|Sunday morning at Cunel by Harvey Dunn|
Smithsonian Museum of American History
Alice Corbin Henderson* was co-editor of Poetry magazine for ten years (1912- 1922), and in 1914, she proposed that the magazine sponsor a contest for the best war poem. The editors of Poetry received 738 submissions and selected fourteen to appear in their November 1914 issue.** The winning poem, “The Metal Checks,” was written by Louise Driscoll; other published entries were authored by Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Margaret Widdemer, Richard Aldington, and Maxwell Bodenheim. The “war poetry issue” also included Alice Corbin’s submission: “Fallen.”
He was wounded and he fell in the midst of hoarse shouting.
The tide passed, and the waves came and whispered about his ankles.
Rising at dawn to greet the storm of petals
Shaken from apple-boughs; he heard them cry,
And turned again to find the breast of her,
And sank confusèd with a little sigh. . . .
Thereafter water running, and a voice
That seemed to stir and flutter through the trenches
And set dead lips to talking. . . .
Wreckage was mingled with the storm of petals. . . .
He felt her near him, and the weight dropped off—
Suddenly. . . .
The poem expresses what Carl Sandburg praised as Corbin’s “urge for the brief and poignant.”† Capturing a soldier’s last moments of consciousness, “Fallen” compares wounded and dying men with the petals that drop from spring trees. In the dim light of morning following a dawn attack, the cacophony of war fades and is replaced by a vision of home, serenity, and safety. The rush of soldiers stumbling forward through a hail of bullets settles into memories of ocean waves gently lapping at the shore. Confused, the dying man believes himself to be tenderly held by his mother or perhaps his wife or sweetheart, and he seems to hear her voice whispering to him. Relaxing into her, he drops the weight of his life, and reality and memory blur as “wreckage was mingled with the storm of petals.”
Three years later, in April 1918—just one year after the US had entered the war—Poetry published Alice Corbin Hendersons’ editorial essay, “Send American Poets.” She wrote,
Why not send poets to the front? Not to the trenches for active service, where many of them now are, but as official government agents to see and to record this war for future generations? The newspaper correspondent has an official position; there are official camera men, official moving picture photographers; why not poets in a similar capacity?.…What big magazine will be progressive enough to send an American poet to the front as an accredited correspondent? Mr. Ring Lardner has been over for Collier’s—I wish Collier’s would send
Carl Sandburg or Edgar Lee Masters or Vachel Lindsay over!††
Corbin’s suggestion affirms the variety of ways in which we know and understand reality; she was ahead of her time in acknowledging that there are no unfiltered facts or accounts of war.
* The writer signed her poetry Alice Corbin, but used the name Alice Corbin Henderson for her prose and editorial work. Her poems “The Harvest” and “A Litany in the Desert” also appear on this blog.
** Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, “When Women Write the First Poem: Louise Driscoll and the ‘war poem scandal,’” Miranda, vol. 2, 2010, journals.openedition.org/miranda/1296, Accessed 16 April 2018.
† Carl Sandburg quoted in T.M. Pearce’s Alice Corbin Henderson, Steck-Vaughn Company, 1969, p. 12.
†† Alice Corbin Henderson, “Send American Poets,” Poetry, vol. 12, no 1, April 1918, pp. 37-38.