Poetry Friday: Armistice Day 2016

The years roll on, and take their toll.  I come to this day a little wearier each time.  I have less to say, other than to trot out the familiar phrases—my unease with American jingoism on holidays like this one, where we pretend that the day is to honor the brave and not the fallen, to exult in the nobility of war rather than to lament its destructive wrath; then, more sadly, something pious and humble and mostly true about what the memory of those long dead, especially the dead from the Great War whose hallowed day this November 11th was from the very beginning (and will always be, to me), means to someone born many decades later.  You can click on the Veterans Day tag and see the rest, if you like.  I hope the collection of my reflections and each year’s poem or poems brings you solace, or solemnity, or anything fitting the occasion.

But that’s more than enough from me: as always, I yield the floor (and will not comment afterwards) to a poet who knew the horrors of war.  This is the final section of Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”, written in 1916.  It has been a century, Alan.  Young American volunteers still die—not for France, but for other nations the world over, for causes that (however they seem to us at our safe remove) must have seemed good to them.  May we honor their memories as you do.  May we end the wars and bring them home before next year, for their sake, and their families’.

“There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.”
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Poetry Friday: Armistice Day

It has been another delay here at Following Pulitzer—apologies to all of you who wish I would be more consistent (and thanks for your continued interest).  As it happens, I think a transition is coming that may free up more time for me to read and to write—a job change that will mean another cross-country move like the one I blogged through in 2011—but I’ll say more about that another day.  Today is a day about other people, and not me.

I call it Armistice Day in the title intentionally, because sometimes I think we are too quick to forget today’s origins.  It began less as a holiday to honor those who serve their country (great as that sacrifice often is, and humbling as it can be to the vast majority of us who do not serve), and more specifically as a holiday to honor the day the guns fell silent; the day a world, at long last, chose peace.  It is a somber day in every country scarred by World War I except ours—a day for wreaths laid at cenotaphs and salutes to absent comrades, a day for meditative silence and serious consideration of the toll that war exacts from all who touch it.  Here, I think we are often so caught up in the desire to celebrate veterans that we end up celebrating the trappings of war, thundering cannons and soaring jet engines, the flash of brightly shining medals and gun barrels as men and women in dress uniform march out at halftime or before the anthem.  It makes me uneasy.  As much as I honor those who serve, and know that there have been dark moments in the world’s history where, without that service, much that is good would have been lost… it is hard to see all that pomp and wonder if it dulls us to the cost of war.  Certainly my generation easily remembers how blindly and foolishly we were led into conflict—a conflict that was easy for many to support because our families would not supply the lives it took to do whatever it was we did in the Middle East.  Flags and salutes once a year (or twice, really, with Memorial Day) feels like cheap grace to me—an annual payment that costs people like me very little, much less than it would cost us to face the reality of the sacrifices we have demanded, and often unwisely.  Much less than it would cost us to find a way of diminishing the chances that any young person will have to make those sacrifices next year, next decade, and beyond.

The real costs, of course, are borne by those who do not return from battle, and those who love them.  Today is their day, and if a flag or a salute eases their burden, I will hoist the standard and stand at attention for as long as I am asked.  I know what I believe, and what I feel obligated to do—that’s why I always say what I do, each November 11.  But it is important to remember that today is not about me.  Today is theirs, and will ever be.  For them, I offer Laurence Binyon‘s ode, “For the Fallen”:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is a music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.

A daughter, and Veterans Day: A poem for both

Those who’ve followed the news here at FP for a while know that my wife and I were expecting a daughter.  I am glad (and exhausted) when I tell you she arrived on Friday in the wee hours of the morning.  We are all tired and learning our new roles and doing our best to care for each other, so blogging will proceed at goodness knows what pace in the short term.  I like writing here, and I think someday she will like reading what I wrote, looking back on these days when her father was so young, so sure of his opinions.  And I have a novel that is at least plausibly about young parenthood, so I should return to it.  For now, I hope I will be forgiven a little radio silence.

And it is, again, Veterans Day—a day when I recognize the horrors of war and lament the dead, a day when I both remind myself of the ugliness of the human condition and am simultaneously inspired by the ability of the noblest side of the human spirit to thrive even in war’s darkness.  I have written about this in the past, and what I think it says about my country that November 11th is a day for car sales and undelivered mail (who sends letters, anymore?) and maybe a few school kids at an assembly that’s more about rah-rahing and flag-waving and the glory of war than it is about the day’s true meaning.  You can read them, if you like: 2010 is here, and 2011 is here, and last year’s entry here.  This year, all I can add is that the birth of a daughter enhances rather than diminishes all my feeling about war and death—my admiration for those who have borne the battle (many of them unwillingly) and how they have found ways to express humanity thereby rather than giving in to depravity, and my dejection when I think of how many nations, mine included, have sent thousands if not millions to die for no good purpose.  So here, in a poem that expresses just a bit of all those sentiments, is a poem from the Great War, the war whose ending gives us today as a holiday—this is T. M. Kettle, an Irishman who went willingly into the fray because he believed he was working for a free Europe and a free Ireland, who died leading his men at the Battle of the Somme and whose body was never found.  This is the poem he wrote to the daughter he never came home to: “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God”.

“In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

English: Thomas_M._Kettle_memorial_in_St._Step...

