Heroic Happy Dead

A Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces.

War is what happens when language fails.

Margaret Atwood

pity this busy monster, manunkind

by e. e. cummings

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born—pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if—listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go.


Do wars ever come to an end?  One side runs out of ammunition or conscripts or volunteers, or civilians are pummeled into subjugation, to the point they can no longer support the war effort, but is there really ever a victor?   The current war sow’s the seeds for the next war and so on and so on.  Veteran’s day is to honor those that served, but it’s also a reminder on how war is handed down generation after generation.   One’s family’s liberation is another’s subjugation.  One’s person’s defeat is another’s lifelong PTSD for the incalculable cruelty of victory.  We survive them, outlast them and unfortunately repeat them.

The narrative of war is driven by the propaganda used to justify the expense in human lives and human capitol.    Why do we fail to invest in diplomacy, honor carefully crafted accords, when it is more effective and less costly than conflict? Cummings catch-22 clunky use of language fits the inherent contradictions of war.  War rarely make ssense but we all understand its consequence.  Cummings lack of clarity in his word-hash feels like clarity, in the context of the longing left behind by the heroic happy dead….

 


next to of course god america

by e. e. cummings

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

there is some shit i will not eat

E. E. Cummings self portrait.

Is it because we are vain and hollow, that the smallest pill is the toughest swallow?

T. A. Fry

next to of course god america i

by e. e. cummings

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

 


Both of today’s poems were written or at least published in this period why Cummings was with Barton.  The poem above was published in 1926, and the poem below was published in 1931.   Cummings was a pacifist and an individualist, with a big dollop of hedonism thrown in for good measure.  One of the reasons that I think Cummings poetry resonates with young people and the young at heart, is his primary themes align with things that young people think about; sex, their place in society, striking your own path in the face of convention or what’s expected and resisting whatever war is being fought at that moment in time.  It’s likely Cummings could remain relevant for a millennia on that basis alone.  

The poem below, i sing of Olaf glad and big, is based on an actual encounter with a fellow soldier at Camp Devin when Cummings was in the army.  He came across this very blonde, very large private reading Thomas Moore.   The two had a conversation about being a pacifist and from there Cummings’ imagination took over and this poem took shape in his mind.   It is autobiographical in the sense that Cummings understands the courage it takes to stand up for your anti-war principles.  It was those moral standards that landed him in detention in France and though he kept a lower profile in the army back in the states, I suspect it grated upon him that his time in the U. S. army preparing to fight in battle inspired more respect from those around him than the time he spent in the French ambulance corp.  During the legal custody battles with Elaine over Nancy during these years, at one point Elaine’s lawyers took before one of the judges information on Cummings detention and deportation from France as a sign of his lack of fitness as a custodial father.  It was a cruel and unjust smear.  Elaine used the very best of Cummings as a man to deny him his visitation rights as a father.  

Cummings months of waiting for French authorities to determine his fate, was a critical juncture in the poet and man Cummings was to become.  Although his novel based on that experience is oddly positive in its tone, its because Cummings chose for it to be positive, not because it was a pleasant experience.  Cummings was surrounded by criminals and actual spies, not youthful idealists and pacifists like himself. And although he could relate to his fellow prisoners humanity, he also had to be on guard while looking inward to find his own splendor in the face of being accused of violating the very principles he stood for when he joined the ambulance core.  If I put myself in his shoes, it takes a lot of courage to say, “there is some shit i will not eat,” to French authorities, knowing they are the ones that will decide to either set you free or send you to jail.

Cummings political persuasion is a little harder to peg.  He was extremely interested in socialism, had high hopes for communism, but found the collective and rather drab reality of both a bit too suffocating for his free spirit.  He had good friends who were active in the socialist movement in Spain and Mexico during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It might surprise you based on his poetry that as he got older and particularly after WWII he began to despise liberalism and liberals. This dislike extended beyond liberal Democrats and was even more virulent in his opposition to the censorship of free thought and the arts that became part of socialist and communist authoritarian regimes. It is likely, Cummings belonged to a political party of one for most of his life.  When he applied for his visa to Russia he listed his political affiliation as none. 

As you read i sing of Olaf glad and big, take into account the breadth of the inclusiveness of Cummings vision.  And as you read it realize the language of the taunts hurled at Olaf are likely based on actual taunts and threats that Cummings faced during his time in France and back in the U. S. Army for standing up for his principles.  Cummings bayonet below is a metaphor for the searingly painful words that the righteously patriotic shove up other people’s ass who see the world a little differently in what constitutes patriotism as a conscientious objector.


i sing of Olaf glad and big

by e. e. cummings

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but-though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments-
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightaway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but-though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat-
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you