Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Poems in their pockets

There’s a holiday for everything: November 27th is Bavarian Cream Pie Day and May 4th marks both Beer Pong Day and International Respect for Chickens Day. And every April, the US celebrates National Poetry Month, with one day set aside as “Poem in your Pocket Day.” According to the National Academy of Poets, it’s a day that encourages everyone to select a poem, carry it, and share it with others.

But what of poems found in the pockets of the dead? They echo like last words, held close by those who wrote them or loved them.
Frank Hurley, Dawn of Passchendaele
State Library New South Wales
(Found in his pocket after death.)

Suddenly one day
The last ill shall fall away;
The last little beastliness that is in our blood
Shall drop from us as the sheath drops from the bud,
And the great spirit of man shall struggle through,
And spread huge branches underneath the blue.
In any mirror, be it bright or dim,
Man will see God staring back at him.
            —T.P. Cameron Wilson

T.P. Cameron Wilson was killed in the First World War on March 23, 1918. The introduction to his posthumously published book of poems, Magpies in Picardy, relates that he was “extremely shy about his verse, and, unlike most youthful poets, was always disinclined to let it be seen, or discussed, by his friends.” Before joining the British Army, Wilson had been a schoolteacher in rural Derbyshire. In a letter dated May of 1916, he wrote,

Do teach your dear kids the horror of responsibility which rests on the war-maker … We’ve been wrong in the past. We have taught schoolboys “war” as a romantic subject … And everyone has grown up soaked in the poetry of war—which exists, because there is poetry in everything, but which is only a tiny part of the great dirty tragedy … All those picturesque phrases of war writers … are dangerous because they show nothing of the individual horror, nothing of the fine personalities smashed suddenly into red beastliness, nothing of the sick fear that is tearing at the hearts of brave boys who ought to be laughing at home.*
T.P.C. Wilson

And in his war-time notebook of “waste paper philosophy,” Wilson wrote a reflection on prayer:

When you pray I dare advise you break away from arranged titles, such as the Church has hung round the neck of its God … I have prayed to Him as the Great Calm Spirit, as Father, as King, as Friend, and all the titles mean nothing, and fluttered like dead leaves on the moving stream of love … Once as I walked along a road I spoke to Him as the Splendid Friend, and saw the huge sea, green and silent against the clouds, and near me the laughing pines, and very far away a sail like a speck of foam but which was a great ship, full of men. And I knew I was a fool, and could not call Him anything, but said, “Make me big, and less a fool,” and then I ran, and met my friends and linked an arm through the warm arm of one and sang a silly song.**
*T.P. Cameron Wilson from War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, E.P. Dutton, 1930, pp. 299-300.
** T.P. Cameron Wilson, Waste paper philosophy, to which has been added Magpies in Picardy, George H. Doran, 1920, p. 31.