"" Behind Their Lines: Poetry, an Essential War Industry

Friday, August 3, 2018

Poetry, an Essential War Industry

In November of 1918, America’s Poetry magazine proclaimed, “poetry is an essential industry.” The magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, explained:
            The story, as it comes to us—by hearsay evidence which we can not vouch for—runs thus: Mr. Conrad Aiken, being included in the recent military registration somewhere in Boston or near it, showed his undeniable fighting spirit by fighting for his art—he demanded fourth-class registration not on the usual easy terms (for he might have claimed exemption because of having a family to support) but on the ground that he was a poet and that poetry is an essential industry.  The claim, being novel, was referred to Washington, and by some ultimate Solomon, there sitting in judgment, was sustained, being affirmed and decreed and locked and bolted under all the sacred seals of law.
            Thus the art owes to Mr. Aiken a new and important service, much more hazardous than his various books—though any book of verse is indeed a heroic hazard!—or his high-spirited, bristlingly militant, critical articles.  The art owes to him what it has never before, so far as we can remember, received in this country—official recognition, a definite legal status. POETRY, as the organ of the art which Mr. Aiken for the last six or eight years has proudly served and loyally fought for, extends to him its cordial thanks and congratulations.  May he live long to write and fight under the banner of the muse!*

Although Aiken did not join the military, he wrote of the war.  Like many of his poems, “1915: The Trenches” is organized in what Aiken described as symphonic movements.  Excerpts from sections III, IV, VI, and VII appear below; the poem in its entirety can be read online in Nocturne of Remembered Spring, pp. 30 – 38.

1915: The Trenches

… We are standing somewhere between earth and stars,
Not knowing if we are alive or dead ...
All night long it is so,
All night long we hear the guns, and do not know
If the word will come to charge to-day.
Spring in the Trenches by Paul Nash
 © IWM (ART 1154)

It will be like that other charge--
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising.
I will not remember, then,
How I walked by a hedge of wild roses,
And shook the dew off, with my sleeve,
I will not remember
The shape of my sweetheart's mouth, but with other things
Ringing like anvils in my brain
I will run, I will die, I will forget.
I will hear nothing, and forget ...
I will remember that we are savage men,
Motherless men who have no past,
Nothing of beauty to call to mind
No tenderness to stay our hands ...**

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers
©IWM ART3688
Out there, in the moonlight,
How still in the grass they lie,
Those who panted beside us, or stumbled before us,
Those who yelled like madmen and ran at the sun,
Flinging their guns before them.
One of them stares all day at the sky
As if he had seen some strange thing there,
One of them tightly holds his gun
As if he dreaded a danger there,
One of them stoops above his friend,
By moon and sun we see him there….

All night long, all night long,
We see them and do not remember them,
We hear the terrible sounds of guns,
We see the white rays darting and darting,
We are beaten down and crawl to our feet,
We wipe the dirt from mouths and eyes,
Dust-coloured animals creeping in dust,
Animals stupefied by sound;
We are beaten down, and some of us rise,
And some become a part of the ground,
But what do we care? We never knew them,
Or if we did it was long ago ...
Night will end in a year or so,
We look at each other as if to say,
Across the void of time between us,
'Will the word come to-day?'
            —Conrad Aiken

In order to fight, one must forget. Soldiers must forget happy memories of their pasts as well as the horrific sight of their comrades’ bodies lying unburied between the trench lines. Detached from human emotions and suspended in time, they can only wait for the order to charge and perhaps to die.

An excerpt from Siegfried Sassoon’s diary written June 15, 1918 seems to echo the ideas of Aiken’s poem:
For several weeks I hardly thought of anything but the Company. Now that their training is coming to an end I’ve been easing off a bit; have allowed myself to enjoy books. The result is that I immediately lose my grip on soldiering, and begin to find everything intolerable except my interest in the humanity of the men. One cannot be a good soldier and a good poet at the same time…
Life will be easier and simpler when we get into the line again. There one alternates between intense concentration on the business in hand and extreme exhaustion… there is no time for emotion, no place for beauty. Only grimness and cruelty and remorse…†

In January of 1919, Poetry published Aiken’s response to the "Essential Industry" article:  
Your editorial in the November issue does me too much honor.  It would have been indeed quixotically courageous of me to have asked military exemption on the ground that I was a poet—it would even more, perhaps, have been presumptuous.  That I did not do, however. It was not the real point at issue for I was already in Class II.  The question was whether under the Work-or-Fight Law the writing of poetry was to be classed as non-productive—along with billiard-marking, setting up candle-pins, and speculation in theatre tickets—and whether artists in general would have to change their occupation.  I merely submitted that poetry should not be so classed, and that it was not specifically implied in the terms of the law.  Was the consequent decision more commercial, perhaps, than idealistic in motive? Hac itur ad astr!††
* Harriet Monroe, “Poetry an Essential Industry,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 96.
** The ellipsis appears in the original poem.
† Siegfried Sassoon, quoted in “The Killing of Edward Brittain; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Write Onward and Outward,” A Century Back, http://www.acenturyback.com/2018/06/15/the-killing-of-edward-brittain-wilfred-owen-and-siegfried-sassoon-write-onward-and-outward/, posted 15 June 2018, Accessed 1 Aug. 2018.
†† Conrad Aiken, “Mr. Aiken and the Essential Industry,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 4, January 1919, pp. 230-231. The Latin can be translated “This is the road to the stars!”


  1. This contribution on Aiken reminds me vividly of "our" Antwerp poet Paul Van Ostaijen (1898-1928). Like Aiken, V.O. never participated actively in the War. However, he wrote extensively on it, devoting a poetry volume "Bezette Stad" (Occupied City) to developments in Antwerp early on in the War (eg. the bombardments, the German occupation, the derelict city); this he did in a distinct Dadaist style, including all manner of typographical experiment. this he has picked up during artistic journeys to Berlin.

    In 1977 a full symphonic orchestra recorded selections from "Bezette Stad/ Bedreigde Stad (Threatened City)", turning it into an unforgettable acoustic experience.

    You will certainly find snippets from the poem in Google Images.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful reading and listening selection, Chris.