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.”

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.

Poetry Friday: The Approach of War

Tomorrow marks a century since the Yugoslavian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fatally shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie—the violent act was precipitated by Austria’s long occupation of the Slavic territories surrounding Serbia, and of course it then precipitated the maneuvering of the Powers of Europe until, in August, the guns rang out and what they then called The Great War (and what we would, many years later, call World War I) commenced.  The shadow of that war still hangs over us—World War II and all its aftermath are really dominos toppling in a chain leading back to the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, to Versailles and the carving up of the world.  Today, in Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds and the Maliki-led military forces are clashing over a fictional idea that was created by World War I, namely the idea that Iraq, a melange of faiths and ethnicities and national peoples, is a single country that can be ruled by a single government.  Like Kevin Bacon, the Great War unifies all 20th and 21st Century conflicts—it’s hard to point to any war since then that is not connected, usually in only one or two moves, to what began in the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th of June.

As we go through the next few years of 100th anniversaries of key moments in that conflict, I know I’ll reflect from time to time on the poetry of that war.  Most of the Pulitzers I’ve reviewed so far have been impacted in some way by WWI, and some have been explicitly interested in it (His Family and One of Ours, especially).  My current Pulitzer novel deals with families forged in that war.  So reflections on it, and on what the writers at the time made of it, are part and parcel of the long ongoing project here in which I try to make sense of my nation and its art.

Some of the Great War’s poems have already been featured here at one time or another, often on November 11th when I observe Armistice Day.  I haven’t decided yet whether to return to any of them for a second look.  For now, there’s plenty of unused material to work with, beginning with the verse written in this time of anticipation, when war was beginning to seem inevitable but no one yet could anticipate what that would mean.  This summer, the summer of 2014, starts to feel that way with the news out of the Middle East—I hope I am wrong about that.  Certainly, though, whether or not my country goes again to war, there are millions of people caught up today and for the foreseeable future in a war zone in Syria and Iraq.  I think of them as well as of us, when I suggest that it’s time for us to consider this century’s history of war, and what we are to make of it.  This is “Channel Firing”, written in that tense summer of 1914 before the war began, by Thomas Hardy:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy begins where this tale will inevitably end—in the grave, among the dead, who are the nameless collective first person throughout this poem.  They are uneasy in their rest because of the thundering cannons that echo through the churchyard, the sound of naval gunnery practice as Great Britain’s dreadnoughts prepare for the war that is to come.  All nature is disturbed, it seems—the images in the second stanza are of a world knocked a little from its moorings, insecure.

God’s sudden appearance is strange for anyone who knows Hardy: his cynical atheism is at the heart of a lot of his work, and I’ve even explored it a little in a previous Poetry Friday post.  But the cynicism remains even with the arrival of the Deity.  He reassures the dead that it’s not the last trumpet—only the thudding of guns.  A line like “the world is as it used to be” is in one sense soothing, but of course in context it’s also deeply depressing: the dead are being consoled by the simple fact that war and killing remain a major human preoccupation.

I’ll admit, I think the central portion of the poem is weakest for me—the attitude is too easy, too predictable, as God deplores the waste of all this energy on blood and death, and suggests that these folks are lucky it isn’t the Second Coming, since they’d all be doing hard time in Hell for their sins (although why God thinks any delay will change that, under the circumstances, isn’t really clear).  I do like the dryness of God’s laugh “Ha, ha”, not a giggle or a chortle but that flat, open-mouthed laugh that blasts out of you when you can hardly believe what you’re seeing.  It’s a rueful laugh, and it’s followed by a much sharper observation than the previous stanzas—that humanity is in such dire need of “rest eternal” that God’s considering just not waking anybody up, ever, and dispensing with this whole “glorious return” and “renewing of the earth” business that prophecy associates with the judgment day.

And the poem continues to improve, for me, after God’s exit: one of the dead, very naturally, asks if any of the centuries to come will bring a more peaceful era in human history, a better time than the days these sleeping souls once knew.  The bones rattle as the corpses demur—no, they suggest, humanity is on some level unimproveable.  The dead parson laments wasting his time on those sermons, the fruitless words cast out like seeds on rocky soil, doomed not to take root.  Better, he thinks, to have spent his days in a little private pleasure, a little smoke and alcohol to while away this mortal life.  And then that last great stanza as though the camera pulls suddenly back—no, “pulls” isn’t violent enough a word, the camera shoots backward like a fired munition—as we watch the thunder of the gunfire echo inland to Stourton Tower (associated with the “first” English king, Alfred the Great), then Camelot (deeper into the mythic past, and the legendary Arthur), and lastly to that monument under the starlight, the mute trilithons of Stonehenge.  Peering farther and farther back in time, Hardy finally quiets down: he shows rather than tells us that we cannot see back far enough to an age before war, and implicitly invites us to imagine the long, bloody road ahead.

Channel Firing is not the most moving of the Great War’s poems, in part because it is written before the war itself begins.  Hardy cannot yet know or draw on the agony of the trenches, the mad waste of a generation mowed down by machine guns and clouds of mustard gas.  And because it’s grounded in Hardy’s trademark depression, it does seem to weigh us down with its burdens—there is no suggestion that war can be averted, or that humans have any real role to play other than as pawns in this never-ending cycle.  But I see it as valuable, in part because I think it challenges me to argue with the poem, to suggest that there is a side to humanity it does not see.  And in part because I think it reminds me how real these truths are about the human condition, that to fight and die is deeply ingrained in us, and that it will take more than kind intentions and a pledge not to forget to get us off of this course we’re on.  The men and women who survived this war swore it would be the last such conflagration.  They sent their children to die, again, 25 years later.  I don’t think we should be fatalistic, but Hardy demands that I be realistic—when the dead hear the guns again, they will need to hear a better argument than I yet have, if I’m going to convince them that, this time, the cycle will be broken.

