Week 7 – The Skyscraper of War, Part 2

Welcome to the second half of our World War 1 Poetry Happy Hour – This second half has more variety.

I kinda like that.

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First up, ‘In Flanders Field’.

I think this poem creates a certain image. Something about that big green field with the waves of crosses. There’s always a light breeze making the poppies flap around just so. You can hear the breeze. The sea’s not all that far away. The sky is blue.

I’ve never even been to a memorial.

This poem is innovative in its delivery. It plays with time. From the beginning of the poem we are both after the war, with the soldiers buried here – “between the crosses…” and within a few lines also standing in the centre of the very battle the buried soldiers died in – “scarce heard amid the guns below.” It also breaks convention in its narration. The narrator is speaking as a collective, an unnamed soldier as part of his army, he is an ‘us’, a ‘we.’ Likewise, he speaks not to the reader, but to the reader’s generation. Those still living. Those who live their happy lives doing DECV Literature in the country we died here to save.

It’s very different from… pretty much every other war poem in this course in that it… does not… hate on war… so much. It commemorates. It’s really popular at Remembrance Day ceremonies because it doesn’t make us hate war. It makes us feel some sort of responsibility, some over-arcing legacy. “To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high.” It’s less visceral than the other works. It’s euphemistic. No one’s wading through the corpses of the fallen. It’s just “…and now we lie.” Comparatively it’s a lullaby. Lullabalistic? It may be 4am and I may be in the throes of coffee-madness-fever, but I like that word.

Just seems good, ya know?

It rhymes, but it’s not a song. It’s got its own solemn, walking pace rhythm. It is a Remembrance Day poem. It’s for us all to sit back in our one minute of silence and give these people who died a pedestal of glory in our minds. We feel the sadness and solemnity. We feel responsibility for our ‘nation.’ How about that. Universal national pride – flash-frozen from Canada and shipped out to the world.

It’s psychological. It’s not for a realistic depiction of the war. It’s not about the grit or the horror. It’s the aftermath. It’s what we all have to live with. It’s what we have to remember. Or what we like to remember to remember.

It brings dignity to a hideous process, and for that it should be applauded.

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Now we cast our eyes to the whimsical works of Wilfred Owen. And I mean works, there’s two of them. To start, ‘Mental Cases’.

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Well, you know. The course sort of sums it up. The first stanza asks who these mental cases are, described here in a state of disarray and living nightmare. The second stanza answers – they are the soldiers. They live with their memories of the horrors of war and are damaged. The third stanza elaborates on this and in the last two lines condemns anyone who stood and cheered their departure to the war zone, anyone who didn’t seek to stop the madness.

It’s pretty much a page of very nicely done emotive language. The whole thing’s visceral – the poetic version of shoving a McDonalds lover head-first into a slaughterhouse and locking the door for the night. The line ‘Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,” really gets me. You don’t get enough flying muscle lines in poetry these days. You can almost hear it.

It also rhymes. Some kind of cruel wordplay going on here Wilfred?

But yeah. “Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter,” is less gory, but more poignant. The man knows how to write an unpleasant scenes – he knows how to sew disgust. Each word is chosen precisely, and the whole thing has such a variety in its wording that you’re attacked from every side by the twin forces of vocabulary and the disturbed. And you get to the last line and it’s just “Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.” Saves the simplest, obvious-est words for last. Hits home with a flourish.

Yeah. Simple message, but you just have to admire the artistry on this one. Pretty intense.

Second poem by Wilfred here, Strange Meeting. The course asks what I think it’s going to be about, and I haven’t actually read it yet so let’s take a moment to speculate in all the wrong directions –  You probably read it when you clicked the link, or you already know what happens in any case. So this next bit’s just going to be pointless guess-work. But whatever. Indulge my ignorance. Let’s go on a journey.

See that tangent there? You have no idea how old I feel. Moving along, I feel like the ‘meeting’ mentioned in the title is going to be with an enemy soldier. I’ve created a situation in my head based around this title, so yes it’s a situation of prejudice. The poem is narrated by a soldier who meets an enemy on the battlefield. For some reason he doesn’t kill him. Or maybe he does and it just takes a considerably long wall of poetry to describe. Maybe they just exchange some glance of understanding, that they’re not really enemies here, before eventually gunning each other down.

I’m feeling some kind of epic neo-absurdist work here. Some awkward epiphany punctuated with a gunshot to the head. So go ahead Wilfred old pal. Confound me.

I shouldn’t have said confound. Little bugger’s gone and taken me at my word. Hang on, I’m gonna go read it again.

