with his words in my head I slept for thirty or forty forevers while the grass shrieked and the trees tremored…
By Deborah Landau
Dazzling emptiness of the black green end of summer no one
running in the yard pulse pulse the absence.
Leave them not to the empty yards.
They resembled a family. Long quiet hours. Sometimes
one was angry sometimes someone called her “wife”
someone’s hair receding.
An uptick in the hormone canopy embodied a restlessness
and oh what to do with it.
(How she arrived in a hush in a looking away and not looking.)
It had been some time since richness intangible
and then they made a whole coat of it.
Meanwhile August moved toward its impervious finale.
A mood by the river. Gone. One lucid rush carrying them along.
Borderless and open the days go on—
A friend of Ivor Gurney’s described him as being “so sane in his insanity.” Gurney spent the last 15 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals in England, believing himself to actually be Shakespeare for a portion of that time. A self described composer more than poet or playwright, he wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime. Only a small fraction of his music has been performed or recorded.
Born in the city of Gloucester in 1890, Gurney was fascinated by music. As a boy he studied under the organist, Dr Herbert Brewer at the Gloucester Cathedral. Following his service in WWI, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Sir Charles Stanford. But life’s challenges intervened and a nervous breakdown interrupted his studies.
However Gurney is an inspiration of resilience. Despite worsening mental and physical health in his early 30’s, the early years of his commitment were productive creatively. Its unclear how much of his mental illness was attributable to PTSD from the war or the physical impact of being gassed in the trenches but his mental health deteriorated over time until he was unable to continue as an artist the final few years of his life. His cause of death was tuberculosis, which was rampant in the locked wards of mental institutions of the time.
I find it interesting to pair modern poets with counterparts from a 100 years ago. Some similar ideas run through these two poems around the impermanence of permanence and how the external world moves on without us, regardless of the machinations of our inner life.
Sonnet – September 1922
by Ivor Gurney
Fierce indignation is best understood by those Who have time or no fear, or a hope in its real good. One loses it with a filed soul or in sentimental mood. Anger is gone with sunset, or flows as flows The water in easy mill-runs; the earth that ploughs Forgets protestation in its turning, the rood Prepares, considers, fulfils; and the poppy’s blood Makes old the old changing of the headland’s brows.
But the toad under the harrow toadiness Is known to forget, and even the butterfly Has doubts of wisdom when that clanking thing goes by And’s not distressed. A twisted thing keeps still – That thing easier twisted than a grocer’s bill – And no history of November keeps the guy.
“Yes, a war is inevitable. Firstly, there’s you fellows who can’t be trusted. And then there’s the multitude who mean to have bathrooms and white enamel. Millions of them; all over the world. Not merely here. And there aren’t enough bathrooms and white enamel in the world to go round.”
Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End
To the Poet Before Battle
By Ivor Gurney
Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;
Thy lovely things must all be laid away;
And thou, as others, must face the riven day
Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,
Or bugles’ strident cry. When mere noise numbs
The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,
Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say
Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs
Of praise the little versemen joyed to take
Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,
For all our skill in words, equal in might
And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make
The name of poet terrible in just war,
And like a crown of honour upon the fight.
Is war inevitable? Is it a terrible cancer of the human condition? Is it inevitable that the outcome of viewing those as different than ourselves, the “other” who obstructs our path to obtaining our objectives eventually becomes our enemy? I hope not. I lean towards a pacifist mindset that we can do better as a species. I find the current predicament of glorification of military service as something that gets more attention than preventing conflict in the first place a contradiction of good leadership. If we want to praise open communication, conflict resolution and peace keeping in our communities and schools, then why can’t we do the same across nations?
I find interesting Gurney’s idea of the role of “little verse men” in making sense of the aftermath of war. Equal in might is pen to the sword is not a new concept, nor is the poet warrior. Both concepts have been around for thousands of years. But why isn’t there equally as strong a history in literature of poetry of peace, poetry of arbitration, the poetry of negotiation and truce? Poet peace makers rather than poet soldiers. Writing in muddy, blood stained notebooks may sound more noble than a peace keepers reasoned speech, but which takes more courage?
One Last Prayer
by Ford Madox Ford
Let me wait, my dear, One more day,
Let me linger near, Let me stay. Do not bar the gate or draw the blind Or lock the door that yields, Dear, be kind!
I have only you beneath the skies To rest my eyes From the cruel green of the fields And the cold, white seas And the weary hills And the naked trees. I have known the hundred ills Of the hated wars. Do not close the bars, Or draw the blind. I have only you beneath the stars: Dear, be kind!
A sense of beauty is every hindrance to a soldier; yet there would be no soldiers – or none such soldier had not men dead and living cherished and handed on the sacred fire.
by Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915)
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust who England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives Somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Severn River, Wales
To His Love
by Ivor Gurney
He’s gone, and all our plans are useless indeed. We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds Where the sheep feed Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick Is not as you Knew it, on Severn River Under the blue Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now… But still he died Nobly, so cover him over With violets of pride Purple from Severn side.
Cover him, cover him soon! And with thick-set Masses of memoried flowers – Hide that red wet Thing I must somehow forget.