Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.

Gone, Gone Again for National Poetry Month

We continue today our National Poetry Month series where we re-release some of our favorite performances from the early days of this Project in the hopes that more ears will be able to hear them. Today’s piece steps forward a couple of years from yesterday’s, where in “Adlestrop”  British poet Edward Thomas had written with beautiful attention about the sweet nothingness of a day of peace while the precipitating event of World War I was only hours away.

Today’s poem, “Gone, Gone Again”  (also known as “The Blenheim Oranges,”)  was written about the same English landscape, only after the war had broken out. If “Adlestrop”  is a poem about present nothingness, then “Gone, Gone Again”  is a poem about absences. It starts with the calendar march of time until autumn, but now the boat landings* are unusually quiet and empty. Next Thomas notes the apple harvest** was not looked after. The apples have grubs, no orchardmen are looking after them, and instead of autumn harvest, they are simply falling to the earth to rot.

There’s a stanza that follows that starts by enigmatically referring to “When the lost one was here —” It seems impossible to determine who that is. It could be anyone missing their soldier overseas in the war, but one of Thomas’ biographers thinks it likely a young woman artist Edna Clarke Hall*** who had what was at least an emotional affair with Thomas. I wondered if the “lost one” could be American Poet Robert Frost, a man who never had many friends, but who had struck up a strong friendship with Thomas while Frost was in England before WWI. Frost had planned for Thomas and his family to emigrate to the United States so that they could continue their friendship, but then the war.

I’d guess the reason there isn’t more speculation on a possible particular “lost one” is that the same stanza ends on a couplet so strong that the opening two lines are overlooked. That couplet? “And when the war began/To turn young men to dung.”

The lyric video. There’s a picture there of the Blenheim apples to get citrus out of your mind, and when we get to the lost one, a photo of Edna Clarke Hall and then Frost.

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The concluding four stanzas develop the theme of an abandoned house, something which rhymes with my own experience of abandoned farm houses in the American Midwest. The concluding stanza mourns the schoolboys who wantonly vandalize these absences, to which Thomas gives full and poetic attention.

I’ve always been happy with the music I composed and realized for this performance, including some parts for muted horns and woodwinds. I did mis-sing a number of Thomas’ words in the recorded take that was otherwise “the keeper.” I hope that won’t detract. On the other hand, one mistake I made I still consider an accidental improvement: “grass growing inside” in place of Thomas’ “grass growing instead” is not only a stronger image, it’s a better rhyme.

Three ways to hear my performance of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again:”  a player gadget is below for regular browser viewers of this blog, others may need to avail themselves of this highlighted hyperlink — and we’re continuing our special National Poetry Month series extra feature yet once more: there’s a lyric video above.

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*Quay is an uncommon word in American English. I learned it first from an avid Scrabble player, who probably triple-word-scored with it. A quay can be a seaside dock, but from some knowledge of the landscape Thomas wrote about, it’s likely a river or canal landing he speaks of. With the men overseas in the war, I’d assume the regular canal traffic in the English countryside would be reduced.

**Blenheim Oranges are a British apple type. It’s possible Thomas chose this particular apple not just because it was cultivated in the area of England he knew best, but because it’s named for an estate built for the victorious English leader in a battle fought centuries earlier in Blenheim Germany.

***I knew nothing of her, and research is so rewarding when you come upon a character like her. She’s fascinating, and abundantly talented in an era when women artists weren’t considered. Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life is complicated enough that it would make a tremendous series, with characters any screenwriter or actor would hunger for.

The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire for National Poetry Month

World War I entered the worlds of both of our last two poems, and that war’s poetry was one theme we visited over the early years of this Project that coincided with the centennial of that conflict. The interaction between that war and the arts was complex, but here’s a simple question: did WWI cause Modernism?

My best short answer: not exactly. The Modernist experiments were already underway before the war broke out. What the deadly and at times absurd war did for Modernism in the arts was twofold: it validated its breaks from past tactics and traditions, and it toughened it up and gave it more existential stakes. Hear, for example, of how quickly Imagist poetry could be turned from short poems about red-faced farmers to the harrowing urban bombing account of F. S. Flint’s “Zeppelins.”

One Modernist source-point that did owe something directly to the war was Dada, which emerged in neutral Switzerland among Europeans who had fled the conflict. Dada was all about experiment and tweaking tradition, and if I audaciously suggested that one can get something from the later High Modernism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  by reading it as if it were Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,”  Dada was clearly willing to use outright random non-sense in service of breaking down old patterns.

