The Absent Poetry of World War II

It’s been sometime since I’ve posted here. Having fewer blocks of uninterrupted time to compose and record the audio pieces for this Project, I’ve spent time instead with that proudly designed to be a time-waster Twitter in the past week or so. Twitter* has its own news stories this week — but that’s not my subject today.

I have a tiny number of followers there, and what I tend to talk about on Twitter is poetry, and then less-popular types of music. Really, not unlike what I do here on this blog, but more cut-up and off-the-cuff — and with more typos from typing on a small tablet screen and screen-keyboard. While working with poetry and music might cross-train you to fit things into constrained spaces, the Twitter short post-length limits challenge even this fan of compressed verse and sub-1000-word essays.

I came upon this Tweet this morning though that brought to mind something I’ve not revisited here on the blog for a while. One of the regular Twitter poetry-posters put up the devastating Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,”  and I once more thought of how powerfully the soldier-poets of World War I wrote about their war from the front lines — how to this day England recalls what they said combined with their presence as example casualties from that war, and in the sum, the tragedy all that entails. Long-time readers of this blog will know how thoroughly I’ve extracted poetry from WWI for presentation here.

War Poets in Poets Corner Westminster Abbey

Here’s a picture of a specific memorial to WWI poets in the Poet’s Corner of Britain’s Westminster Abbey

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Perhaps it’s the Public Domain limitations of what can be freely reused in a Project like this, which puts my attention on pre-1927 work — but I was caused again to wonder, why don’t we have dozens of effective poems about WWII, many of which will be commonly anthologized and recalled by the general audience poetry retains? If called to find examples I might start (as would many others) with Auden’s “September 1, 1939” — but this isn’t a first-person “report from the front lines” poem like Owen, Sassoon, or T. E. Hulme presented back then. It’s not even as close to harms way as the incisive poems of Edward Thomas who wrote about his approach to volunteering for the British Army that led to his death in the conflict, or Apollinaire’s equivalent to Auden’s poem about the outbreak of WWI, “The Little Car.”  It’s not that poets or writers didn’t serve, and a great many novelists who served had a war book in them it seems.**  So, we can easily think of the novels about WWII written from frontline experience. But poems?

Was WWI poetic and WWII novelistic? I can’t make that case. Maybe you can. Is it down to the changes in the literary marketplace? Plausible, though within poetry’s more limited audience in the second half of the 20th century you think there’d be room for poetry as vivid as those of the WWI soldier-poets. Here’s a short list of a few of the notable American poets who did serve in WWII: James Dickey (Air Corps airborne navigator, though some reports say fighter pilot), Richard Wilbur (Army Signal Corps in Europe), Frank O’Hara (sailor on a destroyer in the Pacific), Richard Eberhart (gunnery trainer), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Captain of a submarine chaser), Karl Shapiro (medical corps clerk in the Pacific theater), Kenneth Koch (infantryman in the Philippines), Randall Jarrell (“Celestial navigation tower operator,” which he claimed was the most poetic job in the Air Force).***

Of that list only Shapiro and Jarrell wrote what might be called “from the front” poems. Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner”  may be the  example of an anthologized WWII poem, and Shapiro had his first book about his overseas, but not exactly in front line combat, V-Letter,  published as the war was still ongoing.

What happened? Why didn’t more of these poets write more about the details and moments of their service? My general observation is that instead they wrote consciously and unconsciously about how the war changed their outlook on the world. David Haven Blake wrote a short journal article on Wilbur’s World War II poetry, but instead makes the case more for this theory. He quotes Wilbur as saying “The war challenged me to organize a disordered sense of things, and so prepared me to write a poetry of maximum awareness and acknowledgement.” I’ve seen another quote from Wilbur circling the same thought “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

This non-scholar will now generalize wildly, but the WWI war poets used poetry, often structured metrical/rhyming poetry, to demonstrate the world out of joint, a genteel form container for barbarity and chaos. The WWII poets muted all that as unspeakable (or even over-spoken?) and sought to portray in poetry (that wasn’t always as formal) the values and observations of a peacetime more precious, however ambivalent and imperfect, from the militarized brutality of combat.

