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.
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.
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.
*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.
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. *
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:
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.
This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.
And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”
The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.
So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.
Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.
Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.
So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.
Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.
Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915” doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.
There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.
Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.
How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.
Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.
You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915” with the player gadget below.
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.
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.
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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.
Poetry as an immediate witness to momentous history is not a common thing. Poems of events tend to autobiography, deaths, love, births, personal injuries and triumphs. Today’s piece has both elements—memorable on both counts.
Guillaume Apollinaire is a major figure in Modernism with an influence across the arts as a critic and theorist. He popularized the term Cubism, invented the term Surrealism, and using his own name “Orphism” helped explain and formulate abstract expressionism. In the era surrounding WWI his influence and omnipresence was stronger from his base in Paris with French-speakers than Ezra Pound’s was for English-speakers from London. As a poet Apollinaire bridges the 19th century Symbolists to the Dada and Surrealism to come, and though he wrote in French, many of the English-language Modernists looked to French models for their verse.* While his work is experimental with form and language, it’s also very open-hearted and joyous in a way I associate with later 20th century American Frank O’Hara.
“The little car” tells of a day of Apollinaire’s that would change his life. On that biographic matter alone it would be of interest to literary historians. But it also tells us about the early days of the most influential event in Modernism, the outbreak of WWI. Apollinaire’s poem is comparable to W. H. Auden’s better-known beginning of WWII poem “September 1, 1939.”
So, let’s begin talking about the poetry as history today.
World War I started over a series of days earlier in the month of August 1914, kicked off by a ham-handed assassination in the Balkans at the end of June, followed by a slow enactment of various alliances and agreements plunging the whole world into warfare over the course of weeks (or in the case of the U.S., years).
Unlike the reputation of WWI as a brutal struggle of attrition between trenches, the opening August weeks were fast-moving. German troops cut through Belgium taking over that country in short order, putting them at the northern border of France as they met the French army. Large military movements and formations just slightly modernized from the Napoleonic era, that still included cavalry charges and fife and drum, met modern artillery and rapid firing weapons. Aerial bombings were introduced to warfare (though ground-based actions were more deadly to civilians). Soon amplified by propaganda, there are widespread accounts of bestial atrocities by the advancing army.**
Before the events of today’s poem, which self-dates itself to the end of August 1914 and into the following September day, during the Battle of the Frontiers, France’s army had suffered its largest single day of deaths and casualties in this or any war before or since, a staggering total of 27,000 killed in one day, with a figure of 300,000 casualties. The French army was reeling, withdrawing back toward Paris, which was the Germans’ objective in this first month of the war.
Apollinaire and his friend the artist André Rouveyre are in Deauville on the northern, English Channel coast of France. The poem doesn’t say, but I’m assuming they feel that the German advance is threatening their location, and so they do what threatened people unsure of the future often too, they head for home, Paris, not weighing that the French capital is the objective of that invading army.
Here’s my new translation of Apollinaire’s “La petite auto” used for today’s performance
That they leave “a little before midnight” is not just an image of imminent dark change, it also may say something of a necessity not to wait, or perhaps a decision that traveling at night, as difficult as it might be with primitive headlights, may be safer under the cover of darkness.
The poem continues with a series of Symbolist images, assembled in whatever order, as a Cubist painting might be. These are not mere inventions. Although expressed symbolically, they are reportage. Indeed, some of the symbolic events which may seem mundane to us in our world, would be accounts of dreadful wonder in 1914: men fighting in the sky, submarine monsters of war—the masters/merchants of war with their opulent and extraordinary wares.
Another feature of this poem is that the text begins to wander on the page and eventually is laid out in a manner that Apollinaire called “Calligrammes” to form the shape of “The little car” of the title.*** I’ve not included that concrete poetry text in my new translation for reasons of length and focus on the spoken potential of the piece.
The poem ends with Apollinaire and Rouveyre arriving in Paris on the afternoon of September 1st. I note the poem says they stopped for a bit in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, which indicates that they took a round-about route that day since Fontainebleau is south-east of Paris though they were coming from the north-west of Paris.
