What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
Combien de notre vie Brûle en ce brasier ? Le cher grenier du cœur ? Tout ce qui nous manquera?
Trois vies font une vie – Le fer, le miel, l’or. L’or et le miel ne sont plus – Ne reste que le dur et le froid.
Notre vie c’est le fer Coulé au cœur de notre jeunesse. Un trou brûlé dans les blés mûrs Une dent brisée dans une belle bouche.
On Receiving News of the War
Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.
Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.
In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.
Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.
O! Ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.
En apprenant la nouvelle de la guerre
Neige est un mot étrange et blanc. Ni la glace ni la neige N’ont demandé au bourgeon ou à l’oiseau Le prix de l’hiver.
Mais le gel, le givre et la neige Du sol au ciel Ont couvert cette terre d’été. Nul ne sait pourquoi.
Il est dans tous les cœurs. Un esprit ancien, D’un baiser mauvais, a vicié Notre vie.
Des crocs rouges ont lacéré Son visage. Le sang de Dieu s’est répandu. Depuis Son séjour solitaire, il pleure Ses enfants morts.
Ô fléau ancien et pourpre! Corromps, consume. Rends au monde Son éclat immaculé.
Through These Pale Cold Days
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,
While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again —
For Lebanon’s summer slope.
They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.
Par ces jours pâles et froids
Par ces jours pâles et froids Quels visages sombres brûlent Depuis trois mille ans Et leurs yeux fébriles se languissent
Tandis que sous leur front Leur âme orpheline tâtonne Vers les lacs d’Hébron, La colline d’été du Liban.
Ils laissent ces jours blonds et calmes Derrière eux dans la poussière, De leurs yeux vivants ils voient Qu’ils sont morts depuis longtemps.
Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.
The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?
Moïse, dont j’ai jailli des entrailles, D’une lampe dans le sang alluma Dix règles constantes : une lune Pour des hommes inconstants, sans lumière.
Le blond, le bronze, le roux Du même sang houleux Suivent les marées de la lune de Moïse. Pourquoi donc me méprisent-ils ?
Sarah Montin est Maîtresse de Conférences en littérature et traduction à L’université Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Elle travaille sur la poésie de guerre et a publié une monographie sur les war poets britanniques (Contourner l’abîme. Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre, Sorbonne Université Presses, 2018). Elle a traduit en français plusieurs d’entre eux, dont Ivor Gurney (2016) et Isaac Rosenberg (2018) pour les Éditions Alidades.
in a nuclear wink, would not have time to know what hit me. Or, after distant flashes and the shock waves, slowly of radiation sickness, combs full of hair, bleeding from the eyes, fingernails, nostrils, anus. After the president’s head detonated, I walked the mile home
from history class, dusty concrete along Augusta Road, scanning the sky for the first needle-glints of Russian missiles. But it was just Oswald, a mere ten years older than I was, I know now, son of one Robert E. Lee, a marine, like my father—like Lee O. himself—but dead before the boy was born.
Young Oswald thought god was a dog, a star, rats. His smiling chinstrapped mug looks a lot like my teammates’ Wells and Strobo, who both joined the Corps right after high school, got themselves killed in short order. Oswald was in radar, a word he couldn’t get wrong.
Like my father he qualified sharpshooter. Like my father he was honorably discharged. Unlike my father he didn’t deserve it. He never killed anybody until he did Kennedy and Tippet. He never boxed, he never looked like Clark Gable. My father believed
somebody on the grassy knoll did it, even though he knew about the trip to Moscow. He slashed his left wrist. He met a girl with a Shakespearean handle, fathered a kid he named after a summer month, came home a family man, purchased an Italian rifle
created within a few miles of the Shroud of Turin. Unlike my father, who sweated in thick Savannah air hugging creosote poles, Lee found it hard to hold a job. I have looked out that window. Despite what you have heard, it was an easy shot.
My father killed several men on what he always called The Island. It wasn’t easy with an M 1903, certainly not with a bayonet, never had second thoughts about Hiroshima. They boarded a stinking troop train for San Diego, waited all day in the Carolina heat, were ordered back to barracks.