Let me dedicate this little essay to Robert Tallant Laudon. Laudon sought out the Lake Street Writers Group early this century as an 80-something veteran who had served in a logistical role in England during WWII. Though he became a music professor after the war, he seemed not completely sure of his skills as a poet, but he wanted to use poetry to portray something of his experiences during the war. By the time he was 86 he published a small chapbook “Among the Displaced — World War II”  with the resulting poems. I now view the younger me who heard him workshopping drafts of these poems as a much younger man than I thought I was then. Such is the progression of age! His poetry, like much good poetry, was written in an immediate present while depicting the 1940s, and I’ll always treasure that experience.

I mentioned at the start no new music, but here’s a piece, a “found poem” I created out of a recorded interview with another music professor, Weston Noble, who had served in WWII and which I set to my own music early in this Project. The voice you’ll hear in this must-listen-to piece is Noble’s. He commanded a tank in Europe during that war. In other parts of that interview, he recalled that when under fire, another member of his crew would ask him to sing. Inside that steel turtle shell the war outside existed mostly audibly, and the fate of those vibrating inside was unsure. The voice of Noble somehow calmed his crew. And this person now, here, who writes this? I’m still afraid to sing, worried that the unpleasant sounds that I too-often utter will embarrass me and displease any listeners. When I hear this man, now far in age from the war he fought in, decades from the interior of that tank, speak to the recorder of “The Garden of Trust”  claiming that it can be found in music, I invariably start to mist up.

Listen to this two-minute audio piece with the player below — or if you don’t see it, with this highlighted link provided as a backup.

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*A new sole-proprietor owner has led many — who have through long activity and posting on this online service built up it’s usefulness for themselves and others — to worry about its continued existence.

**Kurt Vonnegut did two WWII novels . One, Slaughterhouse Five,  is one of the last first-person-experience-informed WWII novels, and another, Mother Night,  is a personal favorite, and includes this WWII poem that this Project performed.

***I was able to start this list from an article on the Poetry Foundation’s web site linked here.

All Souls’ Night

Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,”  and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones.  That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night”  was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.

Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night”  has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.*  To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.

clouds and cobblestones cover

I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…

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Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,”  let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.

Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices,  that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**

Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?

In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.

It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.

If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any  of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.

At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”

This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.***  All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.

OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.”  I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link.  I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.

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*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917”  as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.

**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.

***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.

Synchronicity: Spring 2022 Parlando Top Ten numbers 4-2

Sometime before The Police made it an album title, this project’s alternate voice and keyboard player Dave Moore took to using the term synchronicity to explain some things that going forward cause significant effects where there was no pre-existing reason or even connection. Maybe me seeing Dave read a poem in a church while we were both teenagers would be an example. Or here’s another one: an American poet who had generated no interest in America travels to England and creates not one but two poetry careers. And then that runs together with the next three pieces in our countdown to the most popular piece with listeners over this past spring.

Robert Frost went to England largely unpublished and un-heralded in 1912. He was 37. If you were thinking of starting a fantasy draft league for poets in 1912, Frost could not be your pick. I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the reasons for this move, but it might well have been because some of what Frost was writing chimed with poetry that had been published and reached an audience in the UK, poetry that used a rhymed/metrical lyrical voice to portray unpretentious countryside settings. While living in England Frost met another writer, the 35-year-old Edward Thomas. Thomas, also not your fantasy poet draft pick — he wasn’t even writing poetry. The two took a liking to each other.

Frost rather quickly found an English publisher while in England, and published two book-length collections containing many of the poems he’s still best known for. American Ezra Pound took to praising Frost to Americans, and Frost’s career was launched!

4. The Aim was Song by Robert Frost.  Coming in at number four in our spring countdown this year we find the now successful Frost with a poem published first in America. It’s a natural text for this Project because it uses music as a metaphor in a very musical poem. It’s been popular here over the years since I first presented it, and it was one of the most popular pieces among the 30 I re-released for National Poetry Month this April.

You can hear my performance of “The Aim Was Song”  with a player many will see just below this paragraph, or with this alternative highlighted link, which is here for those that won’t see the player.

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So, what happened to our Edward Thomas? Thomas’ writing was focused on work-for-hire, the scriveners gig-economy of the time set to fill column inches in magazines and newspapers. Thomas’ personal interests were present in some of those works: he was an avid walker, bicyclist, and amateur naturalist. Like Emily Dickinson, no plant is encountered in Thomas’ writing and is not given a specific name or description. And likewise birdsong. Thomas kept journals, and they too have passages filled with the countryside carefully observed.

