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.”
Here’s my performance of Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)” that you can hear using the player below.
*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.
As we enter the week in which we note the ending of World War One a century ago, I want to call attention to some the ways we’ve shown poets wresting with that war in their own time. It’s a longer post, but each one of these pieces presents something different for Armistice Day.
I didn’t start out to feature the WWI generation here. I first intended to include more modern poets’ words, but to do so I would have needed to try to negotiate the issue of finding the copyright holders and getting them to respond to requests for permission when I thought I’d located them. That turned out to be frustrating.
This left me with the pre-1923 generation, the original Modernists, as the most recent voices I could consistently present. Like many limitations this brought an unexpected return. This generation’s members were the pioneers in the new poetic voice that I had to deal with as a young man and young writer, and to some degree we’re still dealing with them now. Even the basic and incontrovertible truth that the majority of published poetry has been free verse in my lifetime is not some inevitable thing, someone had to suggest and prove its efficacy. And the kind of imagery we take for granted as allowed or desirable in literary poetry? That too is their doing.
WWI did not start Modernism. Americans and the French were experimenting with many of its tactics as early as the mid-19th century, and British Modernism was already emerging before 1914. But the events of WWI bent the development of Modernism by their tremendous gravitational pull. Sometimes directly, by poets and artistic allies who were killed, but also by propounding the idea that the established artistic order was incapable of describing the world of the first world war or it’s aftermath. Pre-WWI Modernists writing in English could be straightforward and modest in their poetry. They often valued shorter forms that assumed the elaboration would occur in the minds of readers rather than in endless lines on the page. Post-WWI, the longer poem and much more elaborate and opaque imagery came to the forefront, and the form of the irrational became a large part of the reflected world, even for writers outside the movements like Dada and Surrealism that were formed around that.
It’s been an adventure here reliving those changes. Some of the Parlando Project’s most popular pieces have come from that WWI moment, and here are the six most popular WWI poems we’ve presented here.
6. Christ and the Soldier. Siegfried Sassoon seems to have been somewhat superseded by his friend Wilfred Owen as the representative British War Poet of the anti-war stripe. Owen may have “benefited” by dying in the war, rather than having the long career that Sassoon had. Sassoon was a highly decorated veteran of the trenches when he started to publicly oppose the war, and this lead to the danger that he could have been charged with treason, and a weird compromise was worked out where he was treated instead as a man suffering from mental illness caused by the war instead of being put up on trial, the kind of outcome that Joseph Heller would have relished writing of decades later. “Christ and the Soldier” is not politically anti-war, but it’s stark, darkly-humorous, and yet serious account struck me from the first time I read it. As WWI poems go, it deserves to be much better known.
You probably haven’t heard this one, so use the player below.
5. These Fought. Ezra Pound did not fight in WWI. Pound was an American living in England, which would have complicated his enlistment before and after America’s entry into the war, but in either case a determined man could have overcome those obstacles. Pound’s friend, and co-founder of English Modernist verse in the years leading up to the war, the lesser-known Englishman T. E. Hulme, enlisted, as did others in his wide circle of acquaintances. So, when this post-war poem was published, excoriating the waste and propaganda of the war years, it was in the context of a longer poem that it’s only a section of, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” In the entire poem, Pound, who’s personality seems to have been a strange mixture of generosity and egotism, stubbornness and self-admonishment, also charges himself with failing to decisively deal with the titanic issues of the war. I’d muse that this sounds like survivor’s guilt is mixed in with the contempt for the war stated after the fact. In Pound’s case, his self-correction found him supporting his next foreign home, Fascist Italy, against his native country’s side during the next World War. Ironically, this lead, like Sassoon, to the compromise of “Well, maybe he’s a traitor, but let’s treat him as crazy.”
