The Greatest Generation, or Thomas W. Higginson lands on Omaha Beach

I appreciate the attention readers here give to what I present, and so I’m going to warn you: this is a longer piece covering some historical topics that have not been as popular here as others. I plan to be back soon with a shorter post and  I promise a love poem set to music. Thanks for your attention and spreading the word about the Parlando Project. I value that!

Today is the anniversary of the WWII allies’ D-Day invasion of Northern Europe, and as each anniversary gets later the tributes to the sacrifices and courage of those who waded onto the beach amid the gun and cannon fire grow more glowing.

As one of America’s diverted poets once said, it is “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” And I say this knowing that this will likely be one of the least-read posts here. The audience for a blog about encounters with poetry and music is not a martial audience by and large. Even a poem like Slessor’s “Beach Burial”  recently presented here—a poem that is about war, though not really about battle or courage or warrior feats—will end up being one of the least noticed, read, liked, and listened to.

I speculatively assign that response—and the lessor response other stark war poems have received—to a number of things: that old battles are yesterday’s newspapers—or as we might say these days, just newspapers; that one of the things we might look for in the arts is a respite from, or at least a beautiful decoration for violent and horrific events. I’m casting no shade on you who have paid with your attention to what we do here for that—or your other judgements on the work we present. After all, I make those judgments myself all the time for my own reasons.

So now, having sincerely bowed to both those who were in the water on June 6th 1944 and you, dear reader and listener, I will diverge.

There is no Greatest Generation,* never was. Too much is assigned to generations, and if widely shared experiences and common events current to lifetimes has some glue to hold an aggregate together, extending “generations” to inner character and intrinsic resources of their membership, virtues and vices conferred merely from birth years is simplistic nonsense that should never be relied on.

I suspect wiser users of the term would correct me and say they do not mean that when they use the term, they mean the great things the WWII generation endured and did. Yes, I join them, there is value in noting that.

But one thing that literature teaches us, by doing its basic trick of letting us experience someone else’s life, is that the good and bad in human character and the challenges brought to bear on us are not unique to time and place. Are the challenges of WWII greater than the challenges of those of the trench soldiers of WWI that this project has featured? Are the privations of the Great Depression, followed by another World War and the following challenges of nuclear peace after great destruction worse than the challenges of 19th century American slavery followed by a Civil War followed by the continuing existence of a continent-wide republic after such trauma?

An Internet discussion mentioning these things often leads to claims and counter-claims of greatest evil: slavery, colonialism (which should include our “internal” American colonialism inflicted on our indigenous population), The Holocaust, Stalinism’s mismanagement, gulags and secret police, Pol Pot, and other evils whose incidental lack of notoriety should give them no cover. I’m sure there are appreciable differences in them, things philosophers could construct evaluative frameworks on. Don’t bother to comment or look for a poll feature to vote on the Greatest Evil or any generation associated with it. This will not be my point.

My point is: you, particularly the younger of those that read this, are the only generation that matters. If I need a silly name for you, a souvenir hat to show that you belong to this, then I’ll swallow my pendant’s pride and call you “The Greatest Generation.”

Do I want my own son, or you, to advance into shore batteries over an open beach or to try to hold Little Round Top without ammunition left? Do I wish it to be necessary to risk mobs, the bullies of privilege, or jail to secure basic freedoms? No, of course not. Nor can I be sure you will figure out what level of forgiveness and generosity vs. justice and retribution will succeed in the peace that all wars fail into. I would rather you figure out how to secure the things warriors were putting their lives in bond for without the war.

So why do I include these poems about war here? Here’s one reason, a personal one: I too often hear that arts and poetry in particular are a trivial activity, the first thing to be dispensed with when “reality” comes to call. And the arts in general, it’s said, aren’t they about vanity? Well, some of those warriors wrote, made and listened to songs. There were readers in foxholes. Call it pleasure, hope or need, some will hold onto poetry and music in any extremis.

And even the arts skeptics give us this: they pull those things out, music and poetry, for the funerals and anniversaries. Can we also realize that some of us hold to these things in life as well?

And here’s the more general reason: reading and listening to literature may remind you that those who pushed forward and those who opposed every good and bad thing are not historical figures, they have no powers or weaknesses because of the year they were born, no more than you do. They lived and died in their Imagist instant, just as you do, weighing duty, possibility, weakness, strength, love, hate, pretense, modesty, anger, resolve, justice and mercy. Seeing, doing, maybe not knowing. Literature shows us that all these things existed in each generation, gives us the evidence of what they feel like, how they exist, side-by-side.

That’s sort of like a poem may be. Those soldiers heading for the beach, like the words alone in a poem could not know fully what they meant. I do not mean by this a romantic claim that art or poetry equals their indominable authorial intent. There’s no measure of their last full measure, something we use art to teach ourselves. And anyway, as a working method our diverted poet settled that issue in his Gettysburg Address too, but chose to do it in his orated poem.

