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.
Things you’d expect.
Taught me a trigger’s weight—
its pull—depends on the gun
and doesn’t matter much
if you practice
proper follow through.
Follow through here means holding
the squeeze through the kick
like you won’t have to do it again,
like you’ll never have to do it again.
The army taught me torsos
are useful for gauging distance.
That swaying grass
or flags or scarves
can estimate windspeed,
and traveling from an artifact
to a fundamental constant
It takes me sixty steps
to walk one hundred meters.
Assuming my body weight
and leg lengths remain
and I’m using a compass,
which means I’m moving
in very straight lines, then sixty
ten times is a kilometer,
one hundred times is ten.
Incandescent War Poem Sonnet
By Bernadette Mayer
Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
To one subject but I’ll mention nobody said
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke.
I am the man who looked for peace and found My own eyes barbed. I am the man who groped for words and found An arrow in my hand. I am the builder whose firm walls surround A slipping land. When I grow sick or mad Mock me not nor chain me: When I reach for the wind Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book And a wasted town.
It’s November and though part of me says I should spend a month on limericks and lighten the mood, I am going to continue the tradition of highlighting the poetry of war during this month as a way to explore different voices of patriotism; poetry as inspiration, mourning, fear, bravado, resistance, defeat, rebellion and acceptance. I wonder, for the incredible amount of resources that are spent in human and financial capitol around the world to wage war in ever more technologically advanced and destructive ways, why don’t we as a species spend more money on understanding the political science and psychology of peace?
I am sure there are different ways of totaling this up, but several estimates cite at least 19 separate geopolitical armed conflicts with more than a 1,000 casualties combined between the two warring factions in 2019 and four conflicts with deaths exceeding 10,000 last year. Many of these wars have been ongoing for decades with no clear path to any kind of resolution or truce. These conflicts do not include campaigns of organized violence that are waged under the banner of terrorism. At a time when armed militias are crossing over from fringe to main stream in American media the broader public has to ask the question why, why is it happening, why are people attracted to violent extremist causes? Is this a small fringe whose voices are amplified by social media or is there a fundamental shift occurring in support of ideology that is perniciously undermining the social contract we have as Americans as neighbors and as global citizens. Have we lost a common understanding of how best to be a member of a community, a state, a nation?
I am not going to dive deep into politics or causes of war this month. I am going to stick to selecting poetry and let the poets words inform readers thoughts, feelings and responses. However, I am going to stray a bit further afield this month from the sonnet form, as most of the great war sonnets were written during World War I, and for the most part, I’ve shared the best of them in previous November series. Instead, I intend to broaden the perspective with more voices from other conflicts from the past 100 years. Keye’s War Poet was written during WWII and Ford’s Lines For A Hard Time was written in 1967 during the Vietnam War. Both have a solemn tone of looking at the toll of war in terms of human life and weighing the unanswerable questions that converge upon the combatants and survivors, the question – why?
Lines For A Hard Time
by Gena Ford
Evil does not go always by dark ways. On any hot summer day, cleanshaven it may stride across a public place and head purposefully for high vantagepoints. . What whisper hisses in the inner ear take cover? Ah, and then the boy is dead, others dead or dying, and the evil laps out from bits of hot lead across the nervepools of the nation. . We ask in our littered streets and high places. Worms twist in our labyrinthe skulls. We are frightened by bland facades. .The losses are always personal. A phone rings; a father becomes less than the sum of his grief. Could we say better than his own words, And we will die as well…. Spiral upward into All Love?
Good Man, good grieving man, all men have lived in evil times, though few have know it absolutely. We persist. We love ourselves as often as we can. And send our sons to walk out in open day.
“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.”
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.
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
“The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.”
by Edith Sitwell
(During a Great Battle, 1916)
The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while His wind blows out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We still can dance, each night.
The music has grown numb with death –
But we will suck their dying breath,
The whispered name they breathed to chance,
To swell our music, make it loud
That we may dance, – may dance.
We are the dull blind carrion-fly
That dance and batten. Though God die
Mad from the horror of the light –
The light is mad, too, flecked with blood, –
We dance, we dance, each night.