One of Dada’s originators was a pan-European man Tristan Tzara. And if the young Tzara and European Modernism had an overall figurehead in the years before the end of WWI, it was another pan-European man Guillaume Apollinaire. Americans (who had an outsized influence on English-language poetic Modernism) may not fully credit how invaluable Apollinaire was in this era. He coined the terms “cubism” and “surrealism,” he wrote poetry in a freer and more freely-associative way,* and he began to lay his words out on the page to typographically break up the phrases, predating and serving as a model for E. E. Cummings.

Apollinaire’s war-time fate was to bookend Rupert Brooke’s. Still convalescing from a head-wound suffered in military service, Apollinaire became another victim of the great flu epidemic that swirled around the end-game and aftermath of the war.

And that story brings us to today’s National Poetry Month poetry prompt for those looking to do more than simply add to the solitary outcroppings on the mountain of poetry, another way to mesh and meld with our poetic ancestors. Why not translate a poem?

What, you don’t know a foreign language? Well, you know something about poetry (or wish to) if you write it. Poetry itself is a second language you either already speak or wish to speak fluently. Translation is the way to work hand in hand, eyeball to eyeball, with another poet, and I maintain that any poet can benefit from it, even monolinguals. The Internet offers increasingly adequate automatic translators and online dictionaries for some languages.**  Mixing the two, some research, and your own knowledge of the dialect and tactics of poetry can produce worthwhile translations that can be shared — but here’s the main creative benefit: you’ll learn, intimately, the way a poem can be constructed under the skin. The exercise of trying to find the right sounding, feeling, and meaning English word for another poet’s vision is powerful.   If I could make one request, one rule, for creative writing programs everywhere, it would be to make translation part of the curriculum.***

In was in that spirit that I chose to translate Tzara’s poem “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.”   What would Dada’s young provocateur say about this death of this influence? I was surprised at the emotional depth of the piece — it’s an eulogy as a love poem — with opposites-imagery mirroring the opposites of the living considering the dead. I’m not sure how much better a translation of it I could do today, and I’m particularly proud of my rendering of the concluding two lines, a striking gothic image.

With Tzara’s “opposites-imagery” in his poem I couldn’t help but think of M. C. Escher’s later art used in this video.

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You can hear my performance of my translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire”  from the French “La mort de Guillaume Apollinaire”  three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, this highlighted link for others, and if you’d like to see the words and well as hear them performed, this brand-new lyric video.

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*For an example, consider Apollinaire’s own poetic witness to the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car,”  which I translated and presented here.

**You shouldn’t use those automatic translations as anything more than guide and gloss. Your appropriate aim is to produce a poem in English rather than the literality of one-to-one words, to bring the images and the way they are arrayed over to our language. Dictionaries, particularly ones that provide examples of the word used in context, are important adjuncts to the online AI translations.

***Another benefit: this kind of crowd-sourcing of translation can increase the number of translated poems available, increasing the diversity of our culture. And then, like Wallace Stevens 13 lookings at blackbirds, having a spread of translations of the same poem may be a truer representation of the poem’s essence and spreading possibilities than any single one. Cubism activism!

On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli for National Poetry Month

Though an often-puzzling poem, Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  is tightly written. I’m not talking about some raw stat like its number of lines, but that the language itself works in its sentences and small phrases directly and without much waste. That’s not a Modernist-only tactic, but early Modernism did make it a goal.

And a large amount of that vividness came not just from the sharpness of the experiences of grief, depression, and failure that Eliot had experienced, but from revision and re-writing, a process famously aided by Ezra Pound suggestions — most often excisions.

Back in this blog’s first year or so I decided to try an exercise based on those Modernist principles. I took this poem, or rather a fragment, written by British poet Rupert Brooke* while he was steaming on his way to the same disastrous Gallipoli landing in World War I that killed Eliot’s friend Verdenal.

My goal wasn’t just to do what Brooke himself might have done if he’d had time to polish up further drafts of his fragment, but to do what Ezra Pound would have done with his blue pencil. Even though I started with a 19-line fragment, I removed over a hundred words, including many that seemed uselessly archaic and flavorlessly formal. This wasn’t just a Readers Digest-style abridgment, I worked to remove the crud and bring forth the images as an Imagist would have.

