Friday, January 12, 2007

A Poem and a Film

A Poem and a Film – Not for Pleasure

There are many good war films but the latest offering from Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood is very good indeed.  I would give it 8 points out of a possible 10.  Like all good films it asks the same old important questions about the necessity of war, questions human motivations and the machinations of the power-thirsty both at government and individual levels.   It is February 1945 and the film recounts graphically the struggle to take the Island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese.  The famous or infamous hill in question is called by the loveliest of names – Mount Suribachi.  This is the hill which not alone was the site of much slaughter, but was also the location where five Marines and a Navy Corpsman raised the American flag – Old Glory.  There was a famous picture taken of this latter event, and it is this iconic image and all its surrounding hype and emotive resonances that the film explores.

The famous picture was taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal actually depicts the second flag raising on Iwo Jima.  Go to the film and get the whole story behind this iconic image of a photograph.  The photography/cinematography in the film which fades from Technicolor to sepia to black and white at various stages is superb and mesmerising.  Eastwood achieved a miracle in this alone.

The poem I want to put with this is one by the American WW II war poet Randall Jarrell:


Did they send me away from my cat and my wife
To a doctor who poked me and counted my teeth,
To a line on a plain, to a stove in a tent?
Did I nod in the flies of the schools?
And the fighters rolled into the tracer like rabbits,
The blood froze over my splints like a scab --
Did I snore, all still and grey in the turret,
Till the palms rose out of the sea with my death?
And the world ends here, in the sand of a grave,
All my wars over? How easy it was to die!
Has my wife a pension of so many mice?
Did the medals go home to my cat?

This is not one of Jarrell’s best war poems, but the point here is very clear, and I chose it for its clarity, pointed-ness and didacticism.   As regards the futility of war sometimes we need to be lectured to, no?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 9

Poems for Pleasure 9

Richard Wilbur, born New York, 1921, has long been a favourite poem maker.  He fought with the American forces during WW II and went on to be a university lecturer after being demobbed.  Wilbur has been regularly criticized, ever since Randall Jarrell complained that "he never goes far enough," for having avoided the serious issues of the modern world, for being too oblique or emblematic in his approach to contemporary problems, or, in comparison to such poets as Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and Ginsberg,
for not suffering enough.   This is what Jarrell says of Wilbur: “What he says about his childhood is true of his maturity:
‘In my kind world the dead were out of range/And I could not forgive the sad or strange/In beast or man.’  This compulsion limits his poems; and yet it is this compulsion, and not merely his greater talent and skill, that differentiates him so favorably from the controlled, accomplished, correct poets who are common nowadays.”  (From Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry," The Third Book of Criticism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970, 331-332.)  

The poem I wish to recall here is a brilliant subversive poem called “First Snow in Alsace.”  I have always loved war poetry ever since my old college lecturer in English, Mr. John Devitt introduced me to the greats of such poetry like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and WW 1 poets and the wonderful Randall Jarrell of whom I’ve written in these pages before.  However, I was really smitten by the subversion of this wonderfully strong, unique and somewhat disquieting poem.  Enough words – now to the poem itself:

First Snow in Alsace

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.
Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.
As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.
The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.
Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.
At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.
The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:
He was the first to see the snow.

Alsace is a place where much suffering was endured during many wars, so the title brings us into the worst nightmares of man.  At one and the same time, however, the snow is offering some comfort as well as artificial covering.  This poem is subversive for me because it suggests, contrary to my convictions, that the snow can be more than an artificial covering, that it can be healing and curative to some extent in bringing the sensitivities of soldiers back to their first childhood experiences of the wonderful mystique of the snow experience.  This is almost anathema for me because I have been transfixed by the horrors of Owens’ wonderful depictions of what he terms “the pity of war”.   I’m inclined to agree with Jarrell that this positive vision in avoiding the awful pain of war limits his poems.  Yet this subversion of the natural and horrific depiction of war suggests a wish to transcend and transform the sad world humankind have created.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 8

Poems for Pleasure 8

Animals loom large in human beings’ lives.  When we think of the word “animal” we automatically assume the adjective “dumb”, or at least we never are fully conscious that we ourselves are animals.  I think one of the ancient Greek philosophers described man (in the generic sense of that word obviously) as a “social animal” and/or “a thinking animal.”  We have swallowed whole our own prejudices and our own propaganda.  We assume we are so much better than animals.  It annoys me a lot when I hear murderers or those guilty of aggravated or violent crime being described as “behaving like animals.”  I suppose there are some animals that kill for the pleasure of it, but I think most kill out of in-bred and evolutionary necessity.

Anyway, it is one of my sincerely held convictions that children brought up with pets around the house are exposed to an “animal culture” if I may be so bold to call it such.  A little puppy or dog will love its owner “to pieces” and will not ask for anything in return.  A child will learn what unconditional love is.  Also a child will learn to care for creatures that may not be able to care for themselves.

Carl Gustave Jung, whom I have mentioned often in these pages used ask his clients or rather patients to think of the animal that most represented them at that particular juncture in their lives.  I also remember doing some group work/therapy about 10 years ago where we all (adults) were asked to become the animal we fancied ourselves to be.  I remember playing the role of a small puppy which was at that stage looming large in my dreams.  Others in the group were cats, butterflies, bees, dogs, horses etc.  There we were all going around interacting with each other making all these strange animal noises – some people were even on all fours.  Needless to say the next item on the agenda was a rather interesting, insightful and profound discussion as to what we thought was happening to us during this unusual session.

Anyway, from my own years of personal development work, counselling and therapy, this type of work shows us a lot about who we are at the instinctual and feelings level.  For me at the time I was dreaming of myself as adult starving this lovely little puppy.  The puppy I educed was the potent symbol representing my own feelings.  I had been starving the whole emotional side of my being.

All this, you say, by way of an introduction to a poem.  Yes indeed, and why not.  After all, the poem that follows is also one I taught to young pupils during my years as a trainee teacher.  It is by the Australian poet, John Blight, (1913-1995) and is called “Death of a Whale.”

Death of a Whale

When the mouse died, there was a sort of pity;
The tiny, delicate creature made for grief.
Yesterday, instead, the dead whale on the reef
Drew an excited multitude to the jetty.
How must a whale die to wring a tear?
Lugubrious death of a whale; the big
Feast for the gulls and sharks; the tug
Of the tide simulating life still there,
Until the air, polluted, swings this way
Like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse.
Pooh! pooh! spare us, give us the death of a mouse
By its tiny hole; not this in our lovely bay.--
Sorry, we are, too, when a child dies:
But at the immolation of a race, who cries?

I won’t comment further on this poem because I think the implications of it for our present society can be drawn readily, especially as regards the wars that have blighted (if you forgive me the dreadful pun on the poet’s name) our so called culture(s).

A fitting commentary on this poem can be found at Commentary