The final fuzzy musical strain in this is a conventional electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that magnetically drives a string without plucking it, somewhat in imitation of what a real bow does on a bowed string instrument.

 

Robert Johnsons

One of these two guys cut a crossroads deal at midnight that let him use Shakespeare’s lyrics

 

At number 2 in our Top 10, we’re back to a piece that hasn’t made a Top 10 before. It just so happens that it’s another adaptation or free translation, this time by Elizabethan physician, poet, musician Thomas Campion. With “Let Us Live and Love”  Campion’s first stanza is a faithful enough translation of a poem by the Roman poet Catullus, but he then decided to develop his own path out of that beginning.

And so, by the second stanza Campion comes close to coining the Sixties’ slogan “Make Love not War” and he closes with a mighty invocation of love as the great illuminator of our darkness.

The Elizabethan age saw a flowering of lute player/composers. Many of them adapted the words of Elizabethan poets as well as writing and using their own poetry. One of Campion’s contemporaries was the great John Dowland, and another was a man named Robert Johnson. A perfectly common name, but a name that many people today associate with another singer/composer/stringed instrument player, the famous Delta bluesman.

So rather than using Campion’s own tune, I chose to set Campion’s words to my own Blues tune with slide guitar and harmonica.

 

That leaves only Number 1 to go. What piece was the most liked and listened to here last Fall? Check back tomorrow to find out.

a new mix of On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

I don’t plan on making a habit of this, but the next morning after I posted the audio piece where I perform an “Imagist” revision of Rupert Brooke’s late fragment written shortly before his death while serving in WWI,  I wanted to change a few things about the mix.

WWI troop ship

Soldiers on a  World War I troop ship in transit

What’d I change? I delayed the entry of my piano part to a few bars later. I remixed the concluding electric guitar part entirely, it’s now a bit more forward in the mix. And finally I added an E-Bow electric guitar top line over the final section. Why did I make those changes? Just trying to give the piece a bit more sense of “build” as the troop ship steamed along carrying Brooke and his fellow soldiers to the disaster that would be the Gallipoli campaign. The newly added E-Bow part is probably the biggest change. The E-Bow is a clever gadget that magnetically drives a single instrument string as if it was excited by a bow. As the name suggests, it’s sometimes used to give the effect of violin or viola sound coming from a guitar—which Jimmy Page and Eddie Phillips aside, is not designed to be bowed, however I think the part I played sounds less like a orchestral violin and more like an overblown free-reed instrument.

In composing the music for the Parlando Project pieces, I like using different sounds like a writer might use different images or connotative words in text. If you listen, low in the background of the mix I have a Mellotron flute part. Of course this late 20th Century instrument would not have been known to Brooke and his fellow troops, but for those late 20th Century people a low Mellotron flute part brings to mind (ear?) The Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or other English rock band recordings of the 1960s, so I was trying to bring in some sense, however anachronistically, of the soldiers thinking of home, and then at end I add that much louder, strident and free-reed sound from the E-bow guitar part.  Similarly my fizzy guitar phosphorescent plankton bow-wave and electric bass thrumming ships engines. Hope it all works for you.

The new mix replaces the old one as of early this morning. To make it easy to hear the new mix, I’ve embedded the player to hear “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli” below. The explanation of how I revised Brooke’s words, as if he’d been edited by Ezra Pound or had lived long enough to embrace the ideas of modernist poetry, is covered in the previous post here.

 

 

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

In the past few posts I’ve mentioned how Ezra Pound was more than an exemplary writer, theorist, and promoter for the early 20th Century modernist poetic movement that he called Imagism. He was also an excellent editor.

His most famous blue pencil job remains T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,”  but he also worked with H.D. and Ernest Hemingway, teaching with his editing how to pare away extra words, overused similes, and extraneous authorial sentiment. And once shown, those writers we able to use Pound’s insights to do the create their own pared down, modern styles.