Here’s the lyric video.

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I maybe favoring myself, but I thought the result increased the power of the remainders considerably,** and once I composed and performed the eventual musical setting, I titled my adaptation“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli.”   It remains one of my favorite pieces that I’ve presented here for the past six years, and it easily became one of my candidates for this National Poetry Month series where I’m re-releasing some of the earlier pieces from this project along with new lyric videos. You can hear it three ways. The graphical player is below for some, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted link will also play it.  And you’ve seen the thumbnail picture above that will play the lyric video.

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*Brooke was — let’s not put too fine a point on it — a very good-looking young man, with full access to the class-bound academic and social circles of early 20th century Britain. Yeats called him “the handsomest young man in England.” He was considered promising as a poet, or certainly something, even before the war. Frances Cornford, a concise poet who counted Charles Darwin and William Wordsworth as her ancestors, wrote of Brooke “A young Apollo, golden-haired/Stands dreaming on the verge of strife/Magnificently unprepared/For the long littleness of life.”

So, when Byronically larger-than-life Brooke saw WWI’s outbreak, he saw a way to join in something big and heroic. He wrote an instantly famous sonnet about the honor of dying for one’s country in battle. That poem was read by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday — and then less than a month later Brooke was dead. Back in 1915, an editor/fate blue-penciled this: Brooke never reached the doomed landing at Gallipoli. He was bitten by an insect which led to a generalized infection, which killed him three days before the battle.

**Perhaps I shouldn’t have left this for a footnote: you might want to try a similar exercise on some other person’s poem or two yourself, and then try what you learn on your own work. Yes, one can add lines and words in a revision, but what this exercise usually does is show how much you can add in power by excision.

“Sweet Thames” from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month

Today we’re going to commemorate something we did to celebrate National Poetry Month during the earlier years of this Project. In a series of posts and performances each April over five years we serially presented the entire “The Waste Land”  here.

Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece famously begins “April is the cruelest month…” — a line that is endlessly quoted during NPM and otherwise to make it as famous a line of poetry as any. Yet the extraordinary collage of words that follows may have frustrated or just turned-off as many poetry readers as it has attracted. To counter that, as I presented this poem over the years, I tried to make these points about it:

  • It’s abundantly musical. It’s possible to enjoy it while understanding little about what it’s trying to mean, as if it were a cousin of “Jabberwocky.”
  • For such a complex and multi-layered poem, it makes more sense more quickly spoken than on the page. “He do the police in different voices” was the working title for it. Vocalizing the various characters was assumed in its vision.
  • It’s a poem written by a depressive about their experience of depression. That might sound like a recipe for needless wallowing. Yet “Depressing English Majors is Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel” is not  a suitable blurb for “The Waste Land.”   It ends in uplift and a rage against self-pity.
  • Generalizing wildly: English poets sing melancholy songs, American ones sing the Blues. The Blues is analytical about sadness, tells sorrow it knows its game. Eliot, the America-to-England emigree, is somewhere in the middle, and then he draws on Buddha the bluesman.
  • The poem has a thread that examines sexual roles (summary: it excoriates them) and even indulges in some gender dimorphism. The theory that there’s a gay subtext hangs together pretty well — but objective correlative and all, the ghastly, haunting, lost, and unclaimed corpse of Jean Verdenal, and all the WWI dead, suffuses the poem. Alas, we’re now in another cruel spring of warfare this year.

But still and all, what’s the deal with a poem that has footnotes,* and seems to require them? Even my high school English teacher who did so much to introduce poetry to me thought that a little embarrassing back in the Sixties. Can we understand the wide range of quotes, parodies, references, allusions, and just plain collage better as Modernism has permeated our culture even more by our 21st century? Can we now see “The Waste Land”  as a big mix tape, full of samples being dropped? Can one dig the groove and general effect without needing to know where the sample was taken from, or what in-joke M. C. Eliot was putting down?

With a T and an S and L I @ / here to rock this mic with my river rats. / Think you’re a sick rhymer with a mad dose? / I’ve been to a Swiss asylum and been diagnosed,./ Dis my soft Thames flow while I’m singing my song,. / you might end up drowned like that Phoenician! /Peace (that passeth all understanding) out!

