Thursday, October 30, 2014

It's not all about war

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which “war poetry” and “WWI poetry” are labels that suggest that these poems are only about war and only for those interested in war.  The poems deserve a wider frame of interpretation, a less literal way of listening to their voices, a bigger space in which to breathe. 

Take for example, Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, “The Question.”  It appears almost in the middle of the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2006), sandwiched in between “Ballad of the Three Spectres” and “The Soldier Addresses His Body.”  What is the question that Gibson’s title suggests?  Is he questioning the reasons behind the war?  The meaning of the death and suffering in the trenches?  Whether he will live or die?  Here’s the poem: 

The Question

I wonder if the old cow died or not.
 Gey* bad she was the night I left, and sick.
 Dick reckoned she would mend. He knows a lot--
 At least he fancies so himself, does Dick.

 Dick knows a lot. But maybe I did wrong
 To leave the cow to him, and come away.
 Over and over like a silly song
 These words keep humming in my head all day.

 And all I think of, as I face the foe
 And take my lucky chance of being shot,
 Is this -- that if I'm hit, I'll never know
 Till Doomsday if the old cow died or not.

Is this a war poem?  The question that haunts this man is the fate of an old cow.  Despite the very real possibility of his own looming death and his “lucky chance of being shot,” he’s thinking of the responsibilities and things he left behind.  "The Question" is a war poem, but it’s so much more than that.

The language of the poem explores the difficulty of giving up control:  “Dick knows a lot” and “He knows a lot” are repeated twice in the short poem, suggesting that the speaker doesn’t really believe that Dick is capable and needs the incantatory power of language to make it so.  It’s a poem as much about trust and surrender as about war. 

And it’s also a poem about getting stuck – as the poem begins and ends in the exact same place, with the refrain or “silly song” that won’t come unstuck:  “if the old cow died or not.”  Think back to the last time you had a silly song stuck in your head, or the time you couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not you’d turned off the stove, or the occasion on which you couldn’t stop turning over in your head a casual, hurtful comment that was made.  We’ve all become obsessed with questions and problems that we know are ultimately trivial.  Sometimes, it’s simply because we are shallow and overly concerned with surface details; sometimes, our obsession with the trivial becomes a way of coping with other realities we don’t want to face, or perhaps sometimes we just don’t have the experience or vision to see the full situation.  All we can think about is the fate of the old cow. 

Whatever this man’s reason for his nagging obsession, we recognize its humanness.  And we understand a bit better that even when he faces “the foe,” he cannot stop himself from looking back towards home, a time when he was the expert who could make a difference, the time before his war began.   

*“Gey” is a Northern dialect word from the Scots that describes a considerable quantity of something and can be translated by the word “very.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Crafty Women and the Great War

The poetry of World War I often caricatures the women at home as naive jingoists: Sassoon’s poem “The Glory of Women” says, “You worship decorations; you believe/That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace,” and an early draft of Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.”), is dedicated to Jessie Pope, best known for her poem that encourages enlistment, “The Call”:  Who’s for the trench--/Are you, my laddie?/Who’ll follow French--/Will you, my laddie?/Who’s fretting to begin,/Who’s going out to win?/And who wants to save his skin--/Do you, my laddie?

Because women experienced the war vastly differently from the men in the trenches, however, it surely does not mean that their lives were unaffected.  In fact, there was one aspect of the war that both men at the front and women at home shared:  The Great War was made up of vast stretches of tedious and tense waiting.    

While the deafening sound of shelling and gunfire was the constant background music to life in the trenches, the clickety-clack of knitting needles played quietly underneath the daily life of the women who waited, in public places like church and tearooms, as well as at home by the fireside. 
There are many excellent blog posts and on-line resources on women’s knitting during WWI, but I particularly enjoy Jane Tynan’s insights shared on the University of Oxford’s blog “World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings” as her comments complicate the view of women expressed by well-known male war poets: 

Wartime knitting may have had a feminine image, but it was not timid. What started as a response to small gaps in uniform supply became a mass knitting frenzy, which made government very nervous about the quirky, un-military garments reaching soldiers at the front.... Knitters were doing what the army could not: making a creative intervention in a difficult situation. The problem was that the success of mass war knitting projects highlighted army failures. 