No A-bomb, no Ronnie Smith, he said, a million marines, soldiers, sailors, fly boys— a million would have bought the farm on the mainland. He figured his number was up, but, boom, boom, the war was over. He took his malaria to Chatham County, married an operator with the middle name Lee,
and sired, as they say, me. And though my Uncle Don, skinny and jumpy as Lee Harvey himself, rolled hundreds of warheads from Travis Field to Hunter Air Force Base about the time I turned twelve—by convoy right through the heart of my hometown, down what is now MLK Boulevard—
looks like I’ll make three score years and ten. Haven’t been vaporized or particularly irradiated, far as I know. 1Y’ed out of Vietnam, despite football. It wasn’t the concussions or the trick shoulders, knees, arthritic feet, hips, spine. Blood pressure off the chart, the doc growled. No Hiroshimas in my lifetime. Not yet.
Poet Laureate of Virginia 2014-2016, Ron Smith is the author of four books of poetry, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University of Central Florida Press, 1988), Moon Road: Poems 1986- 2005 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), Its Ghostly Workshop (LSU Press, 2013), and The Humility of the Brutes (LSU Press, 2017). His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Five Points, and in many anthologies. His awards include The Guy Owen Prize from Southern Poetry Review and The Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest. Ron was an inaugural winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and subsequently served for ten years as a curator for that prize. He has taught poetry and poetry writing at University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Mary Washington University. He is currently the poetry editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature and Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. His Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, judged by Margaret Atwood “a close runner-up” for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and by Donald Hall as “the runner-up” for the Samuel French Morse Prize, will soon be issued by MadHat in a handsome second edition.
Keywords War Poets, Deictic Realism, Remembrance, Polyphonic Poetry
Review John Greening, To the War Poets, Manchester: Carcanet, 2013
‘At the visionary edge’ (53) could well define John Greening’s poetic stance in his collection To the War Poets published by Carcanet Press Ltd in 2013. Although the title constitutes in itself a dedication to mostly dead poets, the gift sent to the beyond, as if the passage of time did not matter so much, can only be received by the living. Being meant as paradoxical tributes to a category of fellow writers, the poems of this British author who has been the recipient of many literary prizes, are tangible tokens that poetry can actually partake of the duty to remember. Hence, the first question we as readers have to ask ourselves is: will our role be limited to that of silent witnesses? The front cover, which reproduces a detail from Richard Walker’s acrylic on canvas entitled ‘The World War One Memorial’, might give us a clue as to what our answer should be. Indeed, on seeing the legible letters or postcards, some of them bearing birthday wishes, the opened or sealed envelopes, and the newspaper cuttings, which all aim at the illusion of verisimilitude through realism, we cannot but put ourselves in each recipient’s or even sender’s place. Being reminded from the outset of how important any means of communication is in wartime, we quickly come to realize that the poems which follow are themselves the vehicles of a manifold correspondence whose purpose it is to examine the issue of patriotism already materialized by the British flag. The artefacts presented, which are both German and British, possess a truly deictic dimension since they showthrough the superimposition of once incompatible or even conflicting realities how the fate of a nation can be reflected in the secret and intimate signs of individual daily lives where partisanship is only too natural.
As for John Greening, his standpoint becomes manifest as early as the table of contents, his translations from German poets testifying to his willingness to take into account more than one angle by appropriating the texts of so-called former enemies and adapting them to the mother tongue. These dual semiotics of his, which also highlight the absurdity of war, both armies having had to endure the same atrocities, turn the collection into an echo chamber for a score of artists including Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Edmund Blunden, John Clare, Siegfried Sassoon, W. B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Thomas, Elgar and Waldo Williams, whose personalities and aesthetics come through. This polyphony of voices enables the reflector to enhance the various similarities and dissimilarities that have separated and isolated such various styles over time. Yet the readers might regret the absence of footnotes or endnotes summing up the biographies of the poets mentioned or specifying the historical context in which each poem was written. These could have helped to read the testimonies in the right light and assess more easily the kind of departure John Greening takes from the literary traditions he refers to. And all the more so since the original texts have not been reproduced so that for those who might have wished to do so, there is no means of comparing them with their translations.
