Thursday, April 13, 2017

Litany of war

Alice Corbin Henderson
In September of 1914, shortly after the First World War began, the American magazine Poetry announced a war poetry contest: writers were invited to submit poems addressing the war in Europe; the best poems would be published in the November 1914 issue, and the winning poem would be awarded a $100 prize. In her essay “Poetry and War” that appeared in the November war poetry issue, the magazine’s assistant editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, wrote,

“War has actually lost its illusion and its glamour.…The American feeling about the war is a genuine revolt against war, and we have believed that Poetry might help to serve the cause of peace by encouraging the expression of this spirit of protest.”

Most Americans were initially against their country’s involvement in the First World War, and George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 was often cited as support for American neutrality: “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

However, by the time the United States entered the war in April of 1917, the mood of the country had shifted.  Like many other American writers, Alice Corbin Henderson* had joined the Vigilantes, a writers’ syndicate dedicated to composing and publishing patriotic editorials and poetry for “the current crisis.” With over 300 members pledged to the organization, the Vigilantes included such well-known authors as Edgar Lee Masters, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay.

Corbin’s poem “A Litany in the Desert” is a litany for war. With the rhythms of a prayer, its chanted repetitions build lengthy lists that reveal the conflicted, complex feelings many Americans held about the bloodshed that was “to make the world safe for democracy.” 

                        A Litany in the Desert

      On the other side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains
there is a great welter of steel and flame. I have read
that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
      On the other side of the water there is terrible carnage.
I have read that it is so. I know nothing of it here.
      I do not know why men fight and die. I do not know
why men sweat and slave. I know nothing of it here.

Sangre de Cristos, photo by Dave Hensley
     Out of the peace of your great valleys, America, out of
the depth and silence of your deep canyons,
     Out of the wide stretch of yellow cornfields, out of the
stealthy sweep of your rich prairies,
     Out of the high mountain peaks, out of the intense
purity of your snows,
     Invigorate us, O America.
     Out of the deep peace of your breast, out of the sure
strength of your loins,
     Recreate us, O America.
     Not from the smoke and the fever and fret, not from
the welter of furnaces, from the fierce melting-pot of
     But from the quiet fields, from the little places, from
the dark lamp-lit nights – from the plains, from the
cabins, from the little house in the mountains,
     Breathe strength upon us:
     And give us the young men who will make us great.

The poem begins with a litany of incomprehension: its first short stanza repeats “I know nothing” and “I do not know” five times.  One can read of the war, its steel and flame, its artillery and bombs, and still “know nothing.” The tragedies of the war are so vast as to seem almost unreal. Although this war of “terrible carnage” appears impossibly distant from the mountains of New Mexico, the very name of the mountains – the Sangre de Cristo (Spanish for blood of Christ) -- carries the echo of another brutal sacrifice of innocence.

The second part of the poem looks not to the war, but turns its gaze to the American landscape.
In “The Soldier,” Rupert Brooke contrasts death in war with the life-giving beauties of the English countryside, its flowers, suns, rivers, and rich earth. In “Litany of the Desert,” Alice Corbin measures war against the sweep of America’s prairies, the depth and silence of its canyons, the purity of its snow-covered mountain peaks, and the peace of its great valleys. The immensity and spirit of America are greater than the scope and horrors of the Great War itself. 

What will bring about the end to this modern industrial war? Not the labors of cities, not the furnaces and smoky factories.  The poem asserts that the war will be vanquished by the spirit of the American land that has been born and bred into the young men who come from quiet fields, mountain cabins, and little places. Invigorated and recreated, taking courage and sure strength from roots sunk deep into the landscape, American soldiers will “make us great” as they set off for war fortified by the freedom inherent in the very bedrock of their country. 

Few people remember Alice Corbin Henderson as a poet, writer, or editor: she is, however, known for her advocacy of Native American rights and her support of Native American arts. She and her husband helped to establish the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.  In an essay on the literature of New Mexico written during the Second World War, Corbin Henderson again shared her sacred reverence for the land, asserting, “the soil itself has the power of re-creating the imaginative vision.”** 
*The author used her maiden name (Alice Corbin) when writing poetry and her married name (Alice Henderson) when writing prose. She is credited with discovering and promoting the work of poets Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters; Ezra Pound and DH Lawrence were her friends and close colleagues. In reviewing her 1921 collection The Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico, Carl Sandburg said Corbin's poetry was "clean and aloof as the high deliberate table-lands where it was written" (Poetry, XVIII, June 1921). 
** Alice Corbin Henderson, “Literature” in New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, 1940, page 135. 

No comments:

Post a Comment