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.

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: Poetry 180

The start of the semester has everything buzzing at school—it’s a nice feeling, even though it’s also exhausting.  Today in particular, despite all the university trappings around me, my mind was drifting back to the days when I taught in a public high school: a former student dropped by (very unexpectedly, given that I taught him in Washington but I now work in Illinois) just to see me and wave before rushing off to the airport for home, and later in the day I chatted a little with a new colleague who also once taught in the public schools, and we agreed that some of this start-of-year exhaustion feels very familiar, the bone-tired teacher getting home at the end of the day feeling both drained and happy at how much has been done.  So it set me to thinking about Poetry Friday in the light of all this, and I realized I’d never acknowledged or commented on one of the better things I think has happened for poetry in the last decade—a school-focused project spearheaded by the Library of Congress called Poetry 180.  The notion is a simple one—for each of the 180 days of the typical American school year, there’s a poem that teachers are encouraged to share or use somehow.  Generally brief, accessible, memorable, and thought-provoking, the idea is that starting on the 1st day of the year, there’s a poem that potentially every schoolchild in the country is pondering, talking about in class, mentioning to their parents over dinner, etc.  The reality falls short of the ideal, of course (when doesn’t it?), but I still think it’s an attractive notion, and one that has the ability to help revive poetry’s place in our culture and our everyday lives a little, if we let it.

So today (and perhaps again, off and on) I’ll simply share what I think of as “today’s poem” from 180 and talk about it a little—it was the 10th day of the semester for me today, and for many other students in my city and elsewhere, so let’s have a look at the 10th poem from Poetry 180, William Stafford‘s “At the un-national monument along the Canadian border“:

“This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.”

Stafford was born in the Midwest, but he spent most of his adult life and career in the place I lived most of my life, the Pacific Northwest, where he taught at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and lived out his days until his death at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon.  This brief, beautiful poem is (has to be) a reference to the border between my home state and British Columbia.  It is also, for me, always associated with the Peace Arch, and the parks that surround it on both sides, where the major interstate highway crossing into Canada passes on its way from Seattle and Bellingham up to Vancouver, B.C.  I have always loved it, and Stafford captures the loveliness of this borderland here in an almost perfect economy of words, starting with the curious adjective “un-national” to acknowledge the curiosity of this structure built intentionally on two countries’ soil in honor of their shared respect for each other.

So many lovely (and awful) poems have been written about battlefields and the grass marked with blood, some in praise of death with honor, death for freedom, and some in horror at the meaninglessness, the pointlessness of this waste of human life.  And so Stafford can afford to be so simple and direct here—this is “the field where the battle did not happen, / where the unknown soldier did not die”.  It’s like an undoing of history, a tape on rewind—the image of the unknown soldier returning home to his family to live and grow old and be known is moving.  The grass here is not bleeding but united.  Yes, I know, I attach the Peace Arch to this poem even though Stafford says that “no monument stands” here—I don’t know how to explain the line.  Perhaps he is thinking of another place along this border, but for me it’s so hard not to see the arch as I read.  Maybe I interpret him to mean something very technical here—monuments commemorate people or events, but the Peace Arch commemorates an absence, in some ways, of these things.  It is an ode not to any one person or moment, but to the sustained willingness of two nations to stand in friendship beside each other.  There is nothing heroic about the arch, in that respect—it does not make wild the blood, it cannot be abused by politicians in jingoistic speeches, it will not serve as a rallying point for the vigilante or the demagogue.  Perhaps I misread him.  If so, he is referring to the rest of the border stretching east for the Cascades and, beyond them, the Rockies — the long open space, largely unfenced, including towns that straddle the border so that Canadians walk into America to buy groceries or post a letter, and vice versa.

I love the tranquility of the second stanza—the quiet of the seabirds holding themselves in place on the breeze or zipping from country to country, the quiet of a soil untroubled by violence or murder, the peace of the place so quiet, in fact, that its name all but disappears and is forgotten.  We may murmur “Gettysburg” at times, or “Pearl Harbor”, “D-Day”, “9/11”, all these dark days—they’re rallying cries, times and spots we can never let go of.  There are no such handles on the borderlands he’s talking about: no ominous label hovering and demanding our attention.  I’m grateful to Stafford for this quiet, today: a poem that refreshes and inspires a little hope.  I wonder if it worked that in any child’s mind today, if a teacher used this to ask questions about peace and war, about nations and struggles.  Poetry has this kind of enduring power, at its best, and I’m glad the LOC is still working to keep it fresh in our ears and eyes.

English: The Peace Arch on the US-Canada Borde...

The International Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American walking north into Peace Arch State Park sees emblazoned on the arch this motto: “Children of a common mother”.  A Canadian walking south into Peace Arch Provincial Park sees this: “Brethren dwelling together in unity”.  This September, maybe more than most months, I hope that for the nations—not just these two devoted friends, but all nations.  War is easy.  Peace is hard.  But if we remember who we are—all of us, us children of a common mother—it is easier to build.

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.