Thursday, June 25, 2015

Slogging towards glory

Where do the myths of glorious war come from?  How are mud and bloated death transformed into heroic action?  As the war dragged into it fourth year, Ford Madox Ford wrote the poem "Footsloggers," attempting an answer to these questions as men, armies, and nations continued to stumble forward, hoping for an end to the horrors. 
 Ford Madox Ford (whose real name was Ford Madox Hueffer, and under which name he published his volume of war poetry) is best known as the novelist who wrote Parade's End, a four-volume fictional account of the war and its effects.  Brendan Ball has written, "Ford the novelist at least has some sort of name; Ford the war poet has none whatsoever.  The face, as the saying has it, simply did not fit.  World War I was the stage for the Flower of the Nation, the young bloods of birth and breeding tragically cut down in their prime, and Ford on joining the infantry was already a pudgy 41-year-old with a face to which no camera angle nor any degree of light or darkness could give romance."  

An unromantic face, a lost voice, and a poem with an odd title – the deck seems stacked against this poet and literary effort, but "Footsloggers" is a poem worth reading.  It is lengthy, so I’ve included only a short excerpt, but for those wanting to read the entire poem, the volume in which it was published in 1918, On Heaven, and Poems Written on Active Service, is available online ("Footsloggers" appears on pages 58 – 76). 

An excerpt from "Footsloggers"
by Ford Madox Ford

                                    So, in the Flanders mud,
We bear the State upon our rain-soaked backs,
Breathe life into the State from our rattling lungs,
Anoint the State with the rivulets of sweat
From our tin helmets. 
                        And so, in years to come
The State shall take the semblance of Britannia,
Up-bourne, deep-bosomed, with anointed limbs…
Like the back of a penny. 


                                    For I do not think
We ever took much stock in that Britannia
On the long French roads, or even on parades,
Or thought overmuch of Nelson or of Minden,
Or even the old traditions….
                                                I don't know,
In the breathless rush that it is of parades and drills,
Of digging at the double and strafes and fatigues,
These figures grow dimmed and lost:
Doubtless we too, we too, when the years have receded
Shall look like the heroes of Hellas, upon a frieze,
White-limbed and buoyant and passing the flame of the torches
From hand to hand….But today it's mud to the knees
And khaki and khaki and khaki….
                        And the love of one's land
Very quiet and hidden and still….

The images that open this excerpt are stunningly pictorial:  the entire British Empire has been shrunk into the body of one wounded soldier who is being carried on the back of a mate, resuscitated by the "rattling" breath of a comrade-in-arms, and anointed in a last rites ceremony "with the rivulets of sweat/From our tin helmets."  The men's care for "Britannia" in the mud of the trenches is what will allow her to rise from the war, phoenix-like, once again gloriously whole and serene. 

Yet the poem confesses that the men who give so much to keep Britannia alive "never took much stock" in the noble image of the Empire, never thought much about the long-dead heroes of past wars such as Lord Nelson, nor of long-ago military victories such as the 1759 Battle of Minden

For the men in this war, memories of war and glory have been "dimmed and lost" by the "breathless rush" of drilling for battle, being strafed by machine guns, and digging trenches so as to avoid the murderous artillery shells.  There's neither time nor place for the glorious military traditions of Britannia in "mud to the knees/And khaki and khaki and khaki."  What keeps the men fighting, what helps them to endure is "the love of one's land/Very quiet and hidden and still." 

The excerpt closes with a final ironic twist: the soldier knows "doubtless" that his war, when remembered, will bear little resemblance to its gruesome reality, but instead, like Britannia itself, will be idealized.  The muddy, mutilated and exhausted men in khaki shall be transformed until they resemble the carved ancient Greek heroes that decorate columned temples.  Restored to health and sanity in the memorials of the nation, the soldiers of the Great War will be remembered as "passing the flame of the torches/From hand to hand." 

Where do the myths of glorious war come from?  From memory that needs to find a purpose in the pain and suffering. 

As Hall argues, Ford is unusual among First World War poets because "he brought to the trenches the full perceptive power and skill set of a mature man and accomplished writer, and he survived to bring them home again."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Something miraculous will come

Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia's most acclaimed poets, was described by critic Joseph Brodsky as "the keening muse."  Many of her poems are brief, lyrical, almost mystical, yet with "a note of controlled terror" (Brodsky).  She and her family suffered under Stalin's regime, and her poetry responding to that era is her best-known work.  However, Akhmatova is also one of the lost voices of The Great War, a voice that cries out again to be heard.  Below is one of her early poems, published in 1921.   