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The section I decided to use to represent the entire serialized performance was this one, the start of the poem’s “The Fire Sermon”  section. In this part that I titled “Sweet Thames,”  we begin with a decidedly not-so-sweet urban river, a polluted river being actively polluted, an adjoining gashouse is visited (a hideously smelly polluter), and finally we get the corpse of Jean Verdenal, lost in the sea/sand verge of the disastrous WWI Gallipoli landing being sung to and fro to a bawdy hymn about a madam and her girls who euphemistically are washing their “feet” in water.

Two ways to hear it, one way to see and hear it. There’s player gadget below for some ways this blog is read. This highlighted link is here for those that don’t see the player.  And as we’ve been doing so far this April, there’s a lyric video too, linked here.

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*Eliot later apologized for the footnotes.

Zeppelins for National Poetry Month

Here’s another piece from the early days of the Parlando Project that we’re re-releasing for this year’s National Poetry Month. This is the place where I’d often encourage you to listen to the musical performance made from this poem, but I also could see why you might want to skip it and wait for tomorrow’s.

The poem “Zeppelins”  is by F. S. Flint, a too-little-known man who rose from poverty to help launch English language Modernism early in the 20th century as one of the original Imagists who shucked off the expectations of overused poetic tactics and filigree for what he called “unrhymed cadences.”  As a piece of poetry, I think it still sounds modern, still hits this listener with an impact you can feel.

And there’s the rub regarding this poem. It intends to be disturbing, to communicate an intimate dread and revulsion. Not everyone respects Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”  celebration of utilitarian beauty for its insistence on simplicity. There are probably even some who won’t “get” Frost’s exuberant ode to the shaping of nature’s gusts to singing words. But neither of those poems will disturb you, and our lives may have enough disturbance that I can see one not wanting to seek out a poem that gives us more of that. Flint’s poem is the story of one of the first aerial bombing raids on a city, an attack in May of 1915 on London that caused around 100 casualties, including children.*

Furthermore, this poem from 1915 is disturbing for another reason: it’s still topical. It was so when I first posted it in 2017 — cities and towns were being bombed and civilians killed then. So it is today. As another bombing witness was wont to say: “So it goes.”

Imagism in action. Note how Flint intimately invokes confusion, dread, and fear directly in this rapidly accelerating narrative poem

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So skip today’s poem if you don’t want to be subjected to that, if your life is already strafed. I’ll understand. Poetry like “Zeppelins”  can serve as a powerful witness, we should respect that, but I can see why we may ask poetry for something else too.

The performance is available three ways. You’ve seen the picture of the lyrics video above, you may see a graphical player below to play the audio of the performance, and then there’s this highlighted link to also play it.

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*I felt obligated to put an advisory on the video, not because I desire a world of poetry that cannot frighten or offend, but because such a piece may be too much for children who may be introduced to poetry during National Poetry Month.

The Cenotaph

Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*

In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.

But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.

The_Cenotaph_the_Morning_of_the_Peace_Procession_by_Sir_William_Nicholson

This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.

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Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,”   was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through!  It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.

In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.

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*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.

**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn”  it’s not a  cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.

Mew’s 1919 poem appears to be the first WWI poem to discuss the Cenotaph concept. I’ve yet to find the text of a 1920 poem by pacifist veteran Max Plowman written after the monument was completed, and there is this remarkable 1922 poem by Ursula Roberts, also called “The Cenotaph”  that seems to echo Frances Cornford’s non-war-related “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  from 1910.

At the Beginning

Before I present today’s audio piece, once more a story, one that has kept me up reading and thinking about it for the past week. Like many of the stories I’ll tell here, the events may seem at first to be far off and unrelated to you, as much a “who cares” as poetry is to many people. But the story behind the poem affected me, now, in our current age, just as poetry written long before I was born might.

In 1878, a man was born in Germany named Erich Mühsam. When he reached the proper age he was sent off to a fine boarding school where young Mühsam recognized two things: he didn’t much care for the school’s rigorous discipline (“corporal punishment,” the polite word for instructional beatings, was the order of the day) and that he wanted to become a writer, a poet. So, the teenaged Erich wrote an article for the local Socialist newspaper about the school’s abuses. For good or bad, that was his ticket out of there. He was expelled.