The story of Abraham – Sarah and Isaac is a story of belief, so powerful that fathers are willing to sacrifice their beloved sons in devotion to their gods. But the part in Genesis that is equally important, is that God interceded on Isaac’s behalf and sent an angel and saved Isaac from his Father’s zealousness. Peaceful intervention is the moral of that story, not blind obedience. Who are the angels in your midst interceding on behalf of peace?
by W. S. Merwin (1927 – 1919)
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove—
Or such as presidents may spare
Within the decorum of Total War.
By bosky glades, by babbling streams
(Babbling of Fission, His remains)
We discover happiness’ isotope
And live the half-life of our hope.
While Geiger counters sweetly click
In concentration camps we’ll ****.
Called traitors? That’s but sticks and stones
We’ve Strontium 90 in our bones!
And thus, adjusted to our lot,
Our kisses will be doubly hot—
Fornicating (like good machines)
We’ll try the chances of our genes.
So (if Insufficient Grace
Hath not fouled thy secret place
Nor fall-out burnt my balls away)
Who knows? but we may get a boy—
Some paragon with but one head
And no more brains than is allowed;
And between his legs, where once was love,
Monsters to pack the future with.
Have we lost the moral compass of peaceful resistance somewhere? Possibly the worst thing that ever happened to the peace movement was elimination of the draft. It gave permission to politicians, the Pentagon and the entire industrial war complex to move forward endlessly without question, without the questioning resistance brings. When you have an all volunteer fighting force, it becomes a matter of choice, except for when it isn’t. For many, the GI bill offers the only path to being able to afford a college education. But it is a mighty tuition that still is paid by the young men and women who sign up for something that might change them forever, for good or for bad.
We now fight wars that go on and on and on, without any proper declarations and no sense of purpose to bring them to a close. No resistance, no moral outrage, there is only this overly patriotic fervor that allows us to ignore the impossibility of the situation. Every Presidential candidate promises to end the things begun by their predecessors while campaigning and then if successful finds that their hands are tied with the same tethers to stupidity as the President before thm.
Is there such a thing as a just and honorable war? I was in San Antonio this week. I walked over and went through the Alamo museum. I was struck with tge thought as I read the timelines that led up to the crushing defeat with somewhere upwards of 250 killed at the Alamo; “Is death the only way men inspire others?” Would the names Bowie, Crockett, Houston be known as heroes if they had negotiated a truce? Would they be held in equally high regard if they had saved the lives of the civilians and their own men rather than lead them to a proud but certain death for a piece of ground that would change hands many times again before it become the state of Texas? The myth of American independence is tied to the myths we create of the nobility of self sacrifice with a gun in men’s hands, rather than the nobility of a pen or a poem or retreat.
Thomas McGrath was one of the writers investigated by the FBI for being a communist and forced to testify at the McCarthy hearings. A long commitment to resistance, McGrath was a prolific writer and though his appreciation is vast among academics and other writers, he labored in many other jobs to support his habit of writing. Primarily a poet as a writer, he wrote screenplays and novels as well, his left leaning politics took him out of the mainstream in literature, not that I think it mattered to him. MacGrath was a proud North Dakotan. He wrote with a sense of purpose informed by his beliefs. The documentary below a good overview of his life and writing.
All The Dead Soldiers
by Thomas McGrath
In the chill rains of the early winter I hear something—
A puling anger, a cold wind stiffened by flying bone—
Out of the north …
and remember, then, what’s up there:
That ghost-bank: home: Amchitka: boot hill ….
They must be very tired, those ghosts; no flesh sustains them
And the bones rust in the rain.
Reluctant to go into the earth
The skulls gleam: wet; the dog-tag forgets the name;
The statistics (wherein they were young) like their crosses, are weathering out,
They must be very tired.
But I see them riding home,
Nightly: crying weak lust and rage: to stand in the dark,
Forlorn in known rooms, unheard near familiar beds:
Where lie the aging women: who were so lovely: once
On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought Into Action
by Wilfred Owen
“Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
Spend our resentment, cannon,—yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.
Yet, for men’s sakes whom they vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!”
by John Gillespie Magee Jr.
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”