However, this editorial choice does not really lessen the resounding impact of the collection as a whole though the metaphor which comes to mind on first reading may rather be that of the kaleidoscope. As you turn over the pages, you get to seehow a given number of themes relating to the reality of war happen to combine so as to make difference reflect sameness and singularity, multiplicity, while abstract paradigms are being counterbalanced by concrete situations. In that respect, the function of toponyms often used as epigraphs – ‘the names / that aren’t from dead-leaf catalogues of dreams / but rooted in a real place’ (30) – such as Ypres (29), Bapaume (38) ‘Port Said’ (48), and ‘Dunkerque’ (78), should not be overlooked since they suffice to conjure up memories of the historical past by setting the scenes of sieges and battles and imposing a specific atmosphere from the very beginning. What is most striking is indeed the visual quality of John Greening’s verse as the readers’ imagination is summoned by being addressed directly, often in the imperative mode, the motto seeming to be: ‘Look at this picture’ (72). ‘Ypres. To Edmund Blunden’ (29) illustrates the poet’s manner, in the pictorial sense of the word, for here as elsewhere he cannot resist the temptation to paint the real instead of just wording it:
It’s Brueghelesque. The User Canal. One angler with two rods and an (unnecessary) mud-brown brolly. A bell is tolling midday-and-beyond behind me and birdsong all around. One magpie. Two carrion crows. (I.4-7)
The paratactic style of this short extract, which characterizes numerous other poems from this collection, allows him to compose little vignettes whose conciseness and delusive simplicity make for poetic intensity and depth. To some extent, the alternation of sentences with and without verbs creates an effect of perspective as one ground seems to succeed another while the touches of colour enlivening nearly every page are part of a pointillist palette which contributes to such arresting images as ‘The white cliffs are like all the paper they could not have – […] and that steady grey horizon is a never-ending pencil lead’ (‘Dover. To Isaac Rosenberg’, 20, l. 1, 3) or such synaesthesias as ‘a falling bird / a sudden / black dissonance’ (‘St Julien. To One Who Was With Me’, 59, l. 10-12).
With either Brueghel (29), Constable (71) or Turner (35) in mind, the poet thus invites us to follow him into his own imaginary museum of the Great War and other conflicts or of present-day scenes, so as to ponder on them for a while in the blanks, along the dashes whose minus signs can yet introduce as many hermeneutic additions. The objectivity he claims, ‘while I – / in my green raincoat – cast / the necessary cold eye’ (42), explains why hard facts are given as such without ever being tinged with sentimentalism (cf. 48) as he prefers to portray people uncompromisingly or to confront violence and death head-on, as some soldiers would their enemies. He is nevertheless aware that the reality of war has never been so close and so distant, mediated and projected as it is onto the multiple screens which people our everyday lives (38, 44). The revealing phrase ‘thumbing a remote’ (30) might apply to this oxymoronic literary standpoint which brings together proximity and its opposite, be it in space, time or memory. The recurring telescoping of different eras going so far back as antiquity or even the mythical past (44-45, 53) and of different cultural areas heightens the sense of loss through contrast and gives rise to a kind of intransitive nostalgia. For its object seems to be an ever elusive ideal akin to the ‘sacred polyphony’ of ‘dawn’ (45) or to the mirage vision offered by the fine poem ‘Wadi Halfa’ (49), which ‘would be the thousand and second night’.
The gaps thus opened by the loose slivers of images which follow one another along the many run-on-lines conveying a sense of urgency or of impending doom and reverberating the introductory epigraph from Wilfred Owen, imply that the readers have to provide the missing links to try and make sense in peacetime of what, in wartime, appears all too often senseless. Many poems being unrhymed, their musical quality is hence to be found in the swift rhythm which at times mimicks the hectic pace of life introduced by new technology and subtly links the bigger picture with its minute parts to elicit a feeling of empathy for any potential victim. More denotative than connotative, richer in comparisons than in metaphors, all the attempts at defining reality as it supposedly was or is like, point at universal truths through the frequent use of the aoristic present tense or through indirection. For instance, the lexicon of war is sometimes transposed into another context (19, 31, 33, 55) or figures of displacement are meant to express repressed feelings: ‘the rain / weeping against the window but unable to trouble us’ (24).