That said, now let me justify the post’s title. I’ve continued to read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s writing this week, particularly his 1899 memoir, Cheerful Yesterdays.  Higginson is mostly known today as a footnote—kind of like the record company guy who passed on signing the Beatles—as the man in publishing who Emily Dickinson reached out to with a handful of poems and who then corresponded with her over a period of years when she was writing her groundbreaking poetry. Why didn’t he know right away what was on offer literature-wise with Dickinson?

I’ll confess I started his memoir in the middle, and I will now go back and read the start. From its “cheerful” title you may not have a good handle on its matter. It’s both breezy and polite and gripping and harrowing, a strange mix. I knew Higginson was (among other things) a slavery Abolitionist, and because of what he calls “The Sisterhood of Reforms” that he was involved in other social movements, including Feminism/Women’s rights. It’s in the middle, where I came in, that I learned about just what kind of Abolitionist he was.

Abolition included Fabian elements that sought to corral this basic evil legally and eventually end it, non-violent radicals and self-described “agitators” who put their lives on the line but would not morally take another’s life, and the “by any means necessary” crowd. The later was were Higginson lived, at least after 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. He was part of (seems to have been a principle in, though he characteristically refrains from claiming leadership) the Boston Vigilance Committee that sought to prevent captured slaves from being returned to their masters as that law required, and he grippingly relates his first hand participation in trying to prevent the last government-assisted attempt in Boston to do that, which includes his plan for a lightning strike by a cadre including himself on the city jail, where the enslaved man was held. The plan counted on an agitated mob in the streets as cover—a crowd who would be motivated to cause a ruckus by his own rable-rousing speech at Faneuil Hall, from where he would dash to the jail to lead the break-in!

Following chapters detail his organizing and gun-running during the “bloody Kansas” guerilla war fought around a plebiscite to decide if the new state would allow slavery, and his joining the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry conspiracy that he says was portrayed to him at first as an armed extension of the Underground Railroad, where a coordinated “jailbreak” of slaves would be accomplished, but which due to lack of funds and organizational ability became what was to be the opening battle in a general slave rebellion which disastrously failed. Particularly in the Brown story, Higginson’s quick-moving/hit the highlights narrative style seems an odd fit with the material. He’s sometimes ambiguous about Brown, and from his vantage point decades after the Civil War and Brown’s execution, he remarks that Brown’s outlook and mental state may have been compromised by Brown’s years in the struggle—but the events say that at the time he was putting himself at risk of felony imprisonment or even a charge of treason with only the surety of his faith in Brown and the necessity of his cause. During much of these activities, Higginson mentions that he was armed, and though he never mentions firing at anyone, presumably he wasn’t carrying pistols for sport.

If your vision when you have read the tale of Higginson in the Dickinson saga is of a rarefied literary critic whose wars were “laid away in books” you’ve understood him too quickly.

When the Civil War breaks out in 1861, the 38-year-old Higginson is raring to serve. He begins working to recruit soldiers almost immediately.* Within a year, he’s tasked with leading the first Afro-American regiment in the U.S. Army, which he takes up gladly.

This explains the oddest part of his rambling, Polonius-like  1862 “Letter to a Young Contributor”  magazine article that is often thought to have inspired Emily Dickinson to write Higginson. Near the end Higginson launches into a discussion of war as a subject for writing and a vocation for writers.

No doubt, war brings out grand and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment.”

This seems like a combination of distain for the difficulties of military command (from a man who had already risked his own life and engaged in concerted acts which led to the death of others) and a bit of a backhanded and Americanized version of “The battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” line. But at the time this article was published, that was what Higginson was preparing to do. He was heading to South Carolina to take over that regiment of freed slaves.** Read in that knowledge it seems a bit like he’s trying to psych himself up for the task, or that someone has told him those things to convince him to go forward with the commission.

So, the first thing my wife asks when I tell her I’m reading Higginson’s memoir, is one you may be asking too. “Does he mention Emily Dickinson?” In this 1899 memoir, he does not. Due in some part to Higginson himself, the posthumous 1890 original edition of a large chunk of Dickinson poetry was an unexpected, multi-printing success, but this didn’t make Dickinson what she is today: one of the giants of American poetry. The “unexploded bomb” of Emily Dickinson took almost a century to explode slowly. She’s just one author he worked with, and since he knew many of the literary figures of the day, Dickinson wouldn’t be the only notable to mention. He knew Longfellow and Emerson, spent a day with the reclusive Tennyson, all persons of unfathomable fame then.

Suppose a 20th century music figure who knew Bob Dylan, had met all the Beatles, and worked with Stevie Wonder, while also having run with the Weathermen, the Panthers, fought with Che Guevara and was a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, was to write a memoir in 1999. How assuredly must there be a paragraph in that imaginary book that started. “Oh, by the way, one time, Joni Mitchell*** wrote me some letters. I wrote back asking if all those open-tunings were really necessary?”

