Survival and Poetry

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon, which was cause for celebration, but to complete the mission, they had to return to Earth. President Nixon’s speechwriter, William Saffire, wrote this speech in case Apollo 11 became stranded on the moon:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope in mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of mankind.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

The last paragraph of Saffire’s speech alludes to Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “The Soldier.” Of the World War I poets, Brooke was an anomaly: since he died of sepsis en route to Gallipoli, he never saw combat firsthand, and thus his poems never adopted the irony characteristic of other war poets, like Owen and Sassoon. Brooke’s poems preserve the naiveté and enthusiasm of pre-war English youth, ignorant of “the old Lie: dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”

The Solider

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.

Brooke was popular among both literary and political circles, a friend of Winston Churchill, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. William Butler Yeats described him as “the handsomest young man in England.” When Brooke died, he, given his fame, became a symbol for the loss of talented, young Englishmen to the war. In Saffire’s speech, the allusion to “The Soldier” is twofold: we read the sentiment of the poem and the sentiment of the English toward Brooke. To contrast, here is a Wilfred Owen’s poem, the one quoted above:

Dulce et Decorum Est

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 floundering 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.

Owen died one week before the war’s end—almost to the hour—but he did manage to draft a preface to his book Disabled and Other Poems:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or land, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

In 1936, William Butler Yeats excluded the War poets from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935, because of this very reason:

I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his “Empedocles on Etna” from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced.”

Yeats later said of Owen, “I consider [him] unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper.” This is a common criticism of War poetry, that it is reportage with a direct emotional link to the poet. Poetry is transcendent, a high art, above the everyday, especially the basic struggle to survive, like Tony Tost said in “World Jelly”:

Words are magic
because they hang
one mystical experience
away from crisis.

Remember, though, that, according to Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus gave humans mathematics and literature in addition to fire: “Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses’ arts, with which to hold all things in memory.” Literature literally means “acquaintance with letter,” so humans learned to thrive, thanks to fire, at the same time they could “hold things in memory” (i.e., record their history). Overall, Yeats should not rush to separate poetry from survival. There are several examples of poetry and survival’s marriage: “Red touching yellow, / You’re a dead fellow” or “Leaves of three? / Leave them be.” Poems help us remember knots too, such as the bowline:

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In ancient Greece, the rhapsode, which means “one who sews songs together,” was a professional performer of epic poetry. The rhapsode would use meter and rhyme to commit history, myth, and dialogue to memory. Although the mnemonics above are not quality poetry, they do splice into the poetry tradition well, especially given the rhapsode, scop, bard, griot, etc.

To return to Prometheus, try to imagine a world without fire, yet we do not appreciate it until the furnace breaks or the car will not crank. Ironically, our mastery of fire as a society has cost the individual the ability to start a fire in an emergency (i.e., to survive, the reason why Prometheus first stole fire). Here is one method to build a fire with only a soda can and chocolate:

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The first picture shows the brushed finish of a soda can, but you can polish this smooth with chocolate (or any other fine abrasive, such as toothpaste or silt). Smear a thin film of chocolate on the can and rub with a cloth, leaf, or wrapper. The cloth barrier is important because aluminum is toxic without its normal layer of oxidation. Also, do not eat the chocolate polish. The process should take half an hour to an hour. Handle the lens with care until the aluminum can oxidize, as the skin can absorb the metal, but with a few hours of air exposure, the lens will be safe to handle. The third picture shows the polished soda can. To use, aim the bowl toward the sun and hold the tinder about 1 to 1¼ inches away from the center of the bowl. See the fourth picture.

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Like Yeats, most believe that poetry and survival cannot coincide, that poetry benefits from our ability to reflect on life, not the struggle to maintain it. Like Tost said, because words “hang / one mystical experience / away from crisis” we cannot digest a situation’s poetry until afterward. For example, if you were in a wreck, you couldn’t poeticize the sights, sounds, and smells until you check your passengers, check the other car, and call 911. In a sense, poetry and survival oppose one another like the classical elements water and fire, but it is possible to derive fire from water, namely ice:

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The most difficult task is finding clear ice. The first picture shows how ice drives impurities to the center and then downward, so when you cut or break the ice, only take the uppermost portion. Next, carve the blank into a rough, two-inch diameter sphere with a knife or saw. It is better to scrape the ice away than cut, hence the hand saw. Once you have a rough sphere, hand polish the ice: let your body heat smooth the surface as you rotate the sphere in your hands. See the third picture. To start a fire, focus the ice sphere on the tinder like a magnifying glass. Do not let the ice drip on the dry fuel. Once you see smoke, pick up the tinder and gently blow until it catches. Another, more easy method is to shave the rough sphere with a pipe. See the fifth and sixth pictures. If you don’t have a pipe, you can fashion a similar tool of bone or other rigid medium, anything that is harder than ice. With the pipe method, your sphere can be much smaller, about an inch and a half. As the quality of the sphere goes up, the size of the sphere can go down.

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Although you may never use these survival skills, you should never forget their lessons, that diametrical opposites, such as fire and water, are often not so diametrical. If Yeats would have remembered his mythology, remembered that Prometheus gave humans both fire and literature, he might not have excluded Owen for reconciling survival and poetry, those diametrical opposites. Overall, this summary exclusion should encourage us to celebrate the marriage of survival and poetry. Like Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” When Thoreau says to “live deliberately,” he means to survive, hence “to front only the essential facts of life,” and given the gift of literature, he can “learn what it had to teach.” Without the myth of Prometheus, Thoreau’s mantra “live deliberately” would not exist. Indeed, this mantra taps the etymology of Prometheus: foreseer. Like a speechwriter who drafts a speech for each outcome, we should anticipate both life and death.

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Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at the University of North Georgia. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia, and edits the audio poetry journal Pismire.

Photo credits: The knot images come from animatedknots.com, and the other images come from wildwoodsurvival.com.

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