The “mobilization posters” he speaks of that were being put up as they pulled into town tell of the irony of their route to escape the Germans. The German army is now threatening Paris itself, advancing to between 20-30 miles from the city, and legend has it that the French army was able to redeploy quickly by dragooning the entire taxi-fleet of Paris.****
Many of Apollinaire’s WWI generation lived on as forces in my post-WWII lifetime, as still-living actors in the culture, but Apollinaire was not to be one of them. So influential as he was in the early-20th century’s cultural ferment, it could be said that his death during the war was the single most important cultural casualty, more important than the death of promising poets such as Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen because Apollinaire, like another casualty, T. E. Hulme, was more than just a writer, he was a leader and promoter of ideas. You can make the case that his death is the same magnitude as some alternate-time-line where the world lost Picasso in 1918. Or you could make another judgement: he was so effective in the pre-1918 years, and the Modernist urge was so strong and then intensified by a world war that made the old artistic forms seem like a cavalry charge against machine guns, that his continued life was not crucial. That’s a cold debate. His friends sure missed him, and kept working.
Dionysus and Apollinaire.
Musically I’ve had this thought lately that I’ve avoided use of some of my most basic musical genres. And Iggy and the Stooges are the definition of that. They started as an art project, making free-form noise on stage, with Iggy Pop, a converted blues-band drummer as their front man. Somehow they decided that the most elemental and elementary expression, however untutored and unvarnished was the way to go. Iggy Pop’s lyrics were the “Blue Undershirts” of 60s rock, the rejoinder to “you call that poetry.” A song such as “1969” from their debut LP is a bored and hedonistic critique of a year deep in another war, cultural and shooting. Robert Lowell it’s not. It’s really not. No, it’s really really not.
For this performance I’ve enlisted my son, the “in his first year of it” bass player and singer, who from his interest in punk and indie-rock can explore that aesthetic with a fresh set of fingers. Conceptually, this song is inspired by the Stooges “1969” because here we have (with “The little car”) two songs about war across a nation,***** but in my tribute I simplified the Stooges’ typical 3 chord trick into a 2 chord chug. Of course, to my son the Vietnam era is exactly as old as WWI was to Iggy and the Stooges. All wars should be so old.
***E. E. Cummings was heavily inspired not only by Apollinaire’s dropping of punctuation, but his freeness with placement of text on the page.
****The taxis that saved Paris legend may not hold up. But my favorite part of this linked story? The account that the taxi owners kept the meters running and presented a bill to the government after the battle. Paging Joseph Heller or Milo Minderbinder to the white courtesy phone.
*****Or not—at least by intent. On the rattling plastic luggage record players of the time, I always heard Iggy Pop’s opening lines in 1969 to be “It’s 1969 OK/War across the USA.” Some cover versions say I’m not the only one who heard “war” as part of the folk process. The published lyrics and close listening with headphones say Iggy was singing “All across the USA.” Well, excuse me while I kiss this guy. The Iliad was carried by an oral tradition long before it was written down. Regression analysis says Homer wrote it about some sunny Mediterranean partying and dancing. The homoerotic and warfare parts were just misheard by the folks in the back row.
Here’s a piece for today’s U. S. holiday: President’s Day.
Long-time readers here know that’s not going to be simple, but it may be interesting.
For some time in this project I’ve thought I’ll have to deal with Vachel Lindsay. In the early days of poetic Modernism a century ago, when no one knew exactly how that movement would turn out, Lindsay was a force to be reckoned with, with a life story and approach to his art that was so outsized, that if he hadn’t actually existed, and instead you created him as a character, you would be charged with unrealistic and exaggerated imagination.
In the great American tradition of bohemian artistry, Lindsay was not well-off, not Ivy League educated, nor born in some cultural capitol. By force of will he decided that he would make his way in the increasingly business-oriented world of the 20th Century as a poet.
How’d that work out? Better than you might imagine, if only for a time. He made most of his bones touring the country intensively, reciting his poetry in a flamboyant style. Much like the life of a musician, it worked only to the degree that he was able to keep up a relentless road-dog touring schedule. Between tours, what time he had to write was also the time that he fell into debt and doubt.