But even without hypothetical metaphors, it does say something about the attention Higginson spent on an unknown woman poet’s poems in 1862. We might say, with hindsight: too little. But with the above context, we may be surprised at the attention he did  pay.

Back to metaphor: instead of taking the usual story of the boneheaded critic and the revolutionary artist, we might ask if someone was training to parachute into occupied France in 1944 to work with partisans,**** why would he care about poetry? Higginson apparently did.

If you’re a buff about 19th Century American history and culture, particularly the Abolitionist circle around Boston, Cheerful Days  is a brisk read and is available in the books section of archive.org. As I mentioned in introducing it, its tone is somewhat incongruous considering the deadly American crisis at its center, but no matter how much Higginson may be trying to shape his story modestly and discretely, it still gives insight to the times. I say that even though if you don’t have a basic understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War if may be confusing to you in places, as Higginson assumes some common knowledge of things his cohort lived through.

 

*Military recruitment at the start of the American Civil War was a much more localized and “free-enterprisey” kind of thing, and his connections with armed slavery resistance and the Kansas war meant he already knew who was ready to take up arms.

**Not yet citizens, not yet even really “freed” as the compromise taken at this point in the war before the Emancipation Proclamation was to treat slaves who crossed the lines as “contraband of war,” a term, however dehumanizing, that prevented them from being returned to their masters.

***I use Joni Michell pointedly here. Like Dickinson, she was considered a niche artist held in limited esteem in the 1990s. and only decades later is she more fully recognized for the level of originality and effectiveness in her work.

****Once more, I’m making a considered point here. Officers of Afro-American troops were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but to be summarily executed by decree of the Confederate government. In his memoir Higginson says he didn’t think they’d really do that.

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Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day

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.”

 

Trenches St Eloi

I was talking with my wife this weekend. She’s reading a memoir about current military deployments (and redeployments) and she said a Wilfred Owen poem was mentioned in it.

“Well, World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.” I replied. Which is not strictly true of course. World War II generated a number of poems I’d love to share here, but I have no time to try to track down the rights issues to use words that still may be under copyright. And I suspect other wars have generated other poems since then, even if I don’t know many of them. But that’s not what I meant.

World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.

What I meant was that WWI was the last war in which a considerable portion of the English-speaking public looked to poetry for meaning and consolation regarding the battles and their losses. I’m not sure if they looked to poetry more than journalism or political oratory, but I believe that poetry then still operated somewhat in the same theater as these other words when addressing current events. Longer forms of literature, such as novels, tend to lag events substantially, changing or fixing our view of things afterwards, instead of framing it while the picture is still moving. I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

This morning, my son wanted to show me this brilliantly parsed cartoon summary of the Iliad. The narrator there has a lot of fun with the meandering and seemingly arbitrary plot of that Greek epic poem, but it struck me that it’s possible that the ur-version of the Iliad might have been written contemporaneously to the events, only to be shaped afterward like a collection of old news dispatches repurposed for later use.
 
So, this is a long tradition in Europe from Homer to the war poets of WWI, for the battles and the experience of the battles being reported in poetry.

Why has this use of poetry, to report current and crucial events, fallen away? The first explanation that occurs to me is we have other media to do this now. Film, radio, video, and now cellphones capture the moment without pretending to rely on subjective art. The Imagists who forged their poetic theory in the years around WWI, would seem to have lost their territory as their theory won the war. A cellphone or nose-cam video of the bomb exploding follows two out of the three famous Imagist rules: The “thing” is treated directly, there are no unnecessarily words (indeed there may be no discernable words at all), while more or less ignoring the less-noticed third rule (the one we at the Parlando Project keep pointing to and speaking about), the one that asks for musical phrasing.

Hulme's company in the trenches at St Eloi
This photo shows men in T. E. Hulme’s Artillery company at St. Eloi in 1915

  
Poetry, like painting, is no longer necessary for reportage. Modernists often chose to respond to this by a movement into abstraction, conveying thoughts in motion and novel conceptions, seeking to demonstrate what can be meaningful without meaning.

Today’s piece “Trenches: St. Eloi”  is attributed to T. E. Hulme, a man who helped form this Modernist revolution and died before he could live in it. I say “attributed” because, like Homer, he did not write it down. The exact attribution is “Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH” when it was published by Ezra Pound, and it may have been Pound who chose what to transcribe or how to lay out the transcription. My guess is that some of the language sounds like Hulme (the unusual, but so perfect word choice of “pottering,” the homey image of trench soldiers strolling compared to the shoppers on the busy London street of Piccadilly), but the overall arrangement sounds like Pound to me.
 
We know pretty much the where and when that is being talked about, more than we know of the actual history of Troy. Hulme got a chance to relate these details while in an English hospital after being wounded in the spring of 1915 in trench warfare in St. Eloi. He recovered, returned to the war, and to his eventual meeting with a German artillery shell that ended his life.

T. E. Hulme may have said it, Ezra Pound may have edited it and written it down, but to hear me perform it with my musical accompaniment, use the player below.