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Poetry Was Never the Same

September 17, 2014

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, September 17, 2014. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Poetry Was Never the Same. Some say the 20th century really didn’t get going in earnest until World War I, which started a hundred years ago this year, in 1914. Before the war, the argument goes, it was culturally still the Victorian Era, dressed in Edwardian clothes. That may or not be true, but you can say this: poetry was never the same. After the war, poems looked different on the page, they sounded different, they had new tones, new attitudes, new urgencies. Also, of all the wars of the past few hundred years, none comes close, not even close, to World War I in the number and the quality of poems written about it, often by poets who fought in it. You can see what I mean from the World War I sampler up on our website, poetryfoundation.org. We asked Alfred Corn, the eminent poet and essayist, to pick a few poems from this sampler to read and talk about. Alfred Corn’s latest book of poems is Unions, which came out earlier this year. Alfred, do you think I’m right that of all the wars in recent centuries, World War I probably produced the richest poetry?

 

Alfred Corn: Yes, I think so. The only competition would be the Second World War. But, in my sense of it, the poems of the First World War are greater.

 

Curtis Fox: And why do you suppose that is? What was it about World War I that was such a game changer for poetry?

 

Alfred Corn: I think first of all, the slaughter was so immense, and the grief extraordinary. People were grasping at straws, trying to find some way to come to terms with all the terrible things that had happened. And, as is so often true, poetry is one of the ways that people respond to tragedy.

 

Curtis Fox: But the slaughter in World War II was greater. Many more people died, the war was just as world-changing as World War I. So, what was it about the cultural moment in World War I that made it so different for poetry at least?

 

Alfred Corn: Well, you can debate it, but I think that the way that people died in the First World War was more terrible than in the Second, and also people were not prepared for the mechanized slaughter that modern warfare was characterized by. Life in the trenches with mustard gas, things like that. No one was prepared for that. So, my sense is the shock, the grief was greater in the first than in the second.

 

Curtis Fox: Modernism in art, in architecture and in poetry and all the arts was already well underway before 1914. Did the war accelerate Modernism or did it change its direction? What was the effect of World War I?

 

Alfred Corn: I think it did accelerate it. The poems I decided to read to today reflect the change, the first one written very early in the war, and the second, two years into the war. Between the two, you can see there’s been a shift in sensibility toward something much more jagged, much more aggressive, uglier, if you like. And I think, yes, the war did do that. It changed the sense of what art was.

 

Curtis Fox: The earlier poem you talked about is by Laurence Binyon. It’s a poem called “For the Fallen.” Tell us a little bit about Laurence Binyon. A lot of our listeners may not know his stuff.

 

Alfred Corn: I thought I would choose someone less well-known, although he’s well-known in Britain, because this poem, or at last one stanza from it, is used very often in services of commemoration. It’s been adopted by The Royal British Legion as a sort of exhortation. The British know it very well. Americans, less well. It came very early. It was published in The London Times on the 21st of September 1914, so almost exactly one hundred years ago. As you see, the aesthetic here is traditional, it’s conservative. It’s rhymed quatrains.

 

Curtis Fox: Right. Okay, let’s hear it. Here’s “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon.

 

Alfred Corn:

 

(READS POEM)

 

For the Fallen

 

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

 

* * *

 

Curtis Fox: That was “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon. You mentioned that there’s a stanza in there that’s quite famous and is used in commemorations in Britain, and that stanza is: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”

 

Alfred Corn: By the way, the stanza is often misquoted. People say, “They shall not grow old” but he wrote it, “They shall grow not old.” The emphasis is on the youth that is preserved by death. It’s a strange concept, but on the other hand, it goes all the way back to Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, where the Chorus says, "Not to be born is best / all things reckoned of [sic], but once a man has seen the light / the next best … is to return [sic] where he came from.” In other words, if you’re going to be born, die young. Otherwise, you’ll have to live a long life into age and go through all the pain and sorrow of age. So that’s sort of behind the stanza. It also reminds me of a well-known poem of A.E. Housman’s, “To an Athlete Dying Young,” where he says, “And round that early-laurelled head / Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, / And find unwithered on its curls / The garland briefer than a girl’s.” The sense that if you die as a young person, you keep your youth, you don’t have to go through age. There’s another allusion there, I don’t know if you caught it, where he says, “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

 

That echoes Shakespeare actually. Antony and Cleopatra, in the second act where Enobarbus says, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” So it’s a very allusive poem. He uses allusions to earlier poetry as he constructs it.