Everything's looted, betrayed and traded

night sky, credit Jason Kinnan
Everything's looted, betrayed and traded,
Black death's wing's overhead.
Everything's eaten by hunger, un-sated,
So why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
Breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July's sky, deep, and transparent,
New constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
Close to the darkness and ruin,
Something no-one, no-one, has known,

Though we've longed for it since we were children.
     –Anna Akhmatova, translated by A.S. Kline

The title of the poem and its opening images speak of the agonies of living in a world spoiled by war.  Like an immense vulture grown fat upon corpses, Death hovers over the earth, blocking out the sun.  The war is a bloated beast with an insatiable appetite for more death and destruction – "Everything's eaten" – and it seems as if the fighting and pain will never end. 

And yet – the poem whispers that all is not lost forever.  Without reason, beyond rationality, a light shines ahead.  In the mystery of a wood, where leafy trees somehow have continued to live and blossom, a delicate cherry scent perfumes the air.  And in the darkness of the night, "deep and transparent," entire new worlds of stars are thrown into being, as if from the hand of God.   Recalling the incarnational mystery of the dirty stable of Bethlehem, the poem looks past "darkness and ruin" and affirms that "something miraculous" will come. 

What I find most intriguing is that "something," although twice repeated, is never specifically named.  We will know it, however, when it arrives, for "we've longed for it since we were children." 

For what have the children been waiting?  What is the miracle that is anticipated?  Peace is the simple answer, but it seems unlikely that children thought of it or desired it in the distant days of childhood before the war ever began.  I like to think that the longed for miracle is the joyful sense of belonging to the wonders of the world, of participating in everyday miracles, of simply coming to value the miracle and gift of life. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A poet's silence

In the late summer of 1970 in response to the war in Vietnam, Edwin Starr topped the Billboard charts, singing "War-- huh yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."

Sixty-five years before "War" topped the music charts, W.B. Yeats wrote a challenging short poem about war that asked, "War poetry – what is it good for?" 

Henry Allingham, WWI veteran
On being asked for a War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
           --William Butler Yeats

While Yeats' poem doesn't sound as outraged as Starr's lyrics, there's an edge and an attitude here as well, and at least two very different ways of making sense of the poem.   The poem can be read in the context of WB Yeats' letters and other writings, an example of wonderfully snarky literary gossip at its best – or worst  that asks the question, "What is good poetry?" 
The poem can be read on its own terms, as it asks the question, "What is poetry good for?" 

First the literary gossip.  Eighteen years after the war had ended, Yeats edited an anthology of poetry that included his choices of the best poems from the end of the 19th century through 1935.  And he pointedly omitted the British poets of the First World War.  Nothing from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, or the others – nothing.  Yeats defended his decision in the anthology's introduction, writing, "I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies….The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity…-- but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems....passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies." 

Many authors believe that Yeats' comments were a thinly veiled allusion to Wilfred Owen's comments about war poetry.  Before his death in 1918, Owen had written a draft preface to his poetry: "This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or land, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."

Where Yeats' decision becomes much more interesting – and gossipy – is in a letter he wrote to a friend.  Not intended for publication, Yeats's comments not only dismiss Owen and the war poets, but are fascinatingly personal with a bit of spite:  "My anthology continues to sell…& the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum-- however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick…. There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . ."  Ouch.  

It's fascinating to discover the ways in which poems and poets of the First World War have been alternatively dismissed and venerated over the years.  But Yeats' "On being asked for a war poem" is much more than a historical debate about taste – it deserves to be read and understood on its own merits.  
WB Yeats

Yeats wrote the poem in 1915 and sent it in a letter to Henry James, who had asked him specifically to write a poem that addressed the war and its politics.   Yeats first titled the poem "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations" – quite long-winded for a six-line poem!  When he sent it back to James, he shortened the title to "A Reason for Keeping Silent."  The title was changed a third time, appearing in its current version when Yeats included it a book of his poems published a year after the war ended.  I think the current title is the strongest because it names an action (being asked) and directly references war. 

The poem seems to imply that a writer can be a soldier or a pacifist or a protester, but that his actions should speak louder than his versified words: his mouth should "be silent" when it comes to politics. It is not the job of poetry to "set a statesman right."* My guess is that Yeats would scorn the tradition of poet laureates who are charged to write timely poems relevant to national concerns.  Unlike other voices who have claimed that poets serve as the conscience of a culture – Percy Shelley, for example, argued that poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" -- this poem claims a very different role for poetry.   

Poetry meddles in the personal, in the dreams of a young girl and in the backward looking reflections of an old man.  Poems invade the thoughts and lives of individuals, not "girls" and "men," but "a young girl" and "an old man."  Putting aside for a minute the fact that only one year later, Yeats wrote a much longer poem about the Irish political uprising of Easter 1916, "On being asked for a war poem" asks the reader provocatively, almost teasingly, to consider why he or she bothers to read poetry.  It's a short, personal poem that is willing to undercut itself as it intimately asks each of us what we think, what we feel, about poems, the war, and our personal experiences.   

Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, argues, "Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways."  That is, poetry changes us, showing us new ways of living and understanding.  About that, perhaps both Owen and Yeats could have agreed. 