As the new 20th century began he returned to his home city of Berlin and fell in with some young folks who were running what in my day would have been called a commune: “Neue Gemeinschaft” (New Society). It’s there that Mühsam met Gustav Landauer, who though only eight years older, became a sort of guru to the young Mühsam. Landauer was a theorist, a charismatic one at that, for a type of Anarchism that believed that the most effective direct action was to begin living the theory rather than seeking (and likely waiting) for some revolution to give Anarchists that opportunity. He encouraged Mühsam to develop as a poet, and poetry was part of Landauer’s world-view. Landauer’s wife was also a poet and a German translator of works of Wilde, Poe, Rabindranath Tagore, and Walt Whitman.

Mühsam absorbed much from Landauer, and you can see that in the text for today’s piece, a poem Mühsam wrote in 1909—but Mühsam was a more active revolutionary, though much of it was through literary efforts: poetry, plays, cabaret works, essays, and editorship of his own anarcho-communist journal Kain. The Left in this period was (as it often is) splintered—sometimes most sure that those with beliefs most adjacent to a segment’s own were as dangerous to the cause as overt opponents. Mühsam was non-violent but open to alliances with those that weren’t. Landauer and Mühsam sometimes found themselves on opposing sides, but their relationship was never severed. Landauer was accused of being to professorial and uninvolved in active struggle. Mühsam was thought by some as too provocative. *

Muhsam-Landauer-Buber
Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber. How does that last guy fit in? Read on. Is it just me or does Mühsam have a little Marc Maron thing going on?

 

How many of you find this Anarchist theology boring? Well, here comes WWI. Boring also to some, but also deadly and existential.

The war stifled critics of the Imperial German government, at least at first. Even the activist Mühsam had a hot take where defending his country and citizens seemed an imperative.** Write anything critical of the government and you might be arrested and jailed. Support strikes by war-workers? Go directly to jail. So, eventually Mühsam was jailed.

By late 1918 the dam broke. Beside the mountains of deaths on all sides, unimaginable before this first full-scale mass-production European war, Germany was losing, and no amount of government propaganda could convince many that this was not so. Sacrifice for winning can be cast as heroic. Sacrifice for losing is a harder sell.

And if you were waiting for it, here it comes: revolution!

In November 1918 the Kaiser abdicates as WWI ends. In the Bavarian regional capitol, Munich, the Independent Socialist Party declared the “People’s State of Bavaria.” A guy named Kurt Eisner was named its President. Seeking alliances with others on the left, Mühsam and Landauer are offered positions in the new government. They don’t take them up on this, but during this time the two old friends are now in Munich.

Eisner’s Socialists were democratic, republican (small case, they believed in elections). In the midst of this chaos, with even basic social functions in turmoil and the new Socialist alliance unable to prove any of its theories, they held elections in January 1919. They lost. Eisner went to parliament to present his resignation, true to his beliefs. An assassin shot and killed him on the street before he arrived. Now a new government is proclaimed “The Bavarian Soviet Republic.”***  And now Mühsam and Landauer join up.

Ah, so now the story of sleek agitators and thoroughbred theorists pressed into harness as government draft-horse functionaries? If only my story could stay so boring. This government lasted six days. I’ve had left-over pizza that lasted longer than that! And Wikipedia says that during this less than a week time a “mentally ill Foreign Affairs deputy” declared war on Switzerland. How could they go up against all those multifunction knives and prevail? Oh! Such comedy, dark as it is!

Trust that dark. That’s where we’re going.

Now yet another government is declared in Munich, this time led by Communists and a guy that his contemporaries said “Wanted to be Lenin. He thought  he was  Lenin!” Mühsam is arrested by this new government and thrown back in jail. Given that he was so provocative, one doesn’t have to imagine him stretching his talents far to piss them off. Lucky him. The more mild-mannered Landauer has suffered in this winter the death of his talented literary wife (a victim of the 1918-19 flu pandemic) and the dashing of his hopes for wider realization of his theories. He sticks around, out of power. Is he frozen by grief that winter? Spring comes. There’s a revolution one can count on…

…but not just flowers are coming. The Freikorps, a right-wing militia, goes into Munich to put down the revolution. This they do, hundreds die. Who can tell Landauer’s mind, but Landauer had refused advice to leave in that spring. He’s rounded up, imprisoned. The day after May Day, the guards take him to a room. They beat and abuse him. They shoot him. They beat him some more. They shoot him again, finally killing him, and toss him into a common grave.

Mühsam escaped this because he had been imprisoned by the last revolutionary government. But in the aftermath, he’s still a notorious revolutionary, so he’s put in a new prison as an enemy of the new central German Republic government.