 

Curtis Fox: Going back to the very beginning, for me, at the very end of the first stanza it hits a false note in that “Fallen in the cause of the free.”

 

Alfred Corn: Well, it is Edwardian sentiment that England’s engagement in the war was done in order to preserve England’s freedom. And of course the title of the poem is “For the Fallen.” They’d only been fighting for about a month, and it still was credible that it was a war fought for freedom. For that audience, it would not have sounded false. For us, of course, it does.

 

Curtis Fox: Let’s move to a very different poet, Isaac Rosenberg. Tell us a bit about Isaac Rosenberg.

 

Alfred Corn: He’s an interesting figure. His parents were immigrants from Russia, quite poor. He was brought up in London, in Whitechapel. He was interested in visual art as well as poetry, and actually had his paintings exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery, where Laurence Binyon learned of him, and became interested in him. But he also wrote poetry. He published a pamphlet as early as 1912, under the title Night and Day. I wonder if Virginia Woolf might not have read it, because a few years later she published a novel with that same title. So he began to be known amongst the artistic circles of London. And he did enlist fairly early—I think in 1915 or 1916 —and he was killed in the last few months of the war, unfortunately, and there was a posthumous volume collecting his poems.

 

Curtis Fox: Rosenberg is a Jewish name, and I think that was a big part of his identity as well.

 

Alfred Corn: Yes, well, it’s interesting; he’s really the first Jewish English poet of any note. Of course there have been many since then. But that’s part of his interest to us, I think. I believe, unless I’m mistaken, that the poem I’m going to read actually has a veiled reference to that.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s very interesting the way the Jewishness might or might not be a part of this poem that we’re about to hear. Is there anything that you want to tell us about “Break of Day in the Trenches,” as this poem is called, before we hear it?

 

Alfred Corn: It does represent the shift in sensibility and aesthetic that I mentioned earlier. It’s not a rhymed poem. It is largely iambic in its rhythm, but there are no stanzas, there are no rhymes. There’s quite a lot of enjambment. And then, the focus on unpleasant details and ironic comments about what’s going on, you can see that there’s been quite a shift in how people view the war.

 

Curtis Fox: It begins with the poet reaching out to pluck a poppy flower. Here’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg.

 

Alfred Corn:

 

(READS POEM)

 

Break of Day in the Trenches

 

The darkness crumbles away.

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies.

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver—what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe—

Just a little white with the dust.

 

* * *

 

Curtis Fox: That’s a terrific poem.

 

Alfred Corn: Isn’t it?

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s really wonderful. Okay, so, the poet is in the trenches, he reaches out to grab a poppy, and a rat leaps over his hand, but the rat is not just any rat, he’s a “queer” and “sardonic” rat, and he has “cosmopolitan sympathies,” which is what Jews were always accused of in anti-Semitic tirades. So the irony is really deep here coming from a Jewish poet.

 

Alfred Corn: I think that Rosenberg has an ironic identification with him.

 

Curtis Fox: Yes, he does. In the poem he says he has an “English hand,” he doesn’t say “an English Jewish hand.” The speaker of the poem is presenting himself as purely English.

 

Alfred Corn: That’s right.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s the rat who has the Jewish tendencies, as it were.

 

Alfred Corn: Well, they’re being referred to him, but I’m sure it was in Rosenberg’s consciousness.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah.

 

Alfred Corn: It was almost impolite to say the word “Jew” or “Jewish” in that era.

 

Curtis Fox: What’s he doing with the rat? What’s the argument that he’s making here in the poem?

 

Alfred Corn: There are several things to say about it. It’s a “cosmopolitan” rat. He has no sympathies with either side. He favors both equally, and he’s sardonic, and he’s not an attractive creature.

 

Curtis Fox: No, he’s not attractive.