Knitters were not necessarily conservative. They sought to bring some humanity to a brutal and unpredictable war. On one hand, the mobility of knitting made it the perfect symbol of civilian enthusiasm for the war effort. On the other, when the passion to knit comforts brimmed over, it threatened to become an anti-establishment protest. The sheer scale of the effort, its anarchic spread nationally and internationally, gave wartime knitting political potential, with parallels in the craftist projects of today.

To send something personal, and lovingly homemade, to a relative in real mortal danger, gave knitters the satisfaction of making a direct intervention, but crafting such personal items also meant contemplating fear and loss. This was not what the authorities wanted. Wartime knitting was supposed to be cheerful and optimistic, not dark and ponderous.

I attended a reading of women’s war poetry where Violet Gillespie’s “Portrait of a Mother” was shared.  During the event, I jotted down the title, but it was nearly impossible to find the poem, as it has simply disappeared, another lost voice of the Great War.  Published in Poetry Review in 1918, it seems to have last appeared in 1919 in The Malory Verse book, an American poetry anthology “for school and general use.”  I’ll let the poem speak for itself and respond to the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon: 

Portrait of a Mother by Violet Gillespie

Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire, and knit again.
And oh, my son, my only son,
I think of you in wind and rain,
In rain and wind, 'neath fire and shell,
Going along the road to hell
On earth, in wind and rain,
My little son, my only son . . .
Knit two and purl one ;
Stir the fire, and knit again.
Knit two and purl one ;
Knit again, and stir the fire.
And oh, my son, my only son,
I work for you and never tire ;
I never tire, but work and pray
Every hour of night and day.
Awake, asleep, I never tire,
My little son, my only son . . .
Knit two and purl one ;
Knit again, and stir the fire.

Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire, and knit again.
And oh, my son, for another’s son
My hands are working. The wind and rain
Are shrill without.  But you are gone
To a quiet land.  I shall come anon,
And find you, out of this wind and rain:
But I’m working now for another’s son.
Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire, and knit again. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Up to their necks in mud, blood, and literature

Before television and radio, there was poetry.  In The Great War and Modern Memory, describing the world of 1914, Fussell asserts, “Except for sex and drinking, amusement was largely found in language formally arranged, either in books and periodicals or at the theater and music hall, or in one’s friends’ anecdotes, rumors, or clever structuring of words” (158).  In other words, language was entertainment.  Books were the immortal companions of the soldiers in the trenches. 

For one of the first times in history, most of the soldiers were literate, and reading offered men an escape to other worlds removed from the mud and blood, an avenue for self-improvement when the surrounding situation was descending into madness, and a way to battle the boredom of static, entrenched armies.   Fussell claims that “the Oxford Book of English Verse presides over the Great War in a way that has never been sufficiently appreciated” (159). 

When soldiers tried to make sense out of the senselessness of the war with language, and when ordinary language failed to communicate the realities of the Great War, trench poets often turned to the language of literature, recycling words and images from traditional sources. 

Edgell Rickword, “youngest of the soldier poets” (Kendall’s Poetry of the Great War), took with him to the Front a two-volume edition of the poems of John Donne, a seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet, and with dark humor, Rickword uses Donne to give voice to the horror of watching a friend’s body decay. 

Trench Poets by Edgell Rickword
I knew a man, he was my chum,
But he grew darker day by day,
And would not brush the flies away,
Nor blanch however fierce the hum
Of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne—
like ‘Get with child a mandrake root.’
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
‘I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost.’