If you think that poetry should be, at least in part, a spoken art form, Lindsay was there before. If one wants poetry to be appreciated as a popular form, with no academic prerequisites, Lindsay lived that. If you want poetry to be a force for social good, Lindsay too. Slam poetry? Lindsay was doing that before there was a name. Poetry inspired by and linked with vernacular music? Lindsay, a century ago.
Vachel Lindsay is not doing the hokey-pokey here, but performing poetry.
So why haven’t I presented Vachel Lindsay before today? Three reasons.
One, he wrote a lot of bad or flawed poetry. Awkward, sentimental, not particularly striking in imagery, and despite his spoken word and musical inclinations, not always in tune with my sense of music.
Secondly, though he always claimed his heart was in the right place, his treatment of other cultures was so clumsy and ignorant that it’s too often indiscernible from racism. This isn’t a close call, or some case of modern politically correct revisionism, even in his own era this was noticed. It was more than 50 years ago when I first ran into one of his set pieces, “The Congo,” and from that I figured I was done with Vachel Lindsay.*
These are both general reasons why Lindsay is not seriously considered along with his contemporary Modernists of the early 20th Century. But there is another, more personal reason: I fear the Vachel Lindsay in myself. When I see in my own writing awkwardness and flawed art, when I stop to consider the un-earned audacity of my own spoken word and musical expression, when I catch myself assuming that good intentions are sufficient, when I write here of other cultures and experiences, and despite my provincial and limited knowledge of them, perform works associated with them—then I fear I’m becoming my own variation of Vachel Lindsay. I continue to do those things anyway, stubbornly—again, like Lindsay.
Art is not just a place to model human potential. It’s also a revelation of human failures. Bad art can inspire good art. Failures illuminate as much as successes.
With that long introduction, let me now tell you that today’s piece, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (in Springfield Illinois)” is still worthy of four minutes of your attention. Unlike China or the Congo, Lindsay knows Lincoln’s adult hometown of Springfield Illinois, as it was his hometown too. “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” is not a piece that extends language, it has no clever images that re-calibrate how you experience something, its word-music is not so beautiful that you’d be drawn to it before you even care what it’s about. We have long celebrated Abraham Lincoln as the President of our greatest national traumatic event, the American Civil War, fought over our greatest national sin, slavery. So, the poem has only an emotional, empathetic message, but this is all art delivers to us however plain or fancy the wrapping.
President’s Day is not a simple holiday today. Here’s my performance of Lindsay’s Lincoln poem. I kept the music simple enough and in that hometown key of C. The high melody part that sounds like a synth patch is actually 12-string guitar run through a lot of time and modulation effects and a compressor. The player is below:
I’m reading another critic/minor poet’s book about the early 20th century British literary scene, Edward Shanks’ First Essays on Literature. He’s in general more backward looking than Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets where I discovered Charlotte Mew (Shanks’ book has essays on Keats and Shelley) but I was interested what he had to say in his chapter “The Later Poetry of Mr. W. B. Yeats.” Shanks seems ambivalent about Yeats, and this is one of the pleasures of reading contemporary assessments of still active artists. He notes with approval that Yeats’ language has with the 20th century become less formal and fusty, though Shanks feels that gain comes at a loss of a singing quality.* Another conclusion he reaches is that Yeats’ is best when he’s describing the fantastical: “It is not Mr. Yeats’s business to describe the actual world, but to make beautiful pictures out of his dreams.” Though giving Yeats his due, Shanks doesn’t seem to think this is a good thing.
Interesting comment that, though I was already aware of Yeats’ appreciation of Irish myths and his dabbling in his era’s contemporary occultism. It caused me to stop and connect Yeats, and the two lesser known poets I’ve presented this month: Charlotte Mew and Yeats’ associate Walter Turner. Both have aspects of fantasy in their poetry too. And even our staid prelate of High Modernism, T. S. Eliot, while seeking his correlates within the whole timeline of culture, picks out elements of unreal gothic horror to weave into “The Waste Land.” Elements so broad as to make me compare a section of “The Waste Land” to Metal bands.