 

Alfred Corn: He would be shot if they knew that he was a cosmopolitan. But the irony is here that a Jew, who was, as you say, in anti-Semitic commentary, considered cosmopolitan, not concerned with his own country, is here fighting for his country and describes himself as English. So there are layered ironies here.

 

Curtis Fox: What do you make of the very beginning, when he talks about time: “It is the same old druid Time as ever.”

 

Why does he say “druid Time”? That struck me as very odd.

 

Alfred Corn: I think that’s a critical issue that could be debated. There’s something eternal about time, obviously. It’s older than the druids. But, conflict—war—is also timeless and ancient. So, dawn comes as it always does, and yet, here we are in a wartime situation. There’s a contrast between the eternity of dawn and the passage of time and this temporary conflict that he’s involved in.

 

Curtis Fox: The main imagery of the poem centers on these poppies. He reaches out to pluck a poppy to put behind his ear.

 

Alfred Corn: Right.

 

Curtis Fox: Later in the poem he says, Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping…”

 

That seems to be an image of blood. I don’t know how else—

 

Alfred Corn: Absolutely. I think the color of the poppy was part of its appeal, and also there had been a poem published a year earlier—maybe you’ve heard of it, “In Flanders Fields” by a poet otherwise unknown named John McCrae. It’s the one that begins, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place…” So that helped establish the poppy as the symbol of the First World War, and as you know, it’s still used on Remembrance Day in November.

 

Curtis Fox: And this poem ends, “But mine in my ear is safe— / Just a little white with the dust.”

 

It seems foolhardy for him to feel safe, does it not?

 

Alfred Corn: Yes, but I think we have to read that metaphorically. He puts it in his ear. That reminds you that poetry is spoken to be heard. And he’s really making a claim for poetic immortality there. That his poem is safe, even though he himself might be mortal, and of course that’s what happened, he was killed, but we still do have the poem.

 

Curtis Fox: So “a little white with the dust” could suggest that he’s been already buried in the grave.

 

Alfred Corn: Remember that dust was invoked in Binyon’s poem. I’m sure that Rosenberg had read Binyon’s poem. They were friends. So there is this element of mortality connected to the poppy. But he considers it safe, and he was right. The poem is here, even though he was killed.

 

Curtis Fox: So it’s not rhymed, it’s kind of loose iambics. It definitely feels like a very contemporary poem, the way it moves from beginning to end. What else about it formally is different than the poetry that came before do you think?

 

Alfred Corn: Lots of enjambment. “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies … Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between.”

 

So many lines are enjambed.

 

Curtis Fox: Why do you suppose the poet did that? Why do the circumstances of having to depict this situation, this war, why does that necessarily lead to enjambment? What’s going on?

 

Alfred Corn: There’s something hurtling about it. Just as the missiles flying through the air, bullets flying through the air. This onrush of conflict is suggested by that. There’s some really strong language, too. If you note that the rat is passing these athletes, which again recalls the athlete dying young of A.E. Housman, they are less chance than you for life. A rat has a better chance of surviving here than people.

 

Curtis Fox: Yes.

 

Alfred Corn: Because the people are bonds to the whims of murder. War is being described as murder here. Not as noble, but as something really terrible.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah, that word “nobility” or “noble” doesn’t crop up in this poem.

 

Alfred Corn: No, nowhere.

 

Curtis Fox: As we said at the beginning, this is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and there are lots and lots of books out about it, including new poetry anthologies. Is there anything in particular that you think people should read about World War I poetry? Should we all go back and read Paul Fussell’s great book, The Great War and Modern Memory, or is there anything else out there, or anthologies you think would be of interest to people?

 

Alfred Corn: I think the archive that Poetry magazine put together is really fine. There are many poems in it that I was unfamiliar with, and it’s a wonderful resource. Fussell’s book is good. There’s probably been more original research done since then, but for a start, read his.

 

Curtis Fox: Thanks, Alfred.

 

Alfred Corn: Not at all.

 

Curtis Fox: Alfred Corn’s latest book of poems is Unions, and his second novel Miranda’s Book is coming out later this year in England. You can read that sampler of World War I poems on our website, poetryfoundation.org.

Just do a search for “World War I.” Let us know what you think of this program. Email us at [email protected] The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

 

 

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