Defend The Bad Against The Worse

Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

“And my last words shall be these – that it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us.”

Siegfried Sassoon

Where Are The War Poets?

by Cecil Day Lewis

They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.


Siegfried Sassoon was one of the great poet’s of World War I.   He was a decorated soldier who had the courage to speak up and was ultimately removed from service for his act of bravery in declaring the war unjust.   I have reprinted his Soldiers Declaration in its entirety. He was dissented from the army for his brave stance that politicians and generals had fanned the flames of patriotism to prolong a war that became unjust. Sassoon stood by his convictions, and his poetry and writings reflect his equal stances of bravery, humanity, fear in wartime and his commitment to peace that made him stand up and say – STOP!

Sassoon’s protest, “A Soldier’s Declaration,” written on June 15, 1917:

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those how have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, has this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those as home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

Read before the House of Commons, July 30, 1917, printed in The London Times, on July 31, 1917 (ironically — perhaps appropriately — the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele).

The glorification of war is both a way to entice generation after generation of recruits  and draftees to fight, but it also a way for families of loved ones to heal, who have suffered the ultimate sacrifice. The poetry of war both immortalizes the nobility of bravery and selflessness that can occurs during conflict as well as lay bare the scars of wars casualties and atrocities.   I have included the video of Non nobis, Domine, which is part of the sound track from Henry V, Shakespeare’s play that celebrates King Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years Wars. Badly outnumbered, Henry V’s army is victorious.  Non nobis, Domine is a latin Christian hymn often used as a prayer of Thanksgiving.  It comes from Psalm 115 and translates the open lines as:

Not to us, Lord, not to us
    but to your name be the glory,
    because of your love and faithfulness.

Psalm 115:1


Trench Duty

by Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

Shaken from sleep, and numbed and scarce awake,
Out in the trench with three hours’ watch to take,
I blunder through the splashing mirk; and then
Hear the gruff muttering voices of the men
Crouching in cabins candle-chinked with light.
Hark! There’s the big bombardment on our right
Rumbling and bumping; and the dark’s a glare
Of flickering horror in the sectors where
We raid the Boche; men waiting, stiff and chilled,
Or crawling on their bellies through the wire.
“What? Stretcher-bearers wanted? Some one killed?”
Five minutes ago I heard a sniper fire:
Why did he do it?… Starlight overhead—
Blank stars. I’m wide-awake; and some chap’s dead

 

Love Is Proved In The Letting Go

 

Pearl

“poetry is not—except in a very limited sense—a form of self-expression. Who on earth supposes that the pearl expresses the oyster?”

O Dreams, O Destinations

Sonnet 1

by Cecil Day Lewis

For infants time is like a humming shell
Heard between sleep and sleep, wherein the shores
Foam-fringed, wind-fluted of the strange earth dwell
And the sea’s cavernous hunger faintly roars.
It is the humming pole of summer lanes
Whose sound quivers like heat-haze endlessly
Over the corn, over the poppied plains —
An emanation from the earth or sky.
Faintly they hear, through the womb’s lingering haze,
A rumour of that sea to which they are born:
They hear the ringing pole of summer days,
But need not know what hungers for the corn.
They are the lisping rushes in a stream —
Grace-notes of a profound, legato dream


In the last blog I ended with the question that arose from James Baldwin’s poem The Giver; does an artist give up something integral of themselves in giving their art to the world? I didn’t write it at the time, but what was also in my mind is does the same hold true of parents with their children and children with their parents? The greatest act of giving that we can provide to each other is to embrace independence, a belief that our greatest achievements are gifted to the world. But Cecil Day-Lewis’ quote above is equally true. Our children are not an expression of their parents, they are entirely of their own wonderful creation, we only provide a thin shell of protection along the way, their real beauty of their own volition.

March is coming in like a lion, a cold lion in Minneapolis.  It’s -9 F this morning, but the sun is shining and the snow is beautiful. Ice dams decorate every 1950’s era home in my neighborhood and despite the inconvenience of needing to warm up the car before heading out it’s awfully pretty in this big wintry world I live in.  I refuse to grumble about the snow and cold as I sleep most contentedly when its this chilly in a drafty old house next to my beautifully warm partner,  our bodies naturally needing the touch of the other in the night beneath the covers.   I think therapists should send feuding spouses to sleep in old farm houses in Minnesota as touch therapy as they would settle their differences pretty quickly in search of heat in the other’s arms.  If I could sleep every night in winter with my partner, I would get a much better nights sleep all the year round.

Enjoy this brisk Sunday and let your pearls out, whatever they maybe, to roll around freely to catch the sun in all their glory.


Walking Away

by Cecil Day Lewis

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

 

 

Since We Are What We Are

 

stephenspender
Stephen Spender

 

Since we are what we are, what shall we be
But what we are? We are, we have
Six feet and seventy years, to see
The light, and then release it for the grave.
We are not worlds, no, nor infinity,
We have no claims on stone, except to prove
In the invention of the city
Our hearts, our intellect, our love.

Stephen Spender – From Exercises/Explorations

 

I – The Door

Excerpt from The Quest by W. H. Auden

Out of it steps our future, through this door
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
A red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools.

Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.

We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.


 

“Out of it steps our future, through this door.” What future opens today and what past closes?  What joy awaits and what tragedy still haunts? The stuff of life and poetry. An old friend of mine who is in an assisted living facility worked in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in the 1960’s. I was visiting her last weekend and read her a little Auden. She listened, smiled and said; “I saw Auden lecture at the University of Minnesota.  He sold out Williams Arena. He was brilliant.” 

