- appropriating the dead
- educating for peace in ireland
- remembrance and poetry
- concept of basic benevolence
- can democracy be designed
- cold war revealed
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1 'And took their wages and are dead'
A E Housman: 'Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries'
In 500 BC the Persian empire was the largest the world had yet seen. It extended from the eastern Mediterranean (including Egypt) to the Himalayas, from the Arabian Sea to the Aral Sea. In 480 BC its ruler, Xerxes, advanced with a huge army into Greece. Some Greek states resolved to put up some defence. At Thermopylae, the king of Sparta and 300 elite professional soldiers, trained never to think of surrendering, temporarily held up the Persian advance. All were killed. A stone memorial was set up nearby, inscribed with an epitaph to the 300. One translation runs:
Go tell the Spartans, you who read,
We took their orders, and are dead.
Another version is:
Take this news to the Lakedaimonians, friend,
That here we lie, who followed their command.
This is the first entry in a newly-published anthology called '101 Poems Against War', which has a lot to offer anyone thinking, teaching or talking about Remembrance.
What good is poetry in the struggle to abolish war? A poem's great gift is its ambiguity, its multiple possibilities of intention, meaning and effect. Are these Spartans like A E Housman's modern mercenaries, doing the job they were paid for, for the side that paid them? Or like the 20th century soldiers in another of his poems (not included in '101 Poems'):
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Or in one of Rudyard Kipling's 'Epitaphs of the War 1914-1918':
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Why did the compilers of '101 Poems' choose that Greek epitaph, focused on the fighting man's obedience, to open an anthology 'Against War'? There could be more than one possible reason.
The moment you start to discuss poems, in your head or with other people, you are working out the poem's tone of voice, its attitude. Which means you start thinking about your own attitude. And with poems about war come opportunities to think and talk about issues that are not always easy to face.
2 '& everybody is just killing & killing like crazy' Clarence Major: 'Vietnam'
The Vietnam war, for example. There are nine poems about it in this anthology, including one (by a Vietnamese) which raises the issue of bravery and trust, in the context of war, in a particularly painful and ambiguous way. It tells how a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy refuses to say what he knows about troop movements, even when the 'Green Beret' threatens that his father will be shot if he doesn't. The father is shot, the boy remains silent, the Green Berets move on ('He didn't know a damn thing/ We killed the old guy for nothing'), and the guerrillas silently move along their secret trails which the boy knew all too well.
Four of the poems evoke the direct experience of US soldiers ('we was to burn and kill, then there'd be nothing'). Others stress the remoteness of the war for western civilians: in 'Newscast', 'The Vietnam war drags on/In one corner of our living-room'. Is that how the war in Iraq has been as well? How 'real' is TV footage?
And do TV images make us sufficiently critical of war? Hayden Carruth's poem 'On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam' begins, 'Well I have and in fact/more than one' and goes on to mention Algeria, Korea, Abyssinia, Spain.... It ends:
but death went on and on
never looking aside
except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.
In what ways are these poems anti-war? How do they add to what the media tell us about the world's wars?
3. 'And still they die, and still the war goes on.'
James Fenton: 'Cambodia'
Ancient Greece, modern Vietnam, the Gulf War: 101 poems can cover a lot of time, and give the reader a disturbing - and necessary - reminder of humankind's history of violence. In this small paperback, we can travel back to the 1400s and Chaucer's Knight's vision of 'Conquest, sitting in great honour/With the sharp sword over his head', or to the 1960s and 'the chafe and jar of nuclear war'. On another page there is an angry lament for a 17th century English soldier's death, the 'untimely sacrifice/To your mistaken shrine, to your false idol Honour'. A few pages later an 8th century Chinese poet writes of 'a turmoil of wars-men' bringing 'sorrow, sorrow like rain'.
There are voices in this book from all round the world. A Nigerian warrior faces death on the battlefield. A Russian mourns 'Czechoslovakia's tears/Spain in its own blood', and refuses to live 'in the madhouse of the inhuman'. A Palestinian speaks: 'I am the witness of the massacre/I am the victim of the map'.
The Balkans and their poets know all about war at first hand. In Sarajevo 'the river carries the corpse of a woman', 'family photographs spill/From the back of a garbage truck'. Another poem, 'Essential Serbo-Croat', is set out like a phrase book, giving the Serbo-Croat for 'I have a pain here', 'I have lost everything' and 'I cannot help you'.
The world wars are not forgotten in this anthology: seven poems from the Great War, three from 1939-45. Supporting them is W H Auden's superb poem of mounting terror as soldiers approach, 'O what is that sound', and Jo Shapcott's take on another 'Phrase Book':
'Yes, they have seen us, the pilots, in the Kill Box
on their screens, and played the routine for
getting us Stealthed, that is Cleansed to you and me.
Taken Out. They know how to move in a single room
like that, to send in with Pinpoint Accuracy a hundred Harms.'