While he’s imprisoned, in 1920, a collection of his poems titled Brennende Erde (Burning Earth) is published, and this month I got a pdf scan copy and did a rough machine translation in order to peruse it. Why did I go looking for this obscure collection? I’d read a passing reference to him as a poet and activist, and something drew me to look, in this time when I’m questioning the arts and poetry and the seeming necessity of activism that I feel unequipped to take on.

I did a more careful, human, translation of the first poem in that collection, “Zum Beginn “ (“At the Beginning.”)  It carries a subheading there telling that “At the Beginning”  was first published in Gustav Landauer’s magazine, and given the importance of Landauer to Mühsam and the short interval between the publication date for the collection and Landauer’s death, it’s easy to read it as a comment on what Mühsam learned from his teacher. Here’s my English translation, the one I perform today:

At the Beginning

 

Can one read things in it that seem to speak to today? I believe one can. I wonder if whoever was putting together the collection before publication thought it spoke to 1919 too. That line written in 1909: “Plague air hangs over the world” could be read in 1919 as a comment on the great influenza pandemic, not as a mere metaphor, just as you might read it now in Covid-19 times. The closing litany of people awakening to the power of realization, that too could be more than a dusty relic as folks marched this summer under a growing common understanding of oppression and “nets tightly wrapped around the forehead…until it can’t breathe.”

So, what happened to this young poet who turned activist/poet? In 1924 there was an amnesty declared for political prisoners and he was released. Lucky him! Another lucky man released by that amnesty had tried to declare a new government from Munich too, this time in 1923: a painter turned activist named Adolph Hitler. You probably haven’t heard much of his paintings.

Just as his 1909 poem foretold, Mühsam arrived by train in Berlin after release from prison and was met by a crowd of admirers, cheering and lifting him onto their shoulders. Someone thought things got out of hand, and soon the edges of the crowd were being attacked and beaten, though Mühsam was carried to safety that day. More than a decade after he wrote his poem, those with the fists still had the power—or some of it.

Mühsam took part in the artistic and political ferment in Berlin for almost ten years. Shortly after that pardoned painter/activist succeeded in getting power in Germany, someone burnt down the Reichstag, and it was time to round up those that had ticked off Hitler and his supporters. Mühsam was one of the first taken in. You know the quote attributed to the conservative German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller? The one that starts “First they came for…?” Jews, Gays, Leftists, avant garde artists? Was there any group Mühsam didn’t qualify for? Lucky man, head of the line.

He was sent to a concentration camp. There he was beaten and abused. In short order he was taken into a room and abused and beaten until he was dead. The guards hung his body and said he committed suicide.

There are martyrs we remember and martyrs we forget. Phil Ochs wrote a song “Too Many Martyrs”  and we might slag him off for stating the obvious rather than the artful—but the obvious is likely the truth here. At least in the United States we have next to no remembrance of Mühsam or Landauer. As far as I can tell from a brief search, Mühsam’s poetry has not attracted interest from English translators, with one site that did feature some English translations (and tantalizingly, some set to music) now defunct—and the domain name takes you to a place with bogus antivirus pop-ups flashing all over your screen. Both do have some interest to Anarchists as political figures. That’s a bit odd. Isn’t one of the romantic knocks against artists turning activists: ars longa, (and their political concerns), vita brevis? Countering that is what I call Donald Hall’s Law: that poet’s statement that almost all poets, even prize-winning poets, are largely unread 20 years after their death. I fight that here, but Hall may be right.

History had a few more things to offer me as I read this sad and affecting tale of these two men.

Mühsam wasn’t the only one who had their life impacted by Landauer and his idea of practicing egalitarian Anarchism right now in a communal and immediate relationship. His most famous pupil was probably Martin Buber, whose influence on humanism in the mid-20th century was considerable.

Remember Landauer and his wife, and his belief in the monad of domestic life as a model for change? Well that talented writer and translator and that theorist of humanist Anarchism had a child. And that child, Brigitte, survived her parents and married a doctor in Berlin. In 1931 they had a child, Mikhail—and later that decade they got out of Dodge before the painter/activist/ Führer got around to those not first on every part of his list.

They settled in America and adopted an easier to spell-and-say name, so their grade-school-aged son Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols. He became a radio folk-music DJ, an influential pioneer in popularizing improv comedy with Elaine May, and then on to a significant career as a stage and movie director.

