Poetry Friday: Return to 1943

It’s been a while since I was in the poetry of the year of my current Pulitzer novel, but since I am in fact rolling along through Dragon’s Teeth again, I thought I should try putting myself back in the right mindset, and that requires me to get my head back into the 1940s.  There’s been no recent post on Sinclair’s novel, of course, but that’s just because all the things I really feel like saying about the chapters I’ve been reading are things I said in my last post.  Once I have enough new ideas to offer (or enough witty rephrasings of the stale ideas that are sticking around), there will be a post.  In the meantime, I do keep reading, and I pause on Friday for a poem from 1943.

I’m back to Richard Church, whose Twentieth-Century Psalter I used for a PF post earlier this year.  Church’s poetry is exactly what you might expect from a minor English poet during and immediately after the Blitz—ruminations on violence and survival, reflections on these “metal beasts of the air” that rain down death, etc.  The fact that much of it is predictable does not make it less affecting, or less effective at evoking what it felt like to live through war.  Here, as the fall starts and the news has been full again of war talk—a war that, no matter what Russia or the United States accomplish, will go on in Syria for the foreseeable future—I thought it would be good to return to Church’s psalter again, at least one more time (if not more) to hear what an Englishman says to us from the depths of the 20th Century’s signature struggle.  This is the “psalm” he has appointed for Morning on the 22nd day of the month, which I am recklessly offering for your consideration here on the evening of the 13th:

“I have been hearing on the radio
News of mid-century battles; how the tide
Of blood soaks through the sand; how men have died
In the desert. Could three generations know
More bitterly than we how horrors grow,
And how the microphone has multiplied
Each village tragedy, made it worldwide?
A maniac’s at my ear wherever I go.

Whoso is wise will ponder on these things,
Repudiate omniscience of sound
And let the coming day bring what it brings.
Meanwhile there’s much to do to break some ground
Against to-morrow’s famine, and to plant
Enough to meet a deafened neighbour’s want.”

Church’s sonnet—yes, I know, I use too many of them for Poetry Friday, but I find it wonderful to consider how flexible and various the form can be—takes as its subject something fairly prosaic: the chatter of the radio bringing news of the war, seemingly specifically the North African campaign.  This was the first real opportunity for Britain to be on the offensive, and much of the news from the desert was of victory, the small triumphs that heralded the turning point of the war.  And yet there isn’t a speck of exultation in the poem.  Church doesn’t hear news of victory—just death.

There’s an innocence to his poem, isn’t there?  He wonders if three generations could understand all the pain he’s having to hear, and attributes it to the power of the microphone, the ability to broadcast around the world so that particular sufferings become general.  John Donne may have thought that “any man’s death diminishes me” but in the 17th Century he only had to reckon with the burden of local death—Church staggers under the weight of the world’s corpses, narrated to him unendingly as though some unstable mind is following him down the street, cataloging horrors as he goes.  And we can only shake our heads at how easy it must be for him—don’t we?  He didn’t have 24/7 news channels blaring in stores and airports, an Internet full of Youtube videos of massacres and chemical weapons attacks, the oppression not merely of voices but of images of war and tragedy.  And yet I think there’s also a side of this in which we are the innocents: we have grown up surrounded by all this, and can be numb to it in ways he couldn’t.  We’ve seen special effects movies full of fake death, played videogames where the body counts climb…I’m not saying we aren’t affected by the televised carnage from the real world but it seems somehow remote from us, doesn’t it?  We’ve learned how to steel ourselves against it.  But Church grew up in a very different world, and I wonder if he has the ability to “shut off” his compassion as effectively as we can, or if the hypnotic sadness of the radio reached him in a way I will never really understand.

I was thinking about sound today, weirdly, before I read this poem—I was commenting to my wife how odd it is that she’s scheduled for two medical procedures next week (a non-stress test for the baby, and an ultrasound) that both involve sound waves.  In one case, the sound will be used to get the child moving; in the other, it will almost magically be translated into lifelike images on a screen.  I was marveling at how versatile we can be with sound, like the Doctor twirling his sonic screwdriver, merrily fixing the world with it.  And so it was a little strange but also a good, fresh thought to face Church’s rejection of sound, since at the turn of the sonnet from octet to sestet, he breaks away from the radio and turn simply to the day around him.  To the light falling on a broken earth, and Church picking up spade and seed to plant again.  And not just for himself—in the poem’s last irony, sound here has overwhelmed his neighbor in a quite different way, the shock of shells from the bombing blowing out his hearing and leaving him more dependent than before.