4. '... when Ambition's voice commands/ To march, and fight, and fall, in foreign lands'
John Scott: 'The Drum'
I hate that drum's discordant sound
Parading round, and round, and round:
To me it talks of ravaged plains,
And burning towns, and ruined swains,
And mangled limbs, and dying groans,
And windows' tears, and orphans' moans;
And all that Misery's hand bestows,
To fill the catalogue of human woes.
John Scott wrote his list of war's awfulness in the 18th century. It's no less awful in the 21st. S T Coleridge, who wrote his long poem 'Fears in Solitude' at the time when Napoleon was considering an invasion of England, describes how reading about 'war and bloodshed - animating sports!' in the newspapers provides breakfast entertainment. He laments how as civilians we use 'dainty terms' for killing, 'as if the soldier died without a wound', and, far from the battle-zones, talk knowingly as if we knew what they were like. But 'evil days are coming', he adds,
And what if all avenging Providence,
Strong and retributive, should make us know
The meaning of our words, force us to feel
The desolation and the agony
Of our fierce doings.
Even more vivid is 'When the Troops Were Returning from Milan', written by Niccolò degli Albizzi as long ago as the 13th century and translated by the 19th century poet D G Rossetti:
If you could see, fair brother, how dead beat
The fellows look who come through Rome today -
Black yellow smoke-dried visages - you'd say
They thought their haste at going all too fleet.
Their empty victual-wagons up the street
Over the bridge dreadfully sound and sway;
Their eyes, as hanged men's, turning the wrong way;
And nothing on their backs, or heads, or feet....
The soldiers who kill and the soldiers who are killed: they are all victims of war. Whatever the complex reasons for a war (and they are always complicated, however straightforward they may be made to look), the results are always profoundly grim and devastating.
5. 'All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie'
W H Auden, 'September 1, 1939'
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem called 'In Dark Times', which ends ... 'they won't say 'the times were dark',/ Rather 'Why were their poets silent?' Many poets have felt a responsibility to reflect dark times and make people think about their responsibility to prevent dark times of war from being created, 'What is poetry which does not save/ Nations or people?' asked the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and gave an answer that can catch a nerve today: 'A connivance with official lies'.
W B Yeats, however, in 'On Being Asked for a War Poem', wrote
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right.
But even negative-sounding lines like those make a point about responsibility. Every individual can do something, however small, however wordless, to try to end the practice of war. And a poet can write about that, too, Edna St Vincent Millay's poem 'Conscientious Objector' begins
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall, I hear the clatter on the barn floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door.
This Death (and what inducements could he 'promise'?) is the death that human beings, not nature, bring about with violence. Everyone reading this poem is being asked 'So where do you stand?'.
6. 'After the first death, there is no other'
Dylan Thomas, 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'
Every death in war matters. Every victim, soldier or civilian, starts out in life with the right to live.
The Second World War made clear the dreadful transition we had made. For centuries we had trained and ordered soldiers to fight and kill each other. Now it was 'total war': civilians became the targets of attacks, though they had taken no part in the war (and so were termed innocent). Now civilians and their homes were being destroyed in conflicts - in far greater numbers than troops and their war machines. Some, less 'innocent', turned on each other, neighbour against neighbour.
On December 21 1941, terrorist collaborators with the Nazis in Croatia massacred 470 Serb inhabitants of the village of Prkos. The Serb poet Stevan Raickovic wrote this epitaph (here in an English version) for a monument in their memory:
Amidst the war we never touched a gun
But we all fell by the executioner's hand.
Once we were living people, women, children,
Now we're nothing, neither dust nor shade.
And none of us will ever come again.
We lie here in the night of no return.
Appearing only now and then in Prkos
Transmuted into dew or grass.
The annual ceremony of Remembrance began after the First World War, and perhaps that's what our thoughts should return to - and to the poets from Germany and Austria who experienced that shocking war first hand.
Here are the stories of three such men, each accompanied by one of his poems in an English version. English can't capture the strength and sonority of the German language, but it's surely better to try to overcome language barriers in any way one can than let those barriers stay up, obstructing the understanding and empathy vital for trust and peace.
Georg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria, son of a thriving ironmonger. He was always interested in literature, French and Russian as well as German, and went on to write plays and poems himself. His training, though, was in medicine: he studied pharmacy in Salzburg and at Vienna University, which meant that his compulsory year of military service in 1911 was spent working as a dispensing chemist with the Austrian army's Medical Corps.
Georg Trakl was a troubled man, who turned to both drink and drugs for support. He found it difficult to live in cities, or to stay in the jobs he was offered. His writing, however, caught people's interest. A magazine editor became his friend and patron, and when the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gave away his inheritance in 1914 some of it was distributed to Georg Trakl. Wittgenstein said of Trakl's poetry: 'I don't understand it but its tone delights me'.
Soon after the start of the war, Georg Trakl saw active service with the Medical Corps, and he was at the battle of Grodek on the eastern front. Here he found that he, a pharmacist, was in charge of many seriously wounded men with no doctors, nurses or medical supplies to speak of. One man shot himself to escape. Outside Trakl's 'hospital' several deserters were hanged.
