Friday, November 10, 2006

11th Hour, 11th Day, 11th Month

Was when the armistice of World War One (or The Great War) took effect. Today, we call it "Veteran's Day." It might well be that the writers who came out of the crucible of that war were forged of a less pretty metal. I am going to present poems by Wilfred Owen, Alfred Lichtenstein, e.e.cummings and Siegfried Sassoon.

These were writers who held few illusions about the consequences of war. They knew well the depravity, fear, filth and chaos of battle. They lived for months at a time in muddy disease ridden trenches, they inhaled the gasses and breathed the stench of the rotting bodies with their breakfast eaten cold from a rusty can.

Wilfred Owen

Stange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also, I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . ."

Alfred Lichtenstein
A Prayer Before Battle

God protect me from misfortune,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
May no high explosives hit me,
May our enemies, the bastards,
Never take me, never shoot me,
May I never die in squalor
For our well-beloved Fatherland.

Look, I'd like to live much longer,
Milk the cows and stuff my girl friends,
And beat up that lousy Josef,
Get drunk on lots more occaisions,
Till a blissful death o'ertakes me.

Look, I'll offer heartfelt prayers,
Say my beads seven times daily,
If you, God, of your gracious bounty,
Choose to kill my mate, say Huber
Or else Meier, and let me off.

But suppose I have to take it
Don't let me get badly wounded.
Send me just a little leg wound
Or a slight gash on the forearm,
So I go home as a hero
Who has got a tale to tell.

e.e. cummings
i sing of Olaf

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

his wellbelov'd 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"

straightway 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 skilfully 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.

Siegfried Sassoon


SOLDIERS are citizens of death's gray land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

stripped bare of illusion those of us who know well the look on the face of war, who know it as a living greedy thing want only that our children never have to learn these vile truths.

Next time there is a vote to go to war perhaps the only people who are allowed to vote yes or no should be veterans who have been there and mothers who have sons.

crossposted at 3B's


Blogger JackGoff said...

"Strange Meeting" is one of my favorites. Another Owen goody:

The Next War

"War's a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true."
-Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous horsedooty said...

Waist Deep In The Big Muddy...

happy Veterans Day mi amigo.

yo soy Horsedooty!

Saigon High Class of '68

7:09 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

one of the stranger things i noticed in viet nam was the way those of us (senior enlisted with more than one tour in the rack) who had been there longer came to like and admire the vietnamese people (peasants and soldiers we were fighting against) far better than we liked our own officers and leaders. it doesn't mean that they were good, or that their cause was a pure thing of moral clarity. it just meant that they knew what they were fighting for and were willing to make incredible sacrifices to achieve the goal of forcing us to leave.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As much as it may make some of us cringe, perhaps all of our vets would be better off if W had just listened to his father!

12:49 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

one of the things i kept telling people before the invasion was that they needed to read the book colin powell wrote right after gulf 1. in it he outlines the reasons and warnings for not following the iraqi army from kuwait into bagdhad. those reasons are all happening right now. i am nobody's pacifist. all told, i'm more than a little conservative in my world view. this "adventure," the assaults on the freedoms of the individual, all these things go against my conservative grain. w. should have listened to his father indeed. listened well instead of trying to outdo or show up his father.

8:58 AM  
Blogger litbrit said...

Beautiful. beautiful poems. Thanks so much for reminding me how much I love to read poetry.

I needed to read those right now. It has been a rather difficult weekend.

But I came here to wish you a blessed Veterans' Day (belatedly, as is my unfortunate habit with birthdays and pretty much all greetings because I am simply not on the world's schedule). You were, and are, one of the brave.

You're certainly one of the bravest I've ever known--not met, not yet, but soon. I hope.

I am going to disappear somewhat for a week or two. I am exhausted, depressed, and overwhelmed with family worries and issues right now, but I'll be back.

Rock on. And don't let the Republicans bite.

10:44 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

we miss you when you're gone m'darlin. i never really thought of myself as all that brave or courageous. hell, i knew exactly how i felt inside. there were times when i was able to pretend to be brave for the sake of my friends.

11:24 PM  
Blogger PeterofLoneTree said...

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.) -- Wilfrid Owen

7:28 AM  

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