Still, as a piece of invective, and as a condensed statement of art’s challenges in dealing with monstrous events, I have to hand it to Ezra for his set of words. Pound helped “popularize” the use of phrases from many languages in High-Modernist English language poems, much to the benefit of footnote writers, and in “These Fought” he drops a variation on the same Latin phrase used by Wilfred Owen in Owen’s best-known anti-war poem: “Pro patria, non dulce non et decor” in Pound, “Dulce et decorum est” in Owen. In either case, the Latin phrase, from Roman poet Horace, is about it being sweet and proper to die for one’s country, and neither the veteran Owen or the non-veteran Pound meant to endorse that phrase when they used it. In our 21st century world, large portions of proper Americans would agree with Horace’s original thought, and take umbrage with Pound, or possibly even Owen denying its validity—yes, I could see that being charged against even Owen who gave his life, however sweet or properly.
The gadget to hear Pound’s rant about the waste of it all is below.
This large American military cemetery engraved Horace’s maxim in 1915. And whether for solidarity, guilt, or respect for duty, many will endorse it still. Some will stand by it with their lives not just a chisel.
4. Trenches St. Eloi. Another poem by a front-line veteran of WWI, one who didn’t survive the war, and a man who was important enough to the founding of English language Modernist poetry that his war death might have alterned post-war Modernism to some degree. T. E. Hulme helped form Pound’s own views on how poetry should “make it new,” and was admired as well by T. S. Eliot, but his own poetry is now little-known because of its sparseness in number and length. Though he was known as a pugnacious talker in person, and was a writer of audacious criticism, his surviving poems have a shocking modesty about them, something I find quite admirable. Though he wrote dispatches to English home-front periodicals during his service (from those I’ve read, they support the English cause) this is his only poem about his experience of the war itself, and it was composed, or rather transcribed, while he was back in England being treated for battle wounds before going back to the front and his death.
To hear Hulme’s ode to soldierly persistence, use the player below.
3. The Death of Apollinaire. Speaking of influential casualties of the war, Guillaume Apollinaire, must be right up there. The man coined the names “cubism” and “surrealism” after all, and his verse influenced not only countless French poets, but Americans like E. E. Cummings. The exact cause of Apollinaire’s death is open to attribution. He was still weakened by war wounds when he was struck down by the infamous 1918 influenza epidemic just two days before the end of WWI. The poem used here is a surprisingly sincere elegy written by a frank shirker of military service, Tristan Tzara, who as a teenager fled the tinderbox of the Balkans where the world war started for neutral Switzerland, where he participated in the invention of Dada at the famous Cabaret Voltaire. Dada had no respect for the pieties of the warring parties, but Tzara’s respect for Apollinaire comes through in my original translation of his poem.
Thinking of Hulme and Apollinaire as front-line soldiers in WWI makes me pause and wonder at the differences in my own time. Can you imagine John Lennon and Bob Dylan serving as grunts in Vietnam? Or Damon Albarn and Jay Z being deployed to Iraq? Of course, there are differences in poet/critics and pop-stars however artistic the songwriters are, but still it’s a different world, and Modernist artists both reflected and helped to form it.
To hear my performance of my own new translation of Tzara’s poem about Apollinaire’s death in the autumn of victory, use the player gadget below.
2. Grass. Carl Sandburg didn’t serve in WWI. He was a Spanish American War vet however. His personal position on WWI is somewhat hard to figure. He was writing for the stalwartly anti-war IWW under a pseudonym and explicitly supporting there the radical IWW line that the war was the Capitalist class enjoying their profits in a cage match between the working people/cannon fodder of both sides. Yet also during the war he wrote pro-war pieces under his own name, taking the same stance as some other parts of the US left: that the Central powers were evil empires lead by ruthless kings that needed to be defeated by the democracies Britain, France and the U. S. In 1918, Sandburg published “Grass” and attempted to synthesize both sides of Sandburg.
“Grass” is sometimes considered a straightforward patriotic poem, a reverent poem about the ultimate sacrifice of veterans, and if read in such a context no one is likely to object. But listen closely. Even though he echoes Whitman’s leaves of grass metaphor, even if you may find it next to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” in some presentation of poems about honored war dead where we might be implored to “Take up our quarrel with the foe!” One might even too-quickly think it’s akin to what Sandburg’s hero Lincoln would say in his Gettysburg Address, that we “cannot forget what they did here.” But, Sandburg’s poem’s point is literally the opposite of Lincoln’s: that we will forget what they did here.