As with Brueghel, story-telling prevails while the tension between inscription and erasure, what is said, denied, or remains unsaid, endows an overall aesthetics of fragmentation with a tragic quality the better to let the archetypal find contemporary referents. In the image of their synecdoches, these pictorial narrative poems, which cannot but come across as truly modern, focus on the anecdotal details suggesting the whole in a way that is reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s style (57). Though famous artists mix with anonymous people, the impersonal is pre-eminent, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as the nominalized adjectives like ‘The young’, ‘the old’ (25), triggering generalizations which nevertheless remain idiosyncratic thanks to the often unexpected associations of epithet and noun. The presence of death looms so large that to somewhat muffle ‘The screams of the grown-not-old’ (33) haunting the evocative landscape, whose sporadic animality calls to mind Ted Hughes’ imagery (56), the poet often resorts to humour:
No larks, just the passing And no chance of a poppy that isn’t paper or plastic. The children among the graves are dressed as if they were themselves a floral tribute. (“’Essex Farm,’ Yser Canal. To John McCrae, » 26)
The insistence on the mortal nature of the body (43, 48, 51, 59, 60, 63) as opposed to the ‘corpus, [the] body of work, / whether poetry or prose’ (79) which may reach posterity (48), explains why so many poems have turned into epitaphs (27, 60), while others stage ‘a festival of black humour on the Isle of Wight’ (53). Playing on the homonymy of proper names, such as Wight (53) or Graves (79-80), on numbers such as 11 which symbolizes the commemorative month of November (25), on musical notes (64), the poet endeavours to defuse the tension which has built up as he travels across British or foreign lands and describes places which are so many objective correlatives for other realities.
When more traditional in content, John Greening’s verse is less so in form for he revisits the canon and experiments with the layout as when he spaces out the stanzas to hint at various instances of destruction in wartime or not (55, 68), even making his paragraphs look like the keys of a piano threatened by a ‘buzz-bomb’ (64). If ‘Art mocks Life and Terror / is trompe-l’œil’ (37), the interactive guessing game, which raises more questions than it can provide, nevertheless aims at combating illusions, and not just optical ones: ‘Abducted / by memory card, I’m / danced up around / Ben Bulben, cropped / and Photoshopped / to fit the image of / the poet’ (41). As the readers leaf through the collection, they could well consider poetry to be ‘La Flèche d’Or:/ this golden arrow / straight to the heart’ (17), or the great question mark which takes the shape of life and tries to encapsulate its mystery only to perpetuate the sense of wonder.
Cathy Parc is Associate Professor of English at the Catholic University of Paris and is the author of Calvin et Hobbes de Bill Watterson (2013) and L’Anglais du Monde Politique (2014). She also co-edited Poetry & Religion: Figures of the Sacred (2013).
Keywords Collective Memory, Mediation, World War I, Canada, Popular Culture, War Poetry, John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” (1915), Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional” (1897), War and Sports, Montreal Canadiens, Commemorations,
Abstract “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae is an oft-repeated poem at Canadian Remembrance Day services. This paper examines how lines from the poem are used in two instances that the poet might never have imagined – on the reverse of the Canadian ten-dollar bill and as a motivational slogan in the dressing room of a professional hockey team. Drawing on James Wertsch’s analysis of collective memory made possible through textual resources, this paper discusses how the poem has come to function as a type of transparent frame for promoting particular collective sentiments. The poem itself becomes an object to draw attention to contemporary sentiments of mundane nationalism (in the case of the ten dollar bill) and a celebrated athletic heritage (in the case of the hockey dressing room). In each case the specific events of the Great War are obscured by the manner in which the mediated text brings McCrae’s words close to particular communities without referring back to the conflict itself.
In 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae composed a piece of poetry that has had an enduring presence in the Canadian imagination. McCrae – a veteran of the Boer War and a respected physician and academic – penned “In Flanders Fields” following the battlefield death of a close friend and former student, Alexis Helmer. Since its origins in May 1915, the poem in three stanzas has become a standard part of Canadian remembrance services on November 11. Children regularly repeat the poem in school assemblies. The familiar poppies and the bravely singing lark that close the first stanza are used by educators to guide literary and artistic projects leading up to Remembrance Day. While nearly a century has passed since the Great War began, its impact on Canada cannot be understated. However, the memorialization of the conflict, as Jonathan Vance points out – that it was a moment of great national unity between Anglophone and Francophone publics and that those who served participated in a willing (predominantly Protestant) Christian sacrifice, has much to do with a post-war desire to make sense not only of the loss of over 60,000 men, but to foster particular social, cultural, and religious values as integral parts of Canadian identity in the early twentieth century. In an era of change wrought by war and sweeping economic and political upheavals, McCrae’s poem served as a reminder of the continuity between those who had served, who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who remained to carry on the torch in future battles.