Did the horrors of WWI and the shifting ground of artistic Modernism impel some poets of the time to retreat (or advance) into fantasy? With the war poets, many of which had been “reporting” from the front-lines, no longer lining-out contemporary events while those events’ questions of outcome and action were pressing on all, was there now after the war a countervailing mode to step away from the pressing real?
If so, it’s no simple thing, and not just a matter of “give me some beautiful art to not let me think about hard questions.” Fantasy is just metaphor presented on another layer of art. Eliot, who unlike many of his contemporaries did not serve in WWI, would have trouble writing about the war as the veterans did after all. And the Surrealists—well their whole point was those “pictures out of…dreams” might reflect something essential.
Fantasy. Escapism? Surrealism? Metaphor presented in another layer of art?
Mew’s “Changeling” from my last post? Yes, it’s a fairy story, as is Yeats’ great “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” but either connects first on an emotional level deeper than any amazement at the fantastic. Talking fish or fairies knocking at windows are mundane compared to the loneliness of old age or the alienation of being an unlike youth.
Well, let’s end for now with an audio piece, an old one of my own. I wrote “China Mouth, A Changeling” over 40 years ago, after listening to a conversation where someone else was bemoaning their alienation. During the conversation the main talker paused to reapply some very red lipstick, its deep red the China in the mouth of the title. Unlike Mew’s changeling—who will run off, who cannot be stopped—there seemed to me to be an element of stasis in that overheard conversation. They seemed resigned that they would have their art and their alienation in a frozen balance. That brought to mind a story in Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from his 1895 collection The King in Yellow in which a liquid turns living things into statuary. That idea informed the last verse. Depending on one’s taste for mystery, it either saves or ruins the song. Use the player below to hear it and decide for yourself.
*I don’t think I agree, Yeats never stops being musical to me. Shanks himself has an interesting connection between poetry and music, as another chapter in his book “Folk-Song as Poetry” deals with Cecil Sharp and other contemporary attempts to conserve British Isles folk music. Shanks’ first book was a collection of poetry called Songs, one of which lifts the floating verse that found its way into many folk songs, the one that starts “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies.”
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War One, let’s bring in a writer not primarily known as a “war poet,” Thomas Hardy. Hardy is one of those bridge-poets between the era of the romantic and sometimes sentimental Victorian poets and the Modernists. Though I’m told Hardy never felt at ease in London artistic circles (he was country-born, son of a stone-mason and largely educated through apprenticeships as an architect) his poetry was admired by some of the Modernists. Why might that be? While his language can sometimes seem antique to modern ears, it was his language, the language of a rural 19th century working class Englishman. And while he will write about sentimental subjects, he’ll balance that with a cold eye.
The horse-drawn harrowing time of the Breaking of Nations. But what’s that woman doing behind the horse?
Hardy grew up in a rural, farming district, as I did, and it may have been natural for him to relate the violence of the Great War to that setting. And I love how he does it here with three spare quatrains: the boustrophedon horse-drawn disk or rake plow that is literally breaking the earth*, in contrast with the prophetic “Breaking of Nations” warning from Jeremiah used for the title. Then there’s smoke rising, not a razed town after an army has swept through it, “only” the burning of invasive weeds. And finally, a mysterious third stanza with a mysterious word: wight.
It’s an old word, one of those that came to English with the German Saxons centuries ago. Chaucer knew it, used it in The Canterbury Tales, and as best as I can tell it meant a sort of unimposing person or creature. Sometime later, perhaps after Hardy learned the usage of the word and after this poem was written in 1915**, it’s taken on a supernatural connotation. It’s fairly easy to trace that back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the word in The Fellowship of the Ring written decades after Hardy’s poem. Tolkien was a scholar of the ancestor languages of modern English. Did he know of other usages of the word, or did he simply take a very old word and choose to use it for an undead-spirit slain in battle?
