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.