There are several remarkable things about that statement. First off, I am more than a little jealous she saw Auden lecture, and second, can we imagine a poet alive who could fill a basketball stadium on an American campus to hear a lecture about poetry? Maybe Maya Angelou or Mary Oliver could have in recent years, but i can’t think of a single male poet alive who could do it today. I googled Auden and Williams arena to see if I could find a reference to the event on-line and I came up short. I did find in Poetry Magazine from 1956 a blurb about T. S. Elliot delivering a lecture at the University of Minnesota and it had to be moved to Williams Arena because 13,400 people attended. Auden and Elliot selling out the University of Minnesota basketball stadium – that’s rock star poetry!

Several of the Oxford group had connections to the University of Minnesota. Christopher Isherwood published a book on writing through the University of Minnesota Press and the same has re-issued several of his books, including Lions and Shadows, a memoir about his days at Oxford.

Go Gophers, my alma mater! You know the people in a state have a sense of humor when they make their mascot for the University a skittish rodent with stripes.

 


Is It Far To Go?

By Cecil Day Lewis

Is it far to go?
A step — no further.
Is it hard to go?
Ask the melting snow,
The eddying feather.

What can I take there?
Not a hank, not a hair.
What shall I leave behind?
Ask the hastening wind,
The fainting star.

Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song.

Who will say farewell?
The beating bell.
Will anyone miss me?
That I dare not tell —
Quick, Rose, and kiss me.

Be Shod With Pain

cecil day lewis

Cecil Day Lewis.

 

“Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.”

Doggerel by a Senior Citizen

by W. H. Auden

 

Come, Live With Me and Be My Love

by Cecil Day Lewis

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I’ll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We’ll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone –
If these delight thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.


There is a unique pleasure in reading a poem whose rhyme and meter is perfectly tuned to our English tongues. Auden’s wonderful indictment of free verse above is humorous because he wrote some of the most beautiful free verse poetry of his generation.  But free verse devoid of the beauty of language is not poetry in my book.  I have no time for most of the free verse that dominates the poetic universe today, it has the feel of nattering of immature writers who would have been better off leaving it off the page and on the canvas of their inner mind or in their unpublished work book. 

In my view, most free verse poets have become lazy.   They fail at least one of three rules by which I hold all poetry accountable.

1).   Never write boring poetry. 

2).  Paint a picture, create an emotion or foster an idea.   Create a reaction in your reader, don’t write poems that sit like dead fish on the page.

3).   Create beauty, using words like notes in a song.   Write an ear-worm, with at least one line in the poem, that will stay with the reader for more than 2 minutes. 

“And love’s best glasses reach, no fields but are his own.”


That Night When Joy Began

by W. H. Auden

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning’s levelled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser’s reproach,
And love’s best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

We Must Find Our Law

lewis auden stephen spender
W. H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stephen Spender

Sonnet V

Excerpt from In Time of War
by W. H. Auden

His care-free swagger was a fine invention:
Life was to slow, too regular, too grave.
With horse and sword he drew the girls’ attention,
A conquering hero, bountiful and brave,

To whom teen-agers looked for liberation:
At his command they left behind their mothers,
Their wits were sharpened by the long migration,
His camp-fires taught them all the horde were brothers.

Till what he came to do was done: unwanted,
Grown seedy, paunchy, pouchy, disappointed,
He took to drink to screw his nerves to murder,

Or sat in offices and stole,
Boomed at his children about Law and Order,
And hated life with heart and soul


Auden may be describing himself in this opening line.  He is often described as brimming with a confidence, intelligence and wit. Auden attracted other bright minds. A group of writers from his days at Oxford became known as the Oxford group – Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, (Daniel Day Lewis’ father), Christopher Isherwood; Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender.  All would go on to have successful careers as writers with a common bent toward leftist politics, their politics a force in their writing. Auden voiced in his literature the dangers of Fascism, the inherit evil in totalitarianism and the trap of lethargy in standing up to that evil. He supported a more reasoned equitable socialist ethos in how humanity justly supports one another. Auden’s ability to articulate a greater complexity in our humanness is what makes his writing both sensitive and audacious.  His poem Lullaby is one of the greatest love poems ever written.

Auden more than dabbled in the sonnet form.   He wrote several sonnet sequences, Quest and In Time of War, along with several stand alone sonnets and un-rhymed sonnets.   He obviously found the sonnet form both useful and challenging.

Auden wrote in so many different styles that in my mind it is unfair to classify him only as a formal poet. Auden is the kind of writer that in my opinion makes the difficult look easy. Auden received ample recognition throughout his career and made a reasonable living as a writer, poet and academic.  I wonder what kind of writer Auden would be if he were alive today?  What injustices would he be highlighting?  Where would Auden sit on the subject of Brexit and global migration fleeing inequality and violence?

I think Auden brings an interesting perspective on how art can shape our definition of success. What if we could all see ourselves as artists of one kind or another?  What if we spent more time creating our own images, writing our own stories, rediscovering our own myths?  What if we changed the narrative in our society, that an artist is not a unique person, but rather every person is a special kind of artist?


 

Sonnet XXV

From In Time of War
By W. H. Auden

Nothing is given: we must find our law.
Great buildings jostle in the sun for domination;
Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation
The low recessive houses of the poor.

We have no destiny assigned us:
Nothing is certain but the body; we plan
To better ourselves; the hospitals alone remind us
Of the equality of man.

Children are really loved here, even by police:
They speak of years before the big were lonely,
And will be lost.

And only
The brass bands throbbing in the parks foretell
Some future reign of happiness and peace.

We learn to pity and rebel.