Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem  

and hold it up to the light  

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem  

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room  

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski  

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope  

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose  

to find out what it really means.

________________________________________________________________________

What is poetry?

Poetry is...

Does poetry matter?


Jessie Pope, “The Call” (1915)

The following poem is perhaps the best-known example of Jessie Pope’s jingoistic war poems, exhorting young men to enlist and save England, or be labeled cowards. Her reputation was such that Wilfred Owen originally entitled “Dulce et Decorum Est” as “To Jessie Pope.”

 

Who’s for the trench—

Are you, my laddie?

Who’ll follow French—

Will you, my laddie?

Who’s fretting to begin,

Who’s going out to win?

And who wants to save his skin—

Do you, my laddie?

Who’s for the khaki suit—

Are you, my laddie?

Who longs to charge and shoot—

Do you, my laddie?

Who’s keen on getting fit,

Who means to show his grit,

And who’d rather wait a bit—

Would you, my laddie?

Who’ll earn the Empire’s thanks—

Will you, my laddie?

Who’ll swell the victor’s ranks—

Will you, my laddie?

When that procession comes,

Banners and rolling drums—

Who’ll stand and bite his thumbs—

Will you, my laddie?


1914 V: The Soldier

by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England's, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

In Flanders Fields

  by John McCrae        

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


To Germany

by Charles Hamilton Sorley

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other's dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other's truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm

The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

BY WILFRED OWEN

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

 

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.

 


Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria mori is from Horace. Owen wrote in a letter to his mother: "The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!"


This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong

BY EDWARD THOMAS

This is no case of petty right or wrong

That politicians or philosophers

Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot

With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.

Beside my hate for one fat patriot

My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:-

A kind of god he is, banging a gong.

But I have not to choose between the two,

Or between justice and injustice. Dinned

With war and argument I read no more

Than in the storm smoking along the wind

Athwart the wood. Two witches' cauldrons roar.

From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;

Out of the other an England beautiful

And like her mother that died yesterday.

Little I know or care if, being dull,

I shall miss something that historians

Can rake out of the ashes when perchance

The phoenix broods serene above their ken.

But with the best and meanest Englishmen

I am one in crying, God save England, lest

We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.

The ages made her that made us from dust:

She is all we know and live by, and we trust

She is good and must endure, loving her so:

And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.


Adlestrop

BY EDWARD THOMAS

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

'They'

By Siegfried Sassoon

The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back

'They will not be the same; for they'll have fought

'In a just cause: they lead the last attack

'On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought

'New right to breed an honourable race,

'They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.

'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;

'Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;

'And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find

'A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.

' And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'


Siegfried Sassoon, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”

Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration of war against the war appeared in theBradford Pioneer on July 27, 1917. In disgust with the war, he threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the sea. Thanks to the help of his friend Robert Graves, Sassoon was declared to have shell shock instead of being court-martialed. The British army placed him in a hospital at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, for the duration of the war.

(This statement was made to his commanding officer by Second-Lieutenant S. L. Sassoon, Military Cross, recommended for D.S.O., Third Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, as explaining his grounds for refusing to serve further in the army. He enlisted on 3rd August 1914, showed distinguished valour in France, was badly wounded, and would have been kept on home service if he had stayed in the army.)

 

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

 

July, 1917.                                             S. Sassoon.


Picture-Show

by Siegfried Sassoon

And still they come and go: and this is all I know—

That from the gloom I watch an endless picture-show,

Where wild or listless faces flicker on their way,

With glad or grievous hearts I’ll never understand

Because Time spins so fast, and they’ve no time to stay

Beyond the moment’s gesture of a lifted hand.

And still, between the shadow and the blinding flame,

The brave despair of men flings onward, ever the same

As in those doom-lit years that wait them, and have been...

And life is just the picture dancing on a screen.

To His Love

by Ivor Gurney  (1890-1937)

He's gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We'll walk no more on Cotswolds

Where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick

Is not as you

Knew it, on Severn River

Under the blue

Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…

But still he died

Nobly, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!

And with thick-set

Masses of memoried flowers-

Hide that red wet

Thing I must somehow forget.


“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”

by W.B. YEATS

The Irish airman in this poem is Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only child of Yeats’s friend Lady Augusta Gregory. He was killed on the Italian front. In elegizing him, Yeats focuses on the “lonely impulse of delight” that drove him to enlist in the British Royal Flying Corps and distinguishes his heroic solitude from patriotic duty and other common motivations.

 

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balance all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

"And there was a great calm"

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

(ON THE SIGNING OF THE ARMISTICE, Nov. 11, 1918)

I

There had been years of Passion--scorching, cold,

And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,

Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,

Among the young, among the weak and old,

And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

II

Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught

Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,

Philosophies that sages long had taught,

And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,

And "Hell!" and "Shell!" were yapped at Lovingkindness.

III

The feeble folk at home had grown full-used

To "dug-outs," "snipers," "Huns," from the war-adept

In the mornings heard, and at evetides perused;

To day--dreamt men in millions, when they mused--

To nightmare-men in millions when they slept.

IV

Waking to wish existence timeless, null,

Sirius they watched above where armies fell;

He seemed to check his flapping when, in the lull

Of night a boom came thencewise, like the dull

Plunge of a stone dropped into some deep well.

V

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly

Were dead and damned, there sounded "War is done!"

One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,

"Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,

And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?"

VI

Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance

To where had stood those poplars lank and lopped,

As they had raised it through the four years' dance

Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;

And murmured, "Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?"

VII

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,

The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

One checkless regiment slung a clinching shot

And turned. The Spirit of Irony smirked out, "What?

Spoil peradventures woven of Rage and Wrong?"

VIII

Thenceforth no flying fires inflamed the gray,

No hurtlings shook the dewdrop from the thorn,

No moan perplexed the mute bird on the spray;

Worn horses mused: "We are not whipped to-day";

No weft-winged engines blurred the moon's thin horn.

IX

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery:

The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"


Ars Poetica

BY ARCHIBALD MACLEISH (1892–1982)

A poem should be palpable and mute  

As a globed fruit,

Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless  

As the flight of birds.

                             *              

A poem should be motionless in time  

As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,  

Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time  

As the moon climbs.

                             *              

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean  

But be.