So, in this last stanza, what does Hardy mean by his whispering maid and “her wight.” A flirting young couple? Are they whispering merely to shield their romantic bantering from others? Or is it something weirder? Is this a young woman whose man is off to battle, or even one of the battle-dead? Or, as part of Hardy’s theme are they both immortal ever-returning spirits, whispering because you only barely sense them in our time-bound world?
I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge to know how depopulated the farming areas of England were by the need for soldiers during WWI. From Edward Thomas’ poem from last month, “Gone, Gone Again” I get the idea that the absence of farming men was noticeable. And it was at least enough of an issue that England formalized an effort to recruit and train women as replacement farm labor.
Not just whispering to her boyfriend. “There’s not enough labour at hand to cultivate sufficient land to keep people from starvation.” Recruitment ads for the Women’s Land Army in England during World War I.
Well, I just like it that this is blurred. Do the final two lines give us any clues? Why does Hardy say that “War’s annals will cloud into night?” In early drafts, Hardy wrote “fade,” and “cloud” seems a more peculiar choice. In the context of the 2nd stanza weed-burning, I’m thinking he’s saying they will disappear in a cloud of smoke. Also in context of the 2nd stanza, this would make such war records in some future as valueless as weeds, but smoke/cloud again reiterates that there’s something unsubstantial about the couple.
“In the Time of the Breaking of Nations” demonstrates a lot of what I like about short lyric poetry. T. S. Eliot could write a Modernist masterpiece like “The Wasteland” extending to the farthest lengths of lyric expression, 15,000 words—but a poem like this can touch a lot in its 63 words.
It may not be apparent due to the instrumentation used, but I might have been subconsciously inspired by Bob Dylan’s repeating chord progression used for his masterful three-short-stanza song “All Along the Watchtower,” which is very much in the same mode as Hardy’s poem.
Here is my performance of Hardy’s poem. Use the player below.
*Note too, Hardy’s pun on “harrowing.” For another discussion of boustrophedon plowing and time, see this earlier post. Near the end of his life, while visiting a farming museum, my father wanted me and his grandson to know that he’d walked behind a horse-drawn plow.
It’s 1956. World War One had ended less than 40 years ago, instead of 100. Robert Frost is the most celebrated living American poet, and he has traveled back to England to receive honors from both Oxford and Cambridge universities, a symbolic laurel helping to mark the 20th Century acceptance of American poetry into the pantheon of our polyglot language.
Two elderly women follow an invitation to an upstairs to-do in London, where the American poet has just landed. Eleanor Farjeon is one of the pair, then 75 years old, and here’s how she described what happened:
We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. ‘It’s Helen and Eleanor, Robert.’ He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little…. Robert muttered, ‘Well, well, well.’ Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren.
Who are these ladies that broke off the tête-à-tête between the two Modernist poetic titans?
One was the widow of Edward Thomas, the man who Robert Frost called “the only brother I ever had.” The other was the woman who had introduced Edward Thomas to Frost in 1913, Eleanor Farjeon. The poet Edward Thomas is not well known outside of Britain, Farjeon even less so, but none-the-less she had a long and varied literary career as a poet, playwright, children’s book author, and songwriter in a life that spanned from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carnaby Street.
Eleanor Farjeon early and late in her life
Back just before and after the outbreak of WWI, the Frost Family, the Thomas Family, and Eleanor Farjeon were a sort of an extended pod of friendship and affiliations. The Thomas marriage had strains, and Farjeon was in love with Edward Thomas. Thomas’ spouse, Helen, surprisingly cast Eleanor Farjeon not as a rival but as a balm to Edward. And so, between her own writing, and typing manuscripts to help D. H. Lawrence (also hanging around this circle*) Farjeon, like Robert Frost, took to accompanying Edward Thomas on his indefatigable walks around the countryside.
Eleanor Farjeon was still a literary stem cell at the time. She later said “In my youth I dreamed of being a ‘real’ poet, but half way through my life that dream died, and whatever figments of it remained went into writing songs** and verses for children.”
When Edward Thomas decided to enlist and volunteer for the front lines in the war, the pod all shared correspondence with Thomas, a correspondence that continued right up to the very week of Thomas’ battle-death. And after that, they all shared the task of putting his literary affairs in order and promoting the poetry of the man who had only started writing it during that short pre-war period.
Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon both wrote elegies for Edward Thomas. It may surprise you, but I’m choosing to use Farjeon’s memorial sonnet here to cap off our Armistice Day series on Edward Thomas, instead of Frost’s poem. Farjeon might have thought of herself as not a “real” poet, but it’s us, the audience, that decides. Her poem may seem to be made of genteel English stuff: gardens, Easter eggs, love tokens, so that it has the patina of an antique valentine—but that’s just the surface. How about those relentless repetitions? You can hear James Joyce or Gertrude Stein tuning up in the distance if you listen for those. Did she mean the punning subtext of the repeated “Eve” with the repeated apples? If this were a Joyce poem we’d assume yes, so why not here? And that surface? It’s a paper scrim she means to tear, to rip—and yet when she does it in the last line, there’s no sound, only an invisible gap, an understated “apology”.
Here is what Eleanor Farjeon said, shortly before her own death, writing again about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost when recounting her last, 1956 meeting with Frost in the company of Thomas’ widow: “We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them.”
*Sounds a bit unconventional for an Edwardian village in 1913 doesn’t it—but any bets on who did the housework?
**And it’s in this guise that Farjeon is likely to be best known in the U. S. Back in 1972, three denizens of that Sixties London: Cat Stevens (later Yusef Islam), Rick Wakeman (later caped-keyboardist of Prog Rock fame) and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer and former bass-player with the Yardbirds) created an arrangement of Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken” for a best-selling LP and eventual #6 hit single on the Billboard U.S. charts.
In my roundup of World War One War Poets earlier this week for the upcoming centenary of Armistice Day, I only mentioned Edward Thomas in passing. He shares the military service and the battle-related death of the others, but his writing about the war is different. Though he was working on notes that could lead to poems during his short front-line service, I’m unaware of any Thomas poems that tell of his experiences of battle. Many of his poems instead deal, intentionally, or inherently in their time’s context, with the change in norms that the war brought.
A poem like his much loved “Adlestrop,” if read in the context of the war’s coming outbreak, speaks even more intensely of the peace and unnoticed wonder that pauses in the muddle of an unscheduled train delay.
“Adlestrop” doesn’t mention the war though, and it’s based on one of Thomas’ journal entries from before the war. On the other hand, a poem like his “Gone, Gone Again” speaks intentionally and masterfully about the changes in his beloved countryside “before the war began turning young men to dung.” His highly condensed “In Memoriam, Easter 1915” is another that intends to mark the war’s changes.
Edward Thomas, a British nature poet that events bent into a War Poet
If you look at a continuum* from his “In Memoriam” through today’s “The Owl” to “Gone, Gone Again” you can see a journey from a short and moving, though impersonal, elegy/pastoral through “The Owl’s” introduction of a linkage of his own corporal experience to those on the front, and concluding with the even more personal and aching conflation of his own state with his country’s situation in “Gone Gone Again.” For this reason, I’m going to put the audio player gadgets for all three in the post today, so that you can follow Edward Thomas’ journey as he decided as a middle-aged family man to enlist—volunteering for the front-lines, and his eventual death.
Here’s “In Memoriam (Easter 1915)” as Thomas begins to weigh the costs of war.
And this is today’s new addition, “The Owl.” It’s not important to the poem, but the pendant in me wanted to know what species of owl Thomas heard. England helpfully has fewer species of owl than North America, so it must have been a male tawny owl, as the other candidate, the barn owl, has a screechy call that couldn’t have been cast as melancholy.
And finally, here’s “Gone, Gone Again.”
*I don’t actually know what order that Thomas wrote them, or even if “The Owl” was written before the war, as some particulars of the journey he describes echo the book he wrote about a bicycle tour he took from the suburbs of London to the border of Wales in 1913. But for performance reasons, seeing the three poems as a narrative seemed defensible to me, or at least no more anachronistic as having the artificial tang of Mellotron strings and flutes to stand in again for England in the music.