“In Flanders Fields” is indeed part of a set of national commemorative practices surrounding Remembrance Day, however, it also appears in unexpected places. The permutations, interpretations, and appropriations of McCrae’s literary text have led us a long way from the Western Front of the Great War. In fact, they lead to two very different sites – the reverse of the Canadian ten-dollar bill and the dressing room of a professional sports team, the Montreal Canadiens. By discussing these two examples, I hope to show that the poem itself acts as a type of embedded transparency that is persistently present but is rarely a consciously considered aspect of Canadian collective memory. In these instances, particular lines from “In Flanders Fields” are lifted from their place in the poem and recast as tools for something else. James Wertsch describes this reworking of a text in Voices of Collective Remembrance. He writes that
[w]ithout our being fully aware of it, the cultural tools we employ to remember something like … World War I have a sort of memory, or at least memory potential, built into them. Furthermore, these cultural tools and the affordances and constraints built into them are unequally distributed among various collectives, and as a result these collectives may by expected to remember the “same” event differently. (54)
Critically exploring the unequal distribution of the memory potential in “In Flanders Fields” as it is selectively used on the Canadian ten-dollar bill and in the Canadiens’ dressing room, raises larger questions about collective memory and collective belonging. Who are the dead of Flanders speaking to in the twenty-first century? Who today carries the torch passed so many years ago and what form does the contemporary battle take? While these are metaphoric questions of battles and torches, they illuminate how present-day efforts at Great War remembrance often tell us more about contemporary concerns surrounding active and latent forms of remembering associated with different types of communities, rather than the actualities of the 1914-1918 conflict.
Text and Context
When he wrote the poem in 1915, John McCrae was in his early forties – a bachelor, though a sought after dinner guest in Anglophone Montreal before enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force – and well established in the Canadian medical field as a respected pathologist and educator for his work at McGill University (Graves). As a poet, McCrae’s verse was published in university periodicals through the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. His death from pneumonia in January 1918 while serving in Belgium meant that he never learned of the enduring resonance and popularity of his poem, first published without attribution in Punch in 1915 (Prescott). McCrae himself is an unlikely hero-figure. Jonathan Vance describes an oft-used photograph of McCrae as follows: “his uniform fits poorly over too-sloping shoulders, his hair hangs in an undignified thatch, and his mouth has a strange lopsided quality” (199). With his passing, McCrae joins the dead of his poem – fixed forever in the fields of Flanders while those who survived and those who would come later are left to heed the exhortations of the fallen. Nearly a century after the Great War, Vance notes: “modern critics may be lukewarm to the poem, but contemporaries could scarcely find a superlative sufficient to describe it” (199). Despite its popularity as an integral aspect of Remembrance Day services across Canada, it is rarely studied as a piece of literature. Critically evaluating the poem requires moving beyond rote repetition and asking difficult questions about conflict, propaganda, and remembering.
In her 2005 paper on McCrae’s poem entitled, ‘“In Flanders Fields » – Canada’s official poem, breaking faith,’Nancy Holmes offered a literary analysis of the sonnet. Holmes’ work responds to Paul Fussell’s condemnation of the poem in The Great War and Modern Memory where Fussell derides “In Flanders Fields” as propaganda and worthy only of scorn. Indeed, the poem can expose what Holmes describes as “all sorts of feelings of discomfort we have about colonialism, imperialism, warmongering, homophobia, and falseness”, but she acknowledges that there is a beauty and a power to it that contemporary critics may miss if they are quick to revile McCrae as a jingoist empire-endorsing proponent of war (25). The truth of the matter is complex and is reflected in contemporary feelings for the poem, which can best be described as an unusual blend of embarrassment and pride. These contemporary feelings also mirror the conflicted public sentiment for Canada’s recent military involvement in Afghanistan where critics view the mission as a betrayal of Canadian values beyond the scope of the imagined role of Canada as an international peacekeeper while supporters of service men and women, at the time of this writing, mark the return of those killed in action with somber observances on one of the nation’s busiest highways. “In Flanders Fields” does act as reminder of Canada’s complex past, but before I turn to two of the poem’s current (mis)appropriations, it will be helpful to take a closer look at the text itself:
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 the 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.