Strange, the undernotes of history. I’ll likely never listen to a Nichols and May routine or watch a Nichols-directed movie like The Graduate  again without thinking of that grandfather, that heartbroken, widowed man being abused to death after watching the revolution, one he didn’t want to wait for, fail. I’ll still laugh. The laughs are just darker.

Today’s music is more in the “bash it out fast” manner, no pretty string quartets, no subtle sound design, just two electric guitars, bass, drums and my effort to speak the words. The player gadget is below if you read this in a browser. Apple WordPress Reader users, use the Reader’s gadget to open this in Safari to see the player.

 

 

*Among Mühsam’s early 20th century beliefs were “free love” and gay rights/acceptance. The communard Landauer believed that a loving and equalitarian family unit was a small-scale model for society.

**He took that back, and wrote anti-violence and war poetry during the war. Can one imagine Twitter in 1914? The telegraph lines would have melted.

***OK, if you stayed with me so far, with “Socialist” and “Communist” being thrown around in addition to the “aren’t they the guys who throw little black round bombs” “Anarchists,” “Soviet” might be the final straw  that chokes your metaphoric dolphin or turtle or other benevolent creature. “Soviet” means in this context, a worker’s council as a source of authority. As far as Anarchists were concerned, that’s a good thing. Anarchists are often against violence, and particularly state violence, torture, and oppression—but they are very much for long boring meetings, which have a special dispensation from being defined as torture or oppression.

A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

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.

young Charlotte Mew

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.

 

 

Something I wondered about regarding poetry and pandemics

The next part of our regular countdown of the most popular Parlando Project pieces from last winter will continue soon, but as the world and U. S. consciousness turns increasingly to COVID-19 and pandemic protocols, a question occurred to me.

Many posts and pieces in the earlier years of this blog used for texts vivid pieces about WWI, often written by participants, soldiers in the “The Great War.” And stepping back just one level, there are also poems about the war from folks who didn’t fight in it, but who lost close friends who did. I made the observation then that WWI was the last war to be extensively covered by poets.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that there is no poetry associated with other, later wars. But the WWI connection with poetry was that significant. Most of the era’s great poets, the canon members and chief modernist pioneers wrote war poems. It was that extensive. The Modernist movement had started before the war, but the war made it seem necessary, the proper way to express what it was.*

But as the war was nearing its end, a great and deadly pandemic, the “Spanish” flu of 1918-1919 struck. Statistical estimates say that it killed more people than the World War did. And in America the deaths were next door, not across the ocean.

Yet I can’t think of one great poem about the 1918 flu pandemic,** and when I did a web search today I found very little in minor, overlooked verse too. Those poems may exist, but like the 1918 pandemic itself, they may have found less retrospective honors. Even other literary arts didn’t seem to have a lot of examples. Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider  short novel was often brought up, but that frequency of a single novella being mentioned seems to testify that wasn’t a common subject in serious fiction either.

Why could that be? My first working theory is that war has a long history as a poetic subject, going back to Homer or the classical Chinese poets. While illness, and it’s descendent death, is also present in the poetic canon, illness itself is not a long-standing primary subject, and it’s almost always portrayed there as a singular event, not a great widespread event like a war. My second thought is that war is also associated with maleness and the male role, and is therefore the more “serious” subject. And then I thought of a third factor: war, however arbitrary its casualties are in reality, something the Modernist war poets helped illuminate, retained yet in 1918 some sense of a battle of honor, a test of “serious/male” skills where the winner may have won because their righteous cause added to their valor.  Pandemics, not so much. As Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor  pointed out, there are tendencies to blame the sick person for their fate across history, but parts of us also know that’s not always so. Arbitrariness can be written about in poetry, but that has difficulties. The kind of caring and loss that is more associated with the female role could substitute, but that would mean that that role would need to be honored.

ChicagoInfluenza

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*American’s native Modernist revolution was ahead of the British, with our modern American poetry lineage going back to Whitman and Dickinson, who like the WWI era modernists had likewise started their work before the trauma of the American Civil War; but at least in the case of Whitman, their trajectory was re-shaped by that war. Though it’s harder for me to find that war in the poetry of Dickinson, others think it’s there, and the events must  have had an impact on her.

**The 1918 flu that finished off wounded WWI vet and indispensable French language Modernist pioneer Apollinaire could be said to be present only by  implication in Tristan Tzara’s masterful elegy. And that’s presented as a singular death, not part of the great pandemic.