In the last episode, I noted that Pound had been critical of some WWI poems written by Rupert Brooke. Here for example is the first part of Brooke’s most famous war poem “The Soldier:”

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Written as England entered into WWI, and as Brooke himself rushed to enlist, this poem was embraced by a patriotic public almost immediately. If one shares it’s sentiments, the actual technique of the poetry probably admits no impediments to a reader, even today—but ask yourself, does it have a sense of actual immediacy? As you read, do you share with a fellow human, feeling, seeing, smelling, this experience? What I get as I read it is a thought, where a soldier thinks that if he dies in battle and his body rots overseas, that his body will homeopathically retain its English birth and experience, and that experience, it is inferred, is worth dying for. Why? Well because the poet says so, and he says it with rather polite poetical words. “Die” and “dust” are perfectly good, simple words, but as a description of death and decomposition, they are surrounded by forevers, flowers, air, rivers, and sun—all presumably sweet and genteel.

Rupert Brooke died at age 27 of an illness he contracted while on his way to the Gallipoli campaign in his war, but what if he, like Yeats, had continued to live and react to the developments of his young century? And what if Ezra Pound had gotten a hold of him and showed him how to punch up his verse?

NPG P101(a); Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke, charter member of “The 27 Club

 

Today’s piece shows what could have happened. One of the last things Brooke wrote was this fragment written on the troop ship in the month he died. Here’s the original:

I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night

Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped

In at the windows, watched my friends at table,

Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,

Or coming out into the darkness. Still

No one could see me.
I would have thought of them

–Heedless, within a week of battle–in pity,

Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness

And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that

This gay machine of splendour ‘ld soon be broken,

Thought little of, pashed, scattered. . . .
Only, always,

I could but see them—against the lamplight–pass

Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,

Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,

That broke to phosphorous out in the night,

Perishing things and strange ghosts–soon to die

To other ghosts–this one, or that, or I.

What can I, acting as Pound might have, do with this? Well first I can locate the charged images in it, hidden as they are inside Brooke’s extraneous comment. What are they? The soldier pacing at night on his troop ship. He’s staring back inside the ship, looking at his fellow recruits on the way to their first battle. If we have any empathy as readers, we don’t need to be told anything about what he’s feeling if it can be conveyed by what he’s seeing. What are our charged images? The troops are playing cards, games of soldier’s chances. They can’t see the poet, and he can see them only imperfectly, backlit by uneven lighting, “coloured shadows,” which is a great image obscured by all the muck about it. And he sees the faint light of a wave’s phosphorescence as bioluminescent plankton are sweep aside by the wake of the ship. The soldiers, and the poet himself, are already in the course of war, like ghosts, fleetingly seen, or only partially and incorporeally seen.

Have you tried the exercise where you make a poem by taking a marker and blacking out most of page of text, revealing a poem could be in what remains? That’s like what I did with Brooke’s fragment:

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli

I strayed about the deck, an hour,

Under a cloudy moonless sky.

Peeped in at the windows,

Watched my friends

At table, playing cards,

Standing in the doorway,

Out into the darkness.

No one could see me.

I could but see them

Against the lamplight,

Coloured shadows,

Thinner than glass.

A wave’s faint light,

Broken to phosphorous.

Perishing things and strange ghosts

Steaming to other ghosts,

Only, always.

I removed over a hundred words that didn’t need to be there, which covered up what did need to be there. I don’t need to say that these things relate to each other, putting them in a short poem together makes that clear. I added only one word, choosing to add “steaming” instead of just “to other ghosts” because it’s an action word, and because “steam,” though active and industrious, is another thing that dissipates and disappears.

I have two unfair advantages over Rupert Brooke as I transformed his words. First, he died in service to his country shortly after writing this, so he didn’t have the chance to revise his fragment. Secondly, the place he was going, Gallipoli, and the outcome for so many British and Commonwealth soldiers who were deployed there is now infamous for poor tactics and horrendous casualties. I can simply use “Gallipoli” in the title and magnify the dread of soldiers on their way to battle.

Today’s episode is dedicated to Julie Shapiro, who introduced me to Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.”  This is a song about Australian troops at Gallipoli, and though I can link to one of my favorite singers, June Tabor’s, version of it, there is nothing but my memory to testify to the devastating version Julie used to perform.

My First Guitar

My first guitar, purchased for $40 in 1974, and played on today’s audio piece

 

Long post again, no time to talk much about the music for this performance. Perhaps I don’t need to tell, you just need to hear it. Use the player below then for my performance of a revised fragment by Rupert Brooke.