Friday, April 7, 2017

American Poets and the Great War at 100 Years

A Great War French Poilu greets an American Doughboy in this propaganda poster.  When the U.S. finally declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917 after two and a half years of brutal trench warfare moral among French troops was so bad that more than half of the divisions on the Western Front had experienced mutinies, more than 5000 troops arrested, more than 400 sentenced to death, at least 50 executed by firing squads, and hundred shiped to the hell hole French penal colonies.  The Yanks represented fresh meat...and hope.

The Great War was nearly three years old and bogged down in a hip-deep mire of blood and waste when the Yanks, at long last, finally decided to join the fray.  President Woodrow “I Kept Us Out of War” Wilson had finally decided he must intervene to save the world from the brutal Hun—years of British propaganda efforts in the U.S. had been successful in painting the Germans as sub-human monsters.  On April 6, 1917 Congress voted overwhelmingly  to Declare War.  The weary Allies who had already sacrificed much of a generation to the gory trenches and fruitless stalemate hoped the new comers would tip the scales and finally end the damn thing.
It would take the militarily unprepared United States  a full year to raise, train, and transport an army—the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.  American troops would not become seriously engaged at the Front until April 2, 1918.  As the Allies had hoped the brash Americans who had little idea of what the hell they were getting into provided enough punch to break the stalemate.  They even made up for the collapse of the Eastern Front after the Russian Revolution which had freed scores of German divisions and veteran troops to face the Allies in France.  After a few months of fighting the Germans agreed to an Armistice on November 11, 1918.  The Great War was over.  The whole catastrophe of the 20th Century that it made possible lay ahead.
Eventually about 4 million American soldiers served in what became known later as the First World War including—3.7 million made it to France. There were over 306,000 American casualties in the war including 50,000 killed.  Those figures, as ghastly as they were did not come close to the enormous losses of the British, French, Italians, Russians, Germans, Austrians, Bulgarians, Ottoman Turks and other combatants.  Even Australia with a total population of only 5 million—a fraction of the U.S. population, had 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
Some Americans could not wait for a declaration of war.  Some enlisted in Canada, dashing young college men joined the French air forces—the Lafayette Escadrille among other units, or avoided American neutrality laws by volunteering with the International Red Cross or other ambulance services.  Often forgotten were the first and second generation Germans and Austrians who went to serve their ancestral Fatherlands because few of them survived the war or were able to return to the States.
The Great War turned out to be an inspiration for a generation of poets, including many writers who did not survive their service in it.  British writers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the Canadian John McCrae who wrote In Flanders Fields are usually hailed as the Great War poets.
The best known American poet during the war was Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a perfectly nice young man who had earned a small reputation for popular jingles in middle-brow magazines back home.  And his most famous verse, the execrable Trees,  had nothing to do with the war.  But there were others whose work would come to be known, some of them among those were eager early birds who joined the action before the AEF could fix bayonets
American Allan Seeger enlisted in the French Foreign Legion to get into the war.  He was called the Yank Wilfred Owen.

Alan Seeger, and uncle of folksinger Pete Seeger and a friend and classmate of T.S. Eliot at Harvard became known as the American Rupert Brooke.  After graduation in 1910 he moved to New York City where he established himself in Greenwich Village where he enjoyed bohemian arty and leftist circles.  He then moved to Paris and the East Bank where he plunged into La Vie Bohème.
He was there when war erupted in 1914.  Impulsively, almost as a Romantic lark, Seeger enlisted in the French Foreign Legion on August 24.  After training in North Africa, the Legion was allowed to join the fight in Europe—suspicious of the loyalties of its polyglot troops the Legion had traditionally been barred from service in Continental France. Starting in July of 1916 Seeger and his Legion unit were committed to the enormous Battle of the Somme which lasted into November.  Seeger did not last that long.  He was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4, 1916, famously cheering on his fellow soldiers in a successful charge after being hit several times by machine gun fire.  It was a fine, noble, stupid death.
The poems Seeger was keeping in a notebook were preserved by his comrades who got them to the most prestigious American literary publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons which issued Poems in December 1916 with a 46-page introduction by William Archer. Seeger wrote in a formal, idealized, and dated style that generally failed to impress critics and readers.  But I Have a Rendezvous with Death struck a chord and became enormously successful on both sides of the Atlantic. 
A photograph of Seeger was used as the model for a monument to the American dead of the Foreign Legion that was dedicated in 1923 at the Place des États-Unis in Paris.  It is inscribed by words from Seeger’s Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France which he finished just hours before his death:
They did not pursue worldly rewards; they wanted nothing more than to live without regret, brothers pledged to the honor implicit in living one's own life and dying one's own death. Hail, brothers! Goodbye to you, the exalted dead! To you, we owe two debts of gratitude forever: the glory of having died for France, and the homage due to you in our memories.
I Have a Rendezvous with Death enjoyed a life as a school boy’s recital piece.  John F. Kennedy learned it in school and it was such a favorite that he often asked Jacqueline to recite it.

