This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.
And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”
The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.
So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.
Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.
Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.
So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.
Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915” doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.
There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.
Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.
How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.
Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.
You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915” with the player gadget below.
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.
For reasons of copyrights, I’ve been focusing a fair amount here on using words from the most recent poems whose rights are in the public domain (pre-1924). One side-effect of that: during the run of this project we’ve presented a good number of poems about World War I, which I recently called “The last war covered by poets.”
So, we’ve had a poem from a man waiting to enter his battle: Rupert Brooke writing on the troopship carrying him overseas; and poems written from first-hand views in the trenches by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and T. E. Hulme. We’ve had reactions to the war and its losses from Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara and Carl Sandburg. William Butler Yeats, even in refusal, is writing a war poem of a sort, one I suspect has a hidden barb at the politicians’ war propaganda.
Today’s piece, using words by F. S. Flint, comes closer yet. Flint, the man who urged the “School of Images” in pre-war London to hew to a cadenced free verse, felt that verse and prose existed on a smooth and unbroken continuum, that good writing was good writing, regardless of the label on the tin.
Besides being present at the birth of Modernist English poetry, Flint also was in the right place to witness another Modernist invention: aerial bombardment of cities. It’s little remembered now, but nighttime terror bombing of London was not an invention of Hitler’s air force in WWII—it was, instead, first carried out by Zeppelin airships in World War I.
Flint’s report, though artfully framed with its first-person account of being awakened from sleep in medias res, and ending with a surprising and telling conclusion, includes enough exact detail to say that it describes the first of these London raids on May 31st, 1915.
1915 reactions to the London Zeppelin raids of World War I
It’s a gripping account, no less than if it had been filed this year in Syria or somewhere else were bombs fall on civilians in our time. If you’d like to read “Zeppelins” on the page, here’s a link.
Does the element in Flint’s work of mere journalism detract from its “poetic” qualities? The romantic element would say yes perhaps, there is no other “realer, now revealed” world invoked, no intense yoking of disparate images or modes of perception (although I would maintain it does just that in a subtler way). More elaborate language, more elaborate metaphors could decorate this. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the same subject, painted decades later, but it’s also more worked out as a cubist statement.
In a sense this question is like a question I wrestle with here as I contemplate the Parlando Project which combines music with words. Does the addition of a substantial thing to something else: in the case of Flint’s “Zeppelins,” documentary, journalistic facts to modernist poetic imagism; or in the case of my Parlando Project pieces, music and performance’s addition to what is often canonical page-poetry—are those things additive, making a greater sum—or do they, paradoxically, detract, diffusing or de-fusing the impact of the uncombined thing.
Or are these questions of art a sideline here? Do Henry and Caroline Good, dead of flames and smoke in their bedroom in that night in 1915, or Leah Lehrman, age 16 killed by a Zeppelin-dropped bomb explosion care? Do we appreciate that we live now and ponder these questions?
Later that same 20th century, my first drum machine.
In writing and performing the music for Flint’s “Zeppelins,” I wanted to lean toward Techno a bit. I avoid drum machines these days and work hard to humanize my beats on most pieces. Back in the 20th Century I used machine beats, they were all I could afford, and now in the 21st, no matter how skillfully deployed, they remind me of those crudely resolved sounds, a make-do. My 12 year old son however enjoys them, the blippiest tracker pieces or a SID chip 8-bit beats please him with their antique charm. Then listening to Weekes new single this weekend reminded me of that charm (and made me wish I could sing better). So I gave it a go.
You hear my performance of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins” right here with the embedded player below. If you can’t see the player gadget, this highlight hyperlink will also play the performance. Something about those later 20th Century sounds just seemed right for an early 20th Century piece to me.
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.
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.