It’s a strangely deep poem for something so brief and seemingly straight-forward.  In a far less didactic approach than some of the other psalms in this collection, Richard Church here simply unpacks the idea of sound in an England at war—how sound has turned against humanity both in active hostility (the sound of bombs blasting away a man’s ability to hear) and in a much more subtle manner (the radio is full of the voices of his friends, not his enemies, and yet what it reports makes Church deeply sad).  It seems to me a useful reminder of how poisonous violence can be, how it taints what it touches.  Church’s century taught us this lesson.  So did the centuries before it.  Sometimes I despair of us ever learning it, though, and yet this last week the voices on the radio are suddenly optimistic.  I hope it lasts.

Poetry Friday: 1943, part 3

In perusing the books of poetry issued in 1943 that grace the shelves of my library—librarianship has its advantages, especially for the literary blogger—I stumbled into an unfamiliar title and poet.  After skimming it, I thought the project interesting enough, and revealing enough about life in that year, to select a poem from the work to share today.  Richard Church was a minor English poet of the mid-20th Century, a man who wrote as a hobby until his late 30s and then dove into journalism, poetry, novel writing, and even a little autobiography to pay the bills from there on out.  In 1943, he brought out a small collection of poetry called Twentieth Century Psalter.  Modeled after the psalters of the Middle Ages, and structured as though these were poems to be used liturgically, like in the daily office at a monastery, the poems speak as bluntly and humanly as the Hebrew poetry preserved in the Tanakh’s book of Psalms.  After a dedicatory preface, acknowledging King David (the traditionally credited author of much of the Psalms) and suggesting that he was a “modern man”, Church simply presents pairs of poems assigned to each day of a thirty-day month—“The First Day: Morning” and “The First Day: Evening”—implicitly offering them as a reading to be added to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (service maybe still most widely known by their ancient names of Matins and Vespers).  The poems are not particularly sacred, though, or at least they are certainly not mild little pieties, as they turn their attention instead to the grim realities of life in an embattled England, a landscape of bomb craters and evacuated children and a resilient people enduring a modern war.  I thought that it might be best, here on the first day of the month of March, to just take what he’s assigned us this evening.  So, this is a poem by Richard Church, entitled “The First Day: Evening”:

“The instruments of death throughout the world;
They are the child’s desire, the young man’s training.
Women are forging them, by night and day.
Civilization cowers; bombs are raining
Upon the ripening corn; cities are hurled
Into the past, the Babylonian clay.

Some ancient god of wrath might look on this,
And, mumbling in his beard of human folly,
Call down a dozen plagues for punishment.
To-day, only a critical melancholy,
Self-conscious from the very soul’s abyss,
Warns us what follows when our rage is spent.

There have been many gods; there has been one.
All gods, and one, by many a name and token,
Are living still, are gathered in my brain,
A memory of duty, of vows broken,
A quiet conviction of what must be done
To build the broken cities up again.

The city and the cornfield; these are set
At history’s extremes. Between them lies
The story of the gods. Our art and science
No longer feature hell and paradise.
But still the ancient longing and regret
Govern our actions; still the old defiance.

The old defiance! It was this that first
Snatched at the fire and let destruction loose.
Defiance dealt the unpolitical blow,
Blundered in strength, mistook the best for worst,
And shattered adoration with abuse.
Defiance of what? Ah, still we do not know.”

Church—and yes, it occurs to me to that, consciously or unconsciously, his name may play a role in his desire to deal with psalms and liturgy—offers a poem that strikes me as very 1943, and movingly so.  The war is beginning to turn again the Axis powers, but no confidence can really be there yet for a man who’s heard the crump of bombs from an underground shelter, or seen the boys straggle back from Dunkirk.  So he opens the poem with the image of weaponry and how these “instruments of death” are ubiquitous—children imagine them as toys, soldiers train, women toil in factories to build them.  Do you think this is England or Germany he’s thinking of?  Is he envisioning the machine-like society that raises up these lethal tools to threaten his nation, or the machine-like society his nation must become to defend itself?  Both seem plausible readings to me.  There’s something very moving about the end of that stanza—we often use phrases like “bomb them back to the Stone Age”, but I can see it happening in Church’s words.  The debris in some parts of London must have seemed like a Near Eastern tel, the great heaps of pot-sherds on which a new city would rise—but whose city?