The three stanzas of rhyming verse here are not in any sense a literary innovation. The poem succeeds as a cultural tool in part because of its structure, which lends itself to recitation and repetition. But what exactly is being communicated in McCrae’s poem? “In Flanders Fields” features a speaker who advocates for the fallen soldiers as one of the dead. The kinship implied in the third line is stated clearly in the first line of the second stanza: “We are the Dead”. When the poem was written in 1915, the worst fighting of the First World War was still to come. The promise of adventure that might have attracted Canadians to enlist in the war effort was replaced with the growing realization that the Great War could go on for years as a battle of attrition. The speaker of “In Flanders Fields” urges his addressee to continue the fight as a way of “keep[ing] faith” with those who have already paid with their lives. The poem is a pact between the living and the dead and it has very little to say about the events of the battlefield. Here, McCrae’s poem differs from the work of two well-known British War poets. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, written by a man who would never make it to battlefield, glorifies even the opportunity that an English soldier might have to die for his country. At the other end of the spectrum, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” questions the notion that any glory could be found in horror of the War. With “In Flanders Fields” there are no graphic depictions of life and death in the trenches, nor is there any mention of King, Empire, or country. For these reasons, the lack of battlefield specificity and the emphasis on the relationship between the speaker and the addressee – “you” – lends the poem to reconfigurations where the original context of the piece can be obscured.
Cultural tools and Communities
Jonathan Vance begins a chapter of his seminal work on the mythology of the Great War in Canada, Death so Noble, with a discussion of “In Flanders Fields.” He cites a 1930 newspaper editor who comments that the poem “passed into our common language, its thought was embedded in the thought of the generation for whom it was written; it has remained a heritage for the indefinite future” (199). In this example, “In Flanders Fields” is clearly more than a poem, it is defined as part of a Canadian common language, embedded in national thought, and part of a heritage to be passed on to future generations – this is the very definition of a textual resource as cultural tool. James Wertsch uses this term – “textual resource’ – to describe how a created narrative stands in or mediates between an event and our understanding of that event. Here the event in question is Canada’s participation in the First World War and our twenty-first century understanding of the conflict. Wertsch goes on to suggest that using textual resources is perhaps “not really a form of memory at all, but instead a type of knowledge – namely, knowledge of texts” (27). If collective understanding of something like the First World War is based on a text that stands between our present and our past, a poem like “In Flanders Fields” becomes a lens through which we can view past events in Canadian history. However, if there is no common understanding that links “In Flanders Fields” specifically to the First World War, the poem can be appropriated to serve a variety of needs. McCrae’s poem might have been common language for Canadians in the interwar period as Vance notes, but in its present uses, on the ten dollar bill and in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room, the lines of “In Flanders Fields” are only tangentially related to the 1914-1918 conflict.
In his discussion of the memory potential embedded in cultural tools, Wertsch draws a distinction between implicit and imagined communities. Implicit communities are made up of people “who use a common set of cultural tools even though they may be unaware of this fact and may make no effort to create or reproduce their collectivity” (64). These implicit communities differ from the “imagined communities” that Benedict Anderson details in his 1983 work where individuals share a sense of community by sharing a form of media like a newspaper, a particular edition of a book, and in the more contemporary sense, viewing the same television program and web pages. Both Anderson and Wertsch explore the peculiarities of nationalism – how diverse peoples form allegiances within geographic and socio-political borders – but for Wertsch, the suggestion of an implicit community allows for the fact that people use cultural tools for their individual purposes without concern for the fact that those tools circulate amongst a wider public. Individuals in implicit communities use cultural tools as utilities; once the tools have served their purpose, they are rarely given attention. For imagined communities, cultural tools offer links to other people both past and present. In the two instances I discuss below, McCrae’s words become free floating mythological signifiers that drift further and further from the signified (Barthes) – the Allied dead of the Western Front. However, as cultural tools, the use of “In Flanders Fields” on the ten dollar bill and in a hockey arena have in common that both are associated to two very different communities: an implicit one which pays little mind to McCrae’s poem and an imagined one with a specific cultural heritage that has a very limited relationship to the Great War.
Paying the Price: (in)visible memory potential
One of the poem’s first commercial uses was in a 1917 promotion for Canadian victory bonds (see figure 1). Here, a soldier stands amidst poppies gazing reverently at a grave behind a ruined village.