Seeger was not exaggerating about an appointment with death.  He is shown here second from left with fellow Americans in his Foreign Legion unit.  Four of the men shown were killed, the other four wounded.  Those were not atypical losses for units long on the front lines.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death
I have a rendezvous with Death  
At some disputed barricade,  
When Spring comes back with rustling shade  
And apple-blossoms fill the air—  
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.  
It may be he shall take my hand  
And lead me into his dark land  
And close my eyes and quench my breath—  
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death  
On some scarred slope of battered hill,  
When Spring comes round again this year  
And the first meadow-flowers appear.  
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,  
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,  
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,  
Where hushed awakenings are dear...  
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,  
When Spring trips north again this year,  
And I to my pledged word am true,  
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

—Alan Seeger

e.e. cummings in 1920.
Those who have followed this blog and the annual Poetry Month series know that e.e. cummings is one of my favorites.  I generally find a way to squeeze in work from his long career some time during the month.  You may even recall that his development was marked by his World War I experiences.
After graduating from Harvard Cummings, like Seeger who was a decade older, headed to New York and after an unsatisfying brush with office drudgery began hanging around Greenwich Village.  The two aspiring writers might even have crossed paths a time or two before Seeger left for Paris.  As the war dragged on in Europe, Cummings could not wait to get into the action.  Like a number of other future literary icons, notably Ernest Hemingway, he elected to get oversees by volunteering to serve as an ambulance driver.  Hemingway went to Italy, Cummings elected to enlist with the French.
At his heart, he shared his Unitarian minister father’s essential pacifism.  The elder Cummings was then Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation.  He found service in the ambulance corps preferable to life as a draftee infantryman when America would inevitably enter the war where he would be forced to shoot someone. 
The war and France provided the seminal experience of the young man’s life when he and a close friend were arrested on suspicion of being German sympathizers and possible saboteurs.  He was held for three months in an internment camp, thrown in among deserters, stateless persons, working class radicals,  and common criminals. He claimed to have found the company more congenial than at Harvard.  In three months his father’s influence led to pressure from the American government and Cummings was released. 
At his father’s suggestion, he wrote up his war time experiences in a breezy, colloquial style, sometimes with ribald frankness.  His father edited the manuscript and deleted the most shocking language, then shopped the book around until he found a publisher.  The Enormous Room was published in 1922 to critical hostility, public indifference, and an enthusiastic, but tiny audience of fellow artists and bohemians.  Cummings had found his voice. 
Through the ‘20’s he published successive volumes of poetry, many culled from and updated from the work he completed in college and after the war.  He continued to experiment wildly with typography and capitalization.  He never capitalized the personal pronoun “I” and took to signing his name e.e. cummings as rejection of egotism and ostentation. 
Contemporary writer and novelist Alexander Maksik has written how reading about torture and rebellion in i sing of Olaf glad and big in high school made him want to rebel against apathy.
In his breakthrough 1931 poetry collection VV or sometimes ViVa, was published. The book contained the savagely bitter i sing of Olaf glad and big based on his prison experience and a story he had heard about a draftee Doughboy—a radical Swede who refused to cooperate in any way with the war machine and was savagely tortured to death  in an American military prison.  The strong, stomach turning poem deeply shook public sensibilities.  Which is why I consider it one of the greatest anti-war and anti-nationalist verses ever written.

i sing of Olaf glad and big
i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or
his wellbelovéd 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.
—e.e. cummings

2nd Lieutenant John Allan Wyeth, Corps of Interpreters assigned 33rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force in France.
Unlike the other two poets represented here John Allan Wyeth actually served as a junior officer in the American uniform of the AEF.
Wyeth was born on October 24, 1894 in New York City. His father, also  John Allan Wyeth, was a Confederate veteran and surgeon.  Medicine and war experience ran deep on both sides of his family—his mother, Florence Nightingale Sims, was the daughter of surgeon J. Marion Sims, the Father of American Gynecology who famously used Black slave women as experimental subjects for his breakthrough studies of the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a complication of obstructed childbirth.
Young Wyeth was educated at the elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.  And he graduated from Princeton University in 1915.  He taught high school French for a year in Arizona before returning to Princeton for graduate work in the language.  It was the perfect background to be of service when America entered the war.  He enlisted in the Army as a translator and would serve as a liaison between French and American officers during the war.
Back home his collection  This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets, was published in 1928 but did not get noticed for review by Poetry Magazine until three years later.  It languished largely forgotten for decades until it was re-discovered and re-issued with a biographical and interpretive introduction by Dana Gioia by the University of South Carolina in 2008 as part  Matthew Bruccoli’s Great War Series of lost literary classics of World War I.
In the 1930’s Wyeth turned to painting and a had a second career as a modestly successful post-impressionist landscape artist. 
He died on May 11, 1981at the age of 86 in the home of his poet niece  Jane Marion McLean in Princeton, New Jersey.
On To Paris
Light enough now to watch the trees go by--
a sleep like sickness in the rattling train.
Men's bodies joggle on the opposite seat
and tired greasy faces half awake
stir restlessly and breathe a stagnant sigh.
The stale air thickens on the grimy pane
reeking of musty smoke and woolly feet.
Versailles—a bridge of shadow on a lake
dawn-blue and pale, the color of the sky.
Paris at last!—and a great joy like pain
in my heart. We scuffle down the corridor.


                                       “In half an hour we meet
at another station—your orders are to take
these men by subway to the Gare du Nord.”
—John Allan Wyeth
Souilly: Hospital
Fever, and crowds—and light that cuts your eyes—
Men waiting in a long slow-shuffling line
with silent private faces, white and bleak.
Long rows of lumpy stretchers on the floor.
My helmet drops—a head jerks up and cries
wide-eyed and settles in a quivering whine.
The air is rank with touching human reek.
A troop of Germans clatters through the door.
They cross our line and something in me dies.
Sullen, detached, obtuse—men into swine—
and hurt unhappy things that walk apart.
Their rancid bodies trail a languid streak
so curious that hate breaks down before
the dull and cruel laughter in my heart.
—John Allan Wyeth



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