Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Poets and destruction

Ever wonder how poets manage to do what they do? I mean, they appear able to take some garden variety impulse or an ordinary or mean emotion or any old everyday circumstance we might routinely have taken for granted and drastically alter the way we come to perceive them.

I suppose it has everything to do with how they frame things.

There have been conflicts and wars since time immemorial. Perhaps that’s to be our lot. But conflicts can be managed. And wars can ultimately be brought to an end. Although, those can also be needlessly escalated beyond control and I fear the way this conflict is being framed—as culture wars—might not give any of us a way out. We’ll be at each other’s throats perpetually.

I mean, take my last three experimental posts. As it stands, so far as I know, there is not much of anti-Hindu sentiment amongst Iranians and the cordiality might be mutual. I am sure there are some bitter memories of past conflicts on both sides somewhere, and even possibly a bit of disenchantment--who knows. But nothing too unmanageable. With a bit of assistance, however, from the rest of us, I am sure quite a fiery little frenzy could be managed. Even a little war, perhaps, at some point, somewhere, and over something!

And that’s what annoys me most about this “war on terror.” I’ll write more about some of the obvious negative consequences of the usual rhetoric our “respectable” pundits offer us in my next installment of culture wars. For now, I want to go back to the poets and their take on what we have been experiencing.

So much of what I hear as commentary from various people these days—all normal, thoughtful, upright folk of decent upbringing, no doubt—is a curious mix of justified fear, legitimate grievances, blind rage, pedestrian bigotry and some vicious desire for widespread destruction and mayhem. Which is not that odd, really!

Blame it all, if you must, on encounters with the Middle East although the problems appear much more fundamental to me.

I don’t think there has ever been a generation—especially among those who’ve called the cursed place “home”—that hasn’t struggled with this intense yearnings for extirpation—all for a chance at a fresh start, and renewal or redemption.

But when poets articulate those desires in verse, it all feels so different and even appealing to our sensibilities. Let’s take Omar Khayyam as rendered by Edward Fitzgerald (XCIX):

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire!

I do like the French translation a bit more as that Love bit is so terribly out of place. The following version is closer to the original, although I can’t figure out why there are no traces of it anywhere (that I can find):

Si, comme Dieu, j’avais en mains le firmament,
Je le démolirais sans doute promptement,
Pour bâtir à sa place, enfin, un nouveau monde,
Où pour les braves gens tout viendrait aisément.

A good poet can do that with almost anything. In what follows, I think, Alfred Housman does wonderfully with his “mercenaries,” even when we might have no clue that the term refers to a non-conscript army. Here he goes:

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay’
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

And of course, Siegfried Sassoon’s take on the plans of the mighty


“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Which brings us to another of his poignant war poems:


At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun
Smoldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of gray, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

And as no post about poetry of war and destruction is ever quite the same for me without my favorite Homer, here you go: an excerpt from Phoinix’s speech, book nine of the Iliad.. The best of the best poets, of course, can start with particularities and get to the universal. All of us should carefully note the dynamic of rage, unyielding hearts, Folly (or Ruin) and those wrinkled, lame daughters of Zeus.

So, Achilles, subdue
your giant passion. It's not right for you
to have an unyielding heart. Gods themselves
are flexible, and they have more honour
than we possess, more power, too. Men pray
when they go wrong or make mistakes,
propitiating gods with offerings,
gentle prayers, libations, sacrifice.
Prayers are the daughters of almighty Zeus.

Lame, wrinkled, cross-eyed, they try to follow
behind Folly, who, because she's strong and quick,
runs far in front of them, appearing
all over the world, bringing harm to men.
Far behind, Prayers carry on their healing.
If a man honours these daughters of Zeus
as they come near, they will help him greatly,
paying attention to him as he prays.
If someone spurns them, rudely rejecting them,
they go to Zeus, son of Cronos, begging
for Folly to pursue that man, who then
harms himself and suffers punishment.

For that reason, Achilles, you should give
Zeus' daughters your respect. They have changed
the minds of other men, even great ones.

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