A memorial to Thomas Kettle in a Dublin park. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing I could say could add meaning to this, nor could any detractor diminish what these words move in me. Today I remember with sorrow and with joy Lieutenant Thomas Kettle of the Irish Volunteers, and the daughter Elizabeth who never knew his face. May God bring them together in glory. May God forgive the human hatred and violence that parted them.

A poem for Veterans Day

The body of the Unknown Soldier chosen by Serg...

The body of the Unknown American Soldier chosen to represent the fallen in World War I is loaded on a train in France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is my custom, each November 11th I honor the armistice by sharing a poem by a soldier of the Great War—World War I—the war that gave birth to this minor holiday, whether feast or fast I cannot tell.  In my country, the United States, it is, generally speaking, a day for hurrahs, for camouflage and crisp salutes, for sincere appreciation of the soldier and the veteran as patriots.  This is not a bad thing, of course, but it always feels to me incomplete—I think servicemen and servicewomen more than deserving of thanks and praise for their dedication.  But today, I think, should be about more than that.  It should be a day to reflect on the lasting sorrow of war, a day in which we resolve to do our part to blot out this human stain from the future of the earth.  In other lands more touched by World War I, November 11th is such a day—in Canada, with solemnity the wreaths are laid at cenotaphs, and newscasters talk in hushed voices about the Somme and Verdun, about those who fell in hope of a homecoming that was never realized.  I am sure similar public observance carries the day in England, in France, in Germany, and all the other nations who hoped in 1918 that humanity had purged its great blood-lust in one disastrous sacrifice of a generation of young men.  That hope may be foolish or vain, but some of us carry it still.  This is text from the War Requiem written by Benjamin Britten–it is adapted from a poem by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who died at the age of 25 on November 4th, 1918.  Had he lived one more week, he would have reached the war’s end.  How many others were slaughtered, just as needlessly?  This is an adaptation of his poem, “Parable of the Old Men and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son,—
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

How many generations will be asked to learn this lesson?  And how many brave men and women, in faithful service to their country, have we sacrificed on an altar of our own choosing?

Rest eternal grant them, O God.  Let light perpetual shine upon them.

Poetry Friday: Veterans Day 2011

This is a day I always try to treat with some solemnity.  It is a day my country doesn’t treat as solemnly as I think it should—I have my two years in Canada to thank for the perspective I’ve gained on Veterans Day, to be honest.  It’s a day to remember the side of war that is easy to forget when the flags wave and the band plays and the generals talk of “freedom” and the “noble cause”.  It’s a day to remember what we mean when we use a phrase like “sacrifice” to refer to military service.

This doesn’t require you to be a pacifist.  Abraham Lincoln, as anyone knows, was no pacifist—he recognized with terrible agony the necessity of war to right the societal evil that his country had visited on an entire people.  But he never took lightly the burden of war—the seriousness of asking someone to die, of asking thousands and thousands to die, for a cause, no matter how vitally important that cause is.  He was, as I think is evident in all his letters and speeches, a man haunted by violence.  The world we live in today is no less violent.  So today, take a moment and think about the soldiers you know and have known, and those a world away you will never know.  Think about what it means for anyone to give their life or their health or their sanity for the sake of their country, for the sake of the people they seek to protect.  And ask yourself what kind of benefit is great enough to warrant our sending young men and women into that kind of harm’s way.

If it’s helpful, take a look at a couple of poems by Siegfried Sassoon, a veteran of the First World War.  I won’t comment on them as I usually do for Poetry Friday.  As poems, they have a lot of features I could talk about.  But as expressions of a man’s experience, the legacy of having survived and having seen so many die, before them I feel an urge to be silent.  Sometimes it is better to listen than to speak.

“Dreamers”

Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s tomorrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.
I see them in foul dugouts, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.


“Suicide in the Trenches”

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

11/11: Poetry of the Great War

Perhaps no other conflict has given rise to such rich and sorrowful poetry as the “war to end all wars”—the First World War, which in the first word of its name gives the lie to the optimism of its nickname.  I reflect on poets from this war every year on Veterans Day.  Thanks to you veterans who happen by here today—and never let any of us forget that war is hell, and that sending men and women into harm’s way should be our country’s last resort.  Other countries are more somber today than we are.  They still remember the millions dead at Verdun and Ypres, the generation lost to death and hollow living.  I think we would do well to understand better what they do.  But rather than listen to me any longer, here are the voices of men who saw it face-to-face:

Edward Shillito’s “Hardness of Heart”

In the first watch no death but made us mourn;
Now tearless eyes run down the daily roll,
Whose names are written in the book of death;
For sealed are now the springs of tears, as when
The tropic sun makes dry the torrent’s course
After the rains. They are too many now
For mortal eyes to weep, and none can see
But God alone the Thing itself and live.
We look to seaward, and behold a cry!
To skyward, and they fall as stricken birds
On autumn fields; and earth cries out its toll,
From the Great River to the world’s end—toll
Of dead, and maimed and lost; we dare not stay;
Tears are not endless and we have no more.


Charles Sorley, an unnamed sonnet

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Poetry 11/11: The Great War

I never let this day pass without reading and reflecting on the poets of World War I.  I thought it would be nice to offer two brief poems for you to see and consider, as well.  To any veterans who may happen by, thank you for your service.  And now, two poems from a war we should not forget:

“The Dead” by Rupert Brooke

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.