Frost saw Thomas’ writing, declared to his friend that he already had the stuff of poetry, and analyzed Thomas’ situation as a “suffering from a life in subordination to his inferiors.” Thomas subsequently took up writing poems with the now published and becoming-known Frost’s encouragement. However, time was marching up on the pair with a large surprise — a world war was about to break out.

Thomas’ non-militarist outlook, his middle-age, and his family for which he was the sole support non-withstanding, Thomas seemed drawn to military service for his country. Frost moved back to America to further build on his growing reputation there. He put forth a standing offer for Thomas and his family to join him in the United States.

3. Gone Gone Again by Edward Thomas.  Here’s a poem Thomas wrote during this time, and it’s a wistful evocation of war’s absences. In England Thomas is often thought of as a war poet, and there are reasons for that. But one of the uniqueness’s in his poems set during the time of WWI is that they avoid tableaus of the battlefields and the action set thereupon. “Gone Gone Again”  is a poem of what’s not there: people, workers who are now soldiers.

Thomas enlisted, trained as a lieutenant, a most dangerous job in the warfare of the time. After duty in England (he helped make maps, an apt job for a man who so well knew the countryside) he shipped overseas to the battlefront, where he was shortly killed.

Like for some young poets and musicians, death was a good career move for Thomas. Friends posthumously published a collection of the freshly-written poems that Thomas had crafted in only a couple of years writing verse. Attention was paid in the UK to the “war poets” and everything Thomas wrote was read in the context of that cataclysmic event for Great Britain.

One poem Thomas wrote, based on a journal entry from a train ride he took on this very day, June 24th in the summer of 1914, became his best-known and loved poem in his home country: “Adlestrop.”   You can hear my performance of “Adlestrop”  here.

Or you can celebrate “Adlestrop day” with this “lyric video” from earlier this year.

.Most Americans don’t know this poem or Thomas. I didn’t, until 2016 when one summer day of unwonted heat the train I was to make was subject to what became an hours-long delay in arriving at Kingham. The heat was such that trains had been stopped for fear of track failure. I can recall the trees and foliage swaying in the summer breeze at the little station, some small bird activity, a station caretaker who arrived to drip a watering can into some hanging plants on the platform. It was only afterwards that I learned of this poem, set in the very next town on that trainline, the even littler town whose trainstop had been removed some years back. Rod Serling should have come out the station door with a skinny tie and a summer-cut suit to quip on that synchronicity. Did I miss him because I wasn’t looking for him, because I didn’t know any of that until after I had been in Kingham that afternoon? Thomas’ poem was, and to some significant degree still is, loved because a few days after Thomas was stuck in Adlestrop, an Archduke got assassinated and the slow-motion trainwreck of WWI broke out over the ensuing summer. Thomas wrote his most famous poem afterward, referring to his memory and journal entries, and so he likely intended this poem to be read, like “Gone Gone Again,”  as a study in absences, a summer day with a peaceful nothing-urgent before “the guns of August.”

To hear “Gone Gone Again,”  there’s a graphical player for some — and you others? This link.

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2. Cock Crow by Edward Thomas.  So, is Thomas only  a war poet? Could he have been something else? I think it’s highly likely. He was a troubled man, some other calamity less nation-shared than a World War could have taken him early, but the more I read, even his slightest poems, the more I see why Frost was taken with him, and why even Americans who may not share the cathedral-plaque reverence given UK war poets might still discover him. When I read “Cock Crow”  in a 1920’s anthology of Thomas’ contemporaries this past spring I was struck by how much fresher and less puffed up with ineffective references Thomas’ writing was set against the field. And Americans, whose culture received a 19th century dosage of Transcendentalism, love our closely observed nature poetry perhaps more than Brits. Maybe I feel a connection from that afternoon in Kingham, and that prejudices my reading?

Bird song occurs in “Cock Crow’s”   title and text, and in reply I was pleased I was able to end my performance of it with a choral part. You can hear it with the player, or its backup, this link.

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“Cock Crow”  got a lot of listens. I thought it might be the most liked and listened to one, but when I totaled them all up this June, another piece beat it out. I’ll be back soon with the most popular piece this past spring. It’s a surprising one.

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.