I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
‘What needst thou have more covering than a man?’
grinned nastily, so then I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing I still might do
To starve those worms; I racked my head
for wholesome lines and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.

It’s a shocking poem the first time you read it -- the speaker irreverently bounces the timeless and elegant poetry of Donne off of the increasingly grotesque body of his “chum,” in a vain attempt to “rouse the dead.”  But what better words can be used?  Poetry and high language are commonly used to cope with grief. 

What is jarring are the colloquial and disturbingly realistic descriptions of a dead body that are interwoven with Donne’s poetry:  “mackerel-eyed,” “stiff and senseless,” and “grinned nastily.”  The excerpts that Rickword chooses from Donne seem to tell their own story:  it begins with an invitation to accomplish the impossible (“Get with child” from Donne’s “Song,”), then moves to longing and the frustration of unrequited love and connection (“I long to talk” from “Love’s Deity”), and ends with a reference to nakedness and seduction (from “To His Mistress Going to Bed”).  The continued unresponsiveness of his friend causes the writer to abandon the sensual immorality of the last Donne reference, and so he reaches for “wholesome lines” and settles upon Maud, Tennyson’s romantic poem of doomed love.  But the putrefying body “sneers” at these Victorian ideals of love and purity; his physical reality seems more in tune with the Metaphysical theme of carpe diem expressed in Marvell’s lines, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace,” – except that this body has been deprived of even the final dignity and comfort of a private grave. 

The last two lines of Rickword’s poem are perhaps the most disturbing:  abandoning the noble tradition of literary poetry, in a final clumsy couplet that sounds more like a limerick than a sonnet, he also abandons his comrade's corpse.  Poetry itself has failed both the speaker and his friend, and only a trite rhyme is left to signal the utter inadequacy of language to express the horrors of this war.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The floors are slippery with blood

"The floors are slippery with blood." These are the words that begin Edith Sitwell's poem “The Dancers: During a Great Battle, 1916.” The best-known WWI poems are written by “trench poets,” the term given to soldiers on the Western Front who wrote about the experience of war (such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon).  Not many know Sitwell’s poem: she was a woman whose brother Osbert (also a poet) fought in the trenches of France, and through him, she met and became friends with Sassoon.  After the war, Edith Sitwell remarked that the poetry of the war should be left to the men who fought there.  Women's experience of the war was marginalized even by women themselves, feeling they had not earned the right to speak.  

The Great Battle she is writing of is most likely the battle of the Somme, and Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory) states that the artillery fire prior to the first day of the battle could be heard in England, rattling windows (68). 

The Dancers
During a Great Battle, 1916

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too.  God is good
That while His wind blows out the light
For those who die hourly for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The music has grown numb with death –
But we will suck their dying breath,
The whispered name they breathed to chance,
To swell our music, make it loud
That we may dance—,  may dance. 

We are the dull blind carrion-fly
That dance and batten.  Though God die
Mad from the horror of the light—
The light is mad, too, flecked with blood,—
We dance, we dance, each night. 
       —Edith Sitwell

The scene seems to depict a society party, grotesquely out-of-touch with the sufferings of the soldiers. Sassoon wrote, “The man who really endured the War at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers” (Fussell 90).  Or perhaps the dancers are closer to the front, just behind the lines in a staging town such as Poperinghe, where soldiers and nurses, ambulance drivers and VADs frenetically sought rest and diversion from the war? 

Otto Dix, "Dance of Death"
The repetition of the phrase “we dance,” is chanted like a charm to stave off the horrors of the war.  Dancing itself seems an act of forgetting and pretending that life continues as normal, despite the world gyrating (the earth shook for miles during heavy shelling) and the blood that is everywhere, on the floors, and in the very light.   

The speaker names herself as separate from those who die, yet she is not distant:  she is the carrion-fly that crawls over corpses, dancing as she battens or prepares for the upcoming crisis by strengthening and fastening herself to the dance.  In fact, she names herself only as one who dances.  Whether the dance described is the slow spin of a waltz or a metaphorical account of the dizzying attempt to cope with the war, the poem gives voice to an aching and terrible beauty. 