He collapsed as a result of these dreadful experiences of war, and was sent to Cracow for treatment - for schizophrenia. 'Treatment' meant being locked in a cell. At the beginning of November 1914, Georg Trakl died of an overdose of cocaine at the age of 27. His batman remained convinced that he had not intended to take his life.
One of the last poems he wrote was about the battle at Grodek.
At evening the autumn woodlands ring
With deadly weapons. Over the golden plains
And lakes of blue, the sun
More darkly rolls. The night surrounds
Warriors dying and the wild lament
Of their fragmented mouths.
Yet silently there gather in the willow combe
Red clouds inhabited by an angry god,
Shed blood, and the chill of the moon.
All roads lead to black decay.
Under golden branching of the night and stars
A sister's shadow sways through the still grove
To greet the heroes' spirits, the bloodied heads.
And softly in the reeds Autumn's dark flutes resound.
O prouder mourning! - You brazen altars,
The spirit's hot flame is fed now by a tremendous pain:
The grandsons, unborn.
Alfred Lichtenstein was born in Berlin in 1889, the son of a Prussian Jewish factory-owner. After he left school he studied law, but made sure he had time for his first interest: writing. He wrote stories, including a book of tales for children. He linked even his university law thesis to literature, concentrating on laws concerned with theatrical productions.
But it was his poems that drew most attention. He wrote about the industrialised world he knew, and about city life and its darker aspects. The realistic gloom his poems invoked was often salted with irony and a grim wit. In 1913, one notable literary magazine dedicated a whole issue to Alfred Lichtenstein's work, with a pen and ink portrait of him on the front cover.
The war began before he had completed his year of compulsory military service, and his regiment was sent to the western front line immediately. Alfred Lichtenstein died from wounds in September 1914. He was only 25 years old.
His poem 'Gebet vor dem Schlacht' is a fine example of his dark humour.
Prayer before Battle
The troops sing with fervour, every man for himself:
O God, save me from rotten luck.
O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, please
Don't let any shells hit me,
Or our enemies, those bastards,
Take me prisoner or shoot me.
Let me not kick the bucket like a dog
For my dear country.
Look, I'd really like to go on living,
Milking cows, having sex with girls
Beating up that low-life, Sepp,
Getting pissed a lot more times
Before I meet my blessed end.
Look, I'll say my prayers well and willingly,
I'll say the rosary seven times a day
If you, O God, in your mercy
Make my friend Huber, or maybe Meier,
Die, and let me live.
But if I've got to take it,
Don't let me be badly wounded.
Send me a minor leg wound
A little injury to an arm,
So I can come back home a hero
And with a story to tell.
Peter Baum was a Rhinelander, born in Eberfeld in 1869 to parents who were religious and strict. Against this background his imagination flowered, and he became a writer of strange and fantastical stories and poems.
He has been described as 'a naturally trusting, naive and peaceable man'. Some people took advantage of his good nature, and his early attempts to make a living as a publisher came to nothing. But in 1898, through his portrait painter sister, he was introduced to well-known writers who took a sincere interest in him. His work was even accepted by a ground-breaking literary magazine.
When he found himself, at the age of 45, caught up in the real, not imaginary, terrors of war, his poetry changed. Now he worked at a more subtle use of poetic language, exploring the way in which poetic images can convey a process or sequence of events. 'Am Beginn des Krieges' (below) is a moving example of this. It moves from the beginning of the war to its peak, playing on the contrast between images of hope and peace (the arch of a rainbow, doves) and images of the over-arching power and destructiveness of war.
A gentle, peace-loving man like Peter Baum was naturally deeply distressed by his time on the western front. He served as a stretcher-bearer, which meant that he saw, many times, the terrible sufferings of wounded and dying soldiers. His experiences prevented him from sleeping, an additional stress. His tasks included grave-digging, and this is what he was doing on June 5 1916 when a stray piece of shrapnel hit him. He died the next day.
At the Beginning of the War
At the beginning of the war there was a rainbow.
Black birds against grey clouds cut circles.
Doves gleamed silver as, on their wheeling flight
They twisted through a slender shaft of light.
Battle follows hard on battle. They were superb liars.
Rank on rank of gaping heads rouse horrors.
Shells continually explode as, whistling softly,
The arc of their trajectory bows down from its climb.
The pain-bow of the shells is waxing all the time.
Stalled between Death and the rainbow arch of peace,
To protect their land men grip their rifles tighter,
Spit at the enemy, lean on each other as they totter.
Toppling like billows over hillocks in their course,
They waver on, drawn by Death's magnetic force.
'101 Poems Against War', edited by Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan, Faber paperback 2003
'Stone Lullaby', poems by Stevan Raickovic, Serbian Classics Press (New York) 2003
'The Lost Voices of World War I', edited by Tim Cross, Bloomsbury Publishing 1988 (paperback 1998)