I was talking with my wife this weekend. She’s reading a memoir about current military deployments (and redeployments) and she said a Wilfred Owen poem was mentioned in it.
“Well, World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.” I replied. Which is not strictly true of course. World War II generated a number of poems I’d love to share here, but I have no time to try to track down the rights issues to use words that still may be under copyright. And I suspect other wars have generated other poems since then, even if I don’t know many of them. But that’s not what I meant.
What I meant was that WWI was the last war in which a considerable portion of the English-speaking public looked to poetry for meaning and consolation regarding the battles and their losses. I’m not sure if they looked to poetry more than journalism or political oratory, but I believe that poetry then still operated somewhat in the same theater as these other words when addressing current events. Longer forms of literature, such as novels, tend to lag events substantially, changing or fixing our view of things afterwards, instead of framing it while the picture is still moving. I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”
My son wanted to show me this brilliantly parsed cartoon summary of the Iliad this morning. The narrator there has a lot of fun with the meandering and seemingly arbitrary plot of that Greek epic poem, but it struck me that it’s possible that the ur-version of the Iliad might have been written contemporaneously to the events, only to be shaped afterward like a collection of old news dispatches repurposed for later use.
So, this is a long tradition in Europe from Homer to the war poets of WWI, for the battles and the experience of the battles being reported in poetry.
Why has this use of poetry, to report current and crucial events, fallen away? The first explanation that occurs to me is we have other media to do this now. Film, radio, video, and now cell phones capture the moment without pretending to rely on subjective art. The Imagists who forged their poetic theory in the years around WWI, would seem to have lost their territory as their theory won the war. A cell phone or nose-cam video of the bomb exploding follows two out of the three famous Imagist rules: The “thing” is treated directly, there are no unnecessarily words (indeed there may be no discernable words at all), while more or less ignoring the less-noticed third rule (the one we at the Parlando Project keep pointing to and speaking about), the one that asks for musical phrasing.
Poetry, like painting, is no longer necessary for reportage. Modernists often chose to respond to this by a movement into abstraction, conveying thoughts in motion and novel conceptions, seeking to demonstrate what can be meaningful without meaning.
Today’s piece is attributed to T. E. Hulme, a man who helped form this Modernist revolution and died before he could live in it. I say “attributed” because, like Homer, he did not write it down. The exact attribution is “Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH” when it was published by Ezra Pound, and it may have been Pound who chose what to transcribe or how to lay out the transcription. My guess is that some of the language sounds like Hulme (the unusual, but so perfect word choice of “pottering,” the homey image of trench soldiers strolling compared to the shoppers on the busy London street of Piccadilly), but the overall arrangement sounds like Pound to me.
We know pretty much the where and when that is being talked about, more than we know of the actual history of Troy. Hulme got a chance to relate these details while in an English hospital after being wounded in the spring of 1915 in trench warfare in St. Eloi. He recovered, returned to the war, and to his eventual meeting with a German artillery shell that ended his life.