Friday, October 10, 2014

Lands of Battle, Fields of Peace

 St James Park in London, sitting between Buckingham Palace and Whitehall, is hosting a temporary photography exhibit by Michael St Maur Sheil.  In the introduction to the exhibit, he writes, “the war is now history, and only the landscape remains to bear witness.”  Sheil has visited sites of the battles of The Great War and taken photos of great beauty and tranquility, images that in his words, “are a reflection upon that vision of a future when time and nature would heal the scars and wounds of both landscape and warring nations.”

The interpretative text that accompanies the photography gives perspective and history on the war and the men and women who were there.  On a beautiful sunny day, as I strolled among the large-scale photos among the picnickers and bird-watchers in the park, I read this from the exhibit, an excerpt of a letter from PJ Campbell, RFA, as he was leaving the Somme:

“No, they would not be lonely.  I saw that bare country before me…the miles and miles of torn earth…the litter, the dead trees.  But the country would come back to life, the grass would grow again, the wildflowers return, and trees where now there were only splintered skeleton stumps.  They would lie still and at peace beneath the singing larks, beside the serenely flowing rivers.  They could not feel lonely, they would have one another.  And…though we were going home, and leaving them behind.  We belonged to them, and they would be part of us forever.”  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Our very gentlemanly little war....

Those were the words in 1917 used by Lieutenant Colonel Alan Dawnay to describe military operations in the Hejaz, and that description captures what I’m finding to be the contradictions and complexities of The Great War, in both the ways it was fought and remembered.

I found Dawnay’s description at a small but moving World War I exhibit at King’s College in London: “1914-1918: The Most Stupendous Struggle” (nearly every museum in London has an exhibit on the war).  The exhibit is on one side of an elaborately decorated chapel-like room with a beautiful Renaissance tomb and marble figures of the family kneeling in a procession of prayer. On the opposite wall, there are nine small cases, each with five-to-six items that give a glimpse into the history of one-hundred years ago.

One of the cases displays a soldier's scrapbook of photos from the Western front with handwritten descriptions of the scenes (“Near this gun, a German in a gallery, his arm caught by falling timbers, died of hunger” ), a 1917 Christmas card with a festive tank (“All best wishes from Somme, Ancre, Arras, Messines, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai”), and medical descriptions of gas attacks and shell shock.  And this letter from a young soldier to his parents:

“This morning we moved up to E. of Mametz Wood….and we got rather strafed.  One battalion of our brigade lost 2 officers (killed) and 100 men.  We dug ourselves in, but the stench was most  unpleasant, as the dead were lying all round us as thick as peas, Briton and German often locked in a death-grapple.  Many were terribly battered by shell-fire, and as they had been lying out a week or so, were fast decaying.  No sight however ghastly seems to affect me in the least, but I don’t care for the smell of decaying dead….If we go into the attack tomorrow, I can only say that I put all my trust in God and say, “Thy will be done” whether I live or die.  He has been very good to me so far.  Terrible as this carnage is, it has got to be gone through with, and I endeavor to behave as an Englishman and a Christian. Somehow, I would not like to have missed it.  It is a wonderful experience.  Well, my dearest parents, heaps of love to you both.  Your loving son, Basil.”

Just as poignant was the memorial erected by Kings to honor the memory of all of their students and faculty who had been killed in the war:  “They Gave Their Lives….So That You May Give.”  Erected just after the war, each man’s photo appeared on the memorial, along with a description of his place at the university and the details of his death:  Killed at Ypres, October 16, 1917; Missing at High Wood, Somme, September 9, 1916; Killed in Action;  Missing, Presumed Killed; faculty of theology; matriculation class 1913-1914; medical science; office staff.  There are 120 faces, some smiling, some earnest, some pathetically young, all so very human.