How completely true is that forgetfulness as we approach the centenary of the end of WWI? A discussion point.
You could read “Grass” as an antiwar poem, saying that “It doesn’t matter how important and glorious they tell you the cause you are fighting for is, because the same or equivalent crowd will run things afterward and what you thought you were fighting for will be forgotten.” Speaking of WWI, 50 years after it started, Sandburg admirer Bob Dylan could sing “The reasons for fighting, I never did get.”
I just got done earlier this fall performing Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob,” In that poem, Sandburg makes a subtle point. That thing the leftish political vanguard often bemoans about “the people,” that they forget the injustices committed against their best interests, is in fact how they’ve managed to survive and endure. If they remembered their defeats, their sacrifices, they might not go on, they could be immobilized in grief and despair. Is Sandburg saying the same thing in “Grass?” Is he saying “I was never sure if this was the rich man’s war fought with working man’s blood, or a war to save democracy. It’s over now and the rich and powerful will forget us as unimportant. Or perhaps it was a struggle so our imperfect democratic governments can continue in a long battle to perfect themselves, but that in the end is what we need to concentrate on.”
To hear the LYL Band perform Sandburg’s elegy to soldiers graves, use the player below.
1. On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli. These most-popular-here WWI pieces I feature today: it’s a rather downbeat outlook, even Hulme’s piece is not the sort of thing to inspire sacrifice for one’s country. Pound’s rant openly doubts the beliefs of some that did, and is unequivocal on the base motives of those who lead his host country in the war. WWI war poets did write poems that supported the war effort. A personal favorite of mine, Edward Thomas, volunteered and died at the front with a deep belief in the nobility of service that overwhelmed his suspicion of the war’s rationale. Pete Seeger’s uncle, Alan Seeger, wrote his fatalistic but heroic “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Another well-known poem in this mode is British poet Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” If one believes that any active deity must have a dark comic streak, Brooke dying of an infected mosquito bite while steaming to the front lines of one of the most horrific battles of the war could be part of your testimony.
Pound once had to explain that when he was critical of Brooke’s poems he was speaking of their old-fashioned prosody, not his character. When I saw this fragment found in Brooke’s journal after his death I saw an opportunity. What if Brooke’s observation of his fellow soldiers on their way to battle could be shaped to express itself in the mode that Modernists like Pound, Hulme, or Sandburg would have used? You can see the edits I made here, and listen to my performance of my setting of it with the player below.
We’re entering a month in which Veterans Day will be celebrated with additional ceremony, because the 11th will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of the first world war. Earlier in the blog I remarked that World War 1 was the last war which was substantially narrated to us by poets.
That’s so for a complex set of reasons. Modernism, arising before the outbreak of the war, sought to revive a fresh poetry shorn of worn-out imagery and obligatory practices. The war brought both the old poetry and the new Modernist ideas into a great deadly laboratory to test their efficacy. The comfort of the old poetic music survived this test, but it was gravely wounded. The new practices were not exactly proved either, such was the horror and absurdity of the war. Indeed, the post war Modernism that came out the other end of the war’s meat grinder was oddly often much more obscure and seeking after esoteric tactics.
To a large degree, the post-WWI era marks an off-ramp for poetry. 20th century poetry emphasized the language of aesthetics and philosophy that might employ music to sweeten its sound, rather than the music of words that might employ philosophy as one of its harmonies. Eventually, by our current century, it turned again, and it is now largely about memoir and the establishment and explanation of personal identity.
World War 1 broke poetry, and in it’s wake, the Modernists ascendant decided the shards better reflected reality than some dusty Grecian Urn.
Any of these schemes can work (and not work) artistically, but there is a sort of hierarchy of needs and audience here. The old poetry was more universal, the post WWI High-Modernism the most exclusionary, and our current poetry can result in a multitude of voices crying “I’m here!” to the exclusion of “I see you!”