Ah okay. So the narrator has wandered down this tunnel – probably some fox-hole or emergency tunnel – filled with prone bodies. He can’t tell if they’re sleeping or dead. Probably a mix of both. One of them, when he prods it, wakes up – and by the man’s smile he seems to believe that he has wandered into Hell. ‘Tunnels are hell’. The Rear-Guard is coming back to haunt me.

The rest of the poem is this man with his dead-smile telling the narrator what there is to lament about their circumstance. The waste of life, the death of their hopes and dreams. All they could have accomplished had there been no one to kill or to kill them. He talks about how it’s sad that the truth of war’s hideous nature will die with them, and people who did not fight will go on thinking it is glorious. This seems an odd point – I’ve spent the past few hours reading all about how horrible war is. Including this poem that talks about how no one will hear about it. Maybe some sort of irony intended here? I don’t even know. In the end I think he talks about how without the truth of war, there would be more wars – “Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.” The world will fight and society will regress as it devours itself – “though nations trek from progress… this retreating world…”

And, when the wars have gone on so long that blood clogs the wheels of their ‘chariots,’ the dead man will go and clean them with… quite possibly ‘truth.’ Or possibly his soul. Whatever it is, it wouldn’t come from his wounds. ‘Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were,’ seems to me to suggest the truth option. The wisdom pours out of his head without having been cut.

It’s all very confusing until the end. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ Why is it that the plot-twist is the most easily understood part of the whole poem? Some very nice imagery here. The dead  man recognized his killer because of the way he frowned ‘through‘ him as he ‘jabbed and killed.’ The dead man describes this as an act of savagery, and yet we do not get any sense of real anger or bitterness. Just, ‘let us sleep now.’

The last line suggests to me that our protagonist soldier is in fact dead, and has come to Hell. The tunnel he entered may be ‘the tunnel’ – with the light at the end and God beckoning and all that. In Hell he meets his enemy who laments all the losses of war, corporeal and theoretical. Lost opportunities, lost truth, lost lives. Together the enemies, having discussed the foolishness of the endeavor that killed them both, are laid to rest.

So in the end the ‘strange meeting’ was with an enemy soldier. Who he did kill. I am a psychic voodoo demi-god. Fear me.

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Right. Wilfred Owen is behind us. It’s the last poem of the evening, and the title’s a real heart warmer.

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I’m gonna have to put this as a personal favourite purely for message. The other poems were controversial because they were written back in the day and condemned the war society told itself it must believe in. That was the norm, and they challenged it. Now our social consciences make us feel obligated to hate war but love those who died in it. And Charles Hamilton Sorley sits us down, slaps us in the face and yells ‘They’re dead! They don’t need your love!’

Well, it’s not really centred on mocking us for over-sentimentalizing war-heroes. It’s just realistic. It doesn’t create walls of labyrinthine prose lamenting the unknown soldier. It’s another poem about how to deal with the aftermath of war. ‘In Flanders Fields’ – with attitude. It touches briefly on the massive devastation caused by the war – “When you see millions of the mouthless dead.” This creates context, and also a sort of jux-ta-position. The poem uses emotive language to evoke the horror of war – so that you are seeing this legion of corpses. It’s not ‘If you see,’ it’s ‘When you see.’ The second the words have been read, we see them. The poem conjures us up an image we feel emotion over, then goes on to tell us how these emotions don’t help. The poem is an instruction manual for itself. The last lines continue the general theme of the poem. Even if you knew someone who died in the war, and see them as you dream this image, it’s not them. It’s just your memory of them. They are dead. It means nothing.

Would newspapers have published this during the war? you ask? Depends. Early on you’d probably get lynched publishing something like this. Maybe during the later war. It would make a lot more sense afterward. Despite all that, it’s a poem all about thinking rationally and making sense. What self-respecting newspaper would ever publish that?

I am making newspaper cracks now. This is what I have become.

So. Here we all are then. The course-book asks for one more thing. Which poem had the greatest impact on me. Now see there that’s a complicated question. I think ‘Mouthless Dead’ has the best message, but it didn’t really hit me as much as Owen’s double-whammy circus of carnage. I don’t think any of them really changed my mind on anything – I was never too big a fan of war in the first place. I’m sure working together, Owen could have made the gun-totin-est warmonger scuttle off to a peace protest, and when the protest didn’t work and the converts’ brother died in the war he once applauded, Sorley could (if the bereaved wasn’t offended, as to the directly effected the message would be quite confronting) help him move on. In the end the two poets probably only had any contact when Owen penned Sorley’s epitaph –

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

And for all that, the Iraq War is still an ‘ongoing military campaign.’

Let’s get out of here while we can.

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