*"Conversing with the World: the Poet in Society" offers a fascinating discussion of American politics and poetry.  
**"In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly" shares an entertaining story about the word "meddling" in the poem, considering what the choice adds to the poem as a whole. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Come, friend, and swim

Cape Helles, Gallipoli peninsula
 AP Herbert's poem "The Bathe" considers the question, "What would you do if you knew today was your last day on earth?" 

The Gallipoli campaign (the Allies' attempt to establish a sea route between the Mediterranean and its Russian ally), began on April 25, 1915 when Allied troops landed on the shores of the Turkish peninsula.  By early June, two failed attempts had been made to attack Turkish positions and gain the high ground just beyond the village of Krithia. 

On June 4, 1915, the Third Battle of Krithia was launched at noon, part of the British commander's attempt to maintain "ceaseless initiative," an ironic description of a campaign that resulted in an estimated 500,000 total casualties, of which approximately 50,000 men had died from both sides by January of 1916.  The Third Battle of Krithia gained the Allies approximately 200 – 250 yards of forward territory, at the cost of an estimated 6,500 British and French casualties, while the Turkish army lost an estimated 9,000 – 10,000 men. 

Writing in the days just before the battle, AP Herbert writes of the simple joys of life in the shadow of death. 

The Bathe
by AP Herbert

Come friend and swim. We may be better then,
But here the dust blows ever in the eyes
Swimming at Cape Helles, National Army Museum
And wrangling round are weary fevered men,
Forever mad with flies.
I cannot sleep, nor even long lie still,
And you have read your April paper twice;
To-morrow we must stagger up the hill
To man a trench and live among the lice.

But yonder, where the Indians have their goats,
There is a rock stands sheer above the blue,
Where one may sit and count the bustling boats
And breathe the cool air through;
May find it still is good to be alive,
May look across and see the Trojan shore
Twinkling and warm, may strip, and stretch, and dive.
And for a space forget about the war.

Then will we sit and talk of happy things,
Home and 'the high' and some far fighting friend,
And gather strength for what the morrow brings,
For that may be the end.
It may be we shall never swim again,
Never be clean and comely to the sight,
May rot untombed and stink with all the slain.
Come, then, and swim. Come and be clean to-night.

The experience of war is vividly drawn with specifics:  dust, fever, flies, sleeplessness, lice, rot, and stink.  But that is for tomorrow.  Today offers the opportunity to "for a space forget about the war."  The present moment holds out the promise of bathing in the waters of the Mediterranean with a friend, breathing "the cool air through," stretching and diving into the blue, sitting and talking of "happy things," -- a time to "gather strength for what the morrow brings." The word "may" is repeated twice here:  it is still possible to see the "Trojan shore" and be reminded of glorious epic battles of the past, just as it is possible on the eve of battle to "find it still is good to be alive." 

Yet this poem is written by a man who has seen enough of war to know that the dead are not glorious, but "rot untombed," and it may be his fate shortly to join those who "stink with all the slain."  The continued repetition of the word "may" highlights the uncertainties of life during war time.  On May 24th, the stench of the bodies decaying between the lines caused a truce to be called so that the dead of both sides could be buried.  One of the men assigned to the burial detail recalls, "Some of the bodies were rotted so much that there were only bones and part of the uniform left. The bodies of the men killed on the nineteenth (it had now been five days) were awful. Most of us had to work in short spells as we felt very ill. We found a few of our men who had been killed in the first days of the landing" (Albert Facey). 

Most likely, at some time in the next ten days "The Bathe" was written.  Following the previous five weeks of stumbling attacks into the filth of battle, the poem simply invites a friend, "Come, then, and swim. Come and be clean to-night."  Washed clean both literally and metaphorically, the men in the water are baptized into life and comradeship before the baptism of fire that is shortly to come. 

The author of the poem, AP Herbert, had his swim with friends, as described by Lt. William Ker in a letter home dated May 30, 1915:  "You never saw such a conglomeration of strange troops. You should have seen me and A. P. Herbert the other evening bathing in the Dardanelles near some Frenchmen and Senegalese, with the Turkish lines (or, rather, the place where they were) in sight on a ridge to our left beside some dismantled forts, the Plain of Troy before us on the other side, some guns on the Asiatic side in sending an occasional shrapnel shell over on our right, and a French battery immediately behind us having shots at them. I took a bathing party down to the beach yesterday. The scene was a cross between Blackpool in the season and the Ganges. The men think it a fine picnic, but we are going in the firing line tomorrow night." 
A.P. Herbert

On June 4th, Herbert joined the attack with his unit, the Hawke Battalion.  He survived Gallipoli and other battles on the Western Front until he was seriously wounded in April of 1917 and invalided back to England.  One-hundred years after the Third Battle of Krithia, the longing to be cleansed from war echoes across the years: "Come, then, and swim.  Come and be clean to-night."