If one sets aside modern literary poetry, the old poetry still survives. One place you might find it is in the library that some carry about in their heads: memorized poetry. How rare is that today? I cannot say, but I can recall late in the last century, observing Garrison Keillor offering some prize (an autographed book? a T-shirt? I can’t recall the exact prize) to anyone in an admiring crowd who could recite a poem of more than 8 lines. I recall no one taking him up on that offer. Poetry started with those libraries in our heads, and we have the Iliad, the Odyssey and other ancient poetic epics because of prodigious memorization before writing. It isn’t just the noise from our glowing palm screens, or giant TVs that numbed this out of us, it started with the silent racket of all those printed books that call us to read them. Memorization seems a mooted point.
Can you pick out the veteran in this picture?
But returning to that portable library in our heads, and returning da capo to where we started. Somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century, a U.S. Navy pilot was captured and imprisoned by the forces of the country they were bombing. Their captors were none-too-restrained in their treatment of their prisoners, torture and physical abuse was part of that; but in-between that and the constant lack of control that all prisoners face, the prison was made up of small solitary cells with deliberate and extraordinary limits on communication between the prisoners. The design was to break their will, not just their bodies.
The captured pilot was John McCain, who survived this and later went on to a long political career, but one thing that he said helped him persevere in his prison was another captured pilot teaching him a poem by Robert W. Service, essentially loaning out a book from the library of one prisoner’s head to the other. And the method of doing this was painstaking: a pseudo-Morse-code of taps on the wall of the cell that the prisoners devised.
Robert W. Service poems would fit well into taps, as his marching poetic feet can make one tap involuntarily—and the rhymes and narratives give a good structure to assist memorization too. Of course, this was a war prison, it wasn’t a graduate class in Modernist poetry, and if any of the prisoners might have known T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” they might have skipped it if they couldn’t add the famous published edition’s footnotes in tap codes.
Other than Service’s poetic aids to memorization that let his poetry be present in these solitary cells without possessions, another reason that it should be a poem of his that helped these prisoners endure is that some of Service’s best-known poems are about fatalistic endurance leavened by dark humor. Service’s poetry wasn’t just available without paper, it shared an outlook that helped sustain the prisoners.
Canadian poet Robert W. Service, not essaying a look that Leonard Cohen would own up to.
So that’s one veteran’s story from a war, decades after WWI. Here’s another.
While McCain was imprisoned, another Navy veteran went into a studio in New York City and recorded an LP of Robert W. Service poems set to music.* While Service’s pre-war “Canadian Kipling” poetic style hadn’t changed, the outlook of the poems used in this record included Service’s rage at the horror and lies of WWI. Robert W. Service didn’t become a Modernist poet, but he showed in these poems the same WWI impact that broke other pre-war poetic outlooks.
The veteran in this case was “Country Joe” McDonald, and even if these Service poems talked distinctly of WWI and the British, French and Canadian experience of it, McDonald no doubt intended it to reflect on the then ongoing war in Vietnam. Of course, there were poems written after the WWI era about war, and McDonald had already tossed off one of the most famous Vietnam war songs himself: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.**” And yet, here he was, drawn to these poems about World War I to express something decades later.
For our audio piece today, here’s a Robert W. Service poem, “The Lone Trail,” more from the endurance side of the poet, performed by Dave Moore with the LYL Band. Here’s the player to listen to it:
*The record War, War, War largely draws on Service’s Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man which was published in 1916. McDonald’s record is a true solo record, just acoustic 12-string guitar, vocals, a bit of harmonica, and some foot-stomping; a straightforward, earnest, and harrowing collection. Parlando Project voice Dave Moore owned that LP, part of the reason he performed today’s Robert W. Service piece.
**McDonald later tells the story of hearing that not only did the North Vietnamese appropriate his song for propaganda broadcasts meant for the U.S. troops, but they even piped it into that POW camp in Hanoi. In the story McDonald heard, the soldiers, and even the prisoners, would laugh. His analysis: the French-educated Vietnamese “Never understood…an American sense of humor.”