There’s something like Thomas Hardy inserted into in the second stanza—a poet wishing he could believe in a vengeful god—although in this case it’s not Hardy’s depression, but Church’s righteous anger and desire for justice and retribution, that fuels the dream.  The stanza, honestly, feels very allusive here, since he’s building in some ways on the work of English poets from a previous generation or two, like Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach” which laments the loss of faith and hope in a world given over to these new scientific ideas.  And something about the final phrase “when our rage is spent” reminds me of John Milton’s famous sonnet “When I consider how my light is spent” that meditates on his blindness and his willingness to serve God.  There are layers here of three centuries of English poets struggling with belief, with the question of whether God is there above the clouds somewhere, and with the question of what we all will do if we have only ourselves and our world for consolation.

That’s what makes the third stanza really interesting to me—the way Church surprises us a few times as he turns it one way and then the other.  He brings up the images of polytheism and monotheism, seemingly acknowledges their validity, and then steps back a little—these gods live, but only in his brain.  And what resides there beside them?  Are these the modern gods—our sense of duty (to ourselves? to each other?), vows we know we have broken and will break?  What is that quiet conviction that Church has, and what does he think must be done to rebuild?  It’s hard for me to see whether that conviction is as ephemeral and imaginary to him as this panoply of gods are, or whether he really believes it….I think he does have that conviction, but hasn’t the poem undermined any reason for him to feel that confidence?  Maybe conviction and duty are all someone can turn to (other than madness) in the face of these broken cities.

And then the camera pans back again and the view sweeps out to all of human civilization—something that, in the 1940s, probably did look very simply like a march from the cornfield to the city, from one end of history to the other.  “Between them lies the story of the gods.”  But it’s our story also.  So Church is telling us something about ourselves—in part it’s really clear to me, because he’s so direct about how the “old defiance” survives even if talk of Heaven and Hell, of reward and judgment, has more or less passed out of “polite society”.  But in part it’s not clear, simply because I don’t think Heaven and Hell have totally walked off the stage (for one thing, how could he know then that in 3 years the world would learn of Auschwitz, of Treblinka, of Chelmno, these scars left in the wake of war, so abhorrent that we would revive an old word, “holocaust”, to capture the magnitude of the evils done).  And I think the stanza anyway is asking us to see more than that: he’s given us a very visual metaphor to work with, the city and the cornfield extended out in front of us, and the space between, and I think we’re meant to look at it and ask ourselves what we see.  What is all this for, and what has it gotten us?  A fair question any day, but maybe especially fair from the perspective of London during the Blitz.

And that ambivalence, that uneasiness, persists in the final stanza—the “old defiance” lingers on here, and now I wonder what it really signifies.  Fire, that critical human invention, here is a result of this defiance, and yet its only purpose seems hostile and violent.  Defiance brings harm where it could have brought health, breaks the old icons without understanding the new world it makes, deals “the unpolitical blow” (a phrase I confess I do not entirely understand in context).  And what, he asks us, are we defying anyway?  We do not know.  But what does he mean by that?  Is it that human defiance is rejecting the old faiths, but that we don’t understand them?  Or simply that, because a lot of people now doubt God’s existence, it’s hard for them to “defy” someone they don’t believe is there?  There’s not much old about that kind of defiance anyway—it’s a modern impulse—so maybe I’m misreading it entirely, and really he’s talking about something else….the “original sin” of ambition or pride, perhaps?  I am unsure.

What I do like about all this is that it does operate just like a psalm ought to—challenging, heartfelt, obscure.  If it was read in a real prayer service, a priest or minister could really chew on it for a while: who are humans, really, and where is God in England in 1943?  What are we doing with our lives and what will it mean?  How can we (Can we?) ever escape these old patterns, the circle of defiance and destruction that more or less characterizes a lot of human endeavor?  I may possibly come back to Church if I’m still reading 1943’s Pulitzer novel at the end of the month: I wonder if this poem is intended to raise questions that he really means to wrestle with himself by the last few days of the month, or if he’s just opening doors he has no intention of closing.  In any case, the anthology is an interesting idea—one another poet could easily steal here in the 21st Century, and maybe someone should—and if it’s in a library near you, I suggest you pick it up and give it a look.