The audience for this advertisement is assumed to be familiar with McCrae’s poem so that the line that appears in the top left-hand corner without attribution to the author or even the poem from which it is drawn. The Victory Bonds advertisement shifts the notion of a contract – an obligation still exists, but it is no longer between the dead speaker and living combatants. The contract here is one of financial support from the home front population of Canada to soldiers in Europe. By selectively using lines from the poem we can gloss over the more troubling bits where the speaker asserts himself as a representative of the fallen with the words “We are the Dead”. As they are configured in the Victory Bonds image, the men who lie in European graves are sleeping, at peace, and will continue to rest soundly so long as the living fulfill their side of this financial bargain.
Ninety years after the Victory Bonds campaign made use of McCrae’s words, a connection between money and “In Flanders Fields” continues with the “Canadian Journey” edition of the ten-dollar bill first released in 2001 (see figure 2), which features the first stanza of McCrae’s poem in English and in French, Canada’s official languages (all bills in this series include quotations or verse in both languages). Once again, McCrae’s poem is a textual resource being exploited for a particular purpose.
However, when using a ten-dollar bill one tends not to actively remember much about the bill itself. Like any form of currency, the ten-dollar bill is by definition a cultural tool, considering that we live a society where we have agreed to exchange bits of coloured paper and metal discs for goods and services. Both the monetary and textual resources require what Wertsch terms an “active agent” – an individual who purposely engages with the material. In the case of the ten-dollar bill, the monetary use trumps the memory potential of the textual resource “In Flanders Fields.”
If we are to be active agents, moving beyond the role of individual actors in an implicit community and actually engaging with the words and symbols depicted on the ten-dollar bill, it requires a concerted effort. Actually reading the first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” is difficult – the purple script in tiny font on a pink background can be easily overlooked. The memory potential here goes largely unexploited – unless we know why Flanders is important, unless we have heard and repeated the poem on an annual basis, there is no context for remembering here. We don’t actually need to know about the specifics of the First World War at all if we are already familiar with the poem as part of an established pattern of remembrance. By including the first stanza, no individual is singled out – “you” – are not called upon to carry the torch, but to think about how “In Flanders Fields” works in combination with the other symbols depicted on the bill.
Clustered together with the first stanza of the poem at lower left is a collection of poppies and a banner that reads “lest we forget: n’oublions jamais”: a symbol and a slogan associated with the First World War but without clear attribution to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, from which it is drawn. While McCrae is identified as poet here, the explicit reference to the dead of the battlefield is missing. In fact, Canadians seem to have little to do with battlefields judging from the collection of images on the bill: a dove hovers near McCrae’s words, while a female soldier uses binoculars to gaze into the future underneath the phrase “in the service of peace”. Finally, on the right, a representative trio gathers at a monument where two members of the military stand watch. There is no war here. Not only do we skip over the overt reference to the dead in the truncated version of the poem, the third stanza about “taking up the quarrel with the foe” is also missing. Despite Canada’s participation in three major conflicts in the twentieth century and the nation’s current involvement in Afghanistan, the Canadian imagination is largely committed to thinking of our military as peacekeepers working only, as the text at the top of bill reads, “in the service of peace” (Jefferess). Wertsch cautions us that textual resources, like the symbols displayed here, “are not neutral cognitive instruments that simply assist us in our efforts to remember. Instead we are often committed to believing or not believing them, sometimes in deeply emotional ways having to do with fundamental issues of identity” (9). By selectively using “In Flanders Fields,” the bill gestures towards a sanitized version of Canada’s past military involvement.
Collective Memory and the Canadiens
When the first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” becomes one of many “cultural tools” to think about war and remembrance, it loses its specific reference to the First World War. Wertsch’s notion of ‘distributed collective memory’ explains why personal understandings of the 1914 to 1918 conflict vary so widely. There is no one collective consciousness that mediates a community’s understanding of the past. Instead, memories are heterogeneously distributed amongst the members of the community and while individuals may share similar memories, they will also have participated in the same event in similar ways (Wertsch, 25). My own feelings towards the poem are mixed – it is impossible for me to “un-know” or stop remembering the Great War when I read “In Flanders Fields”, but I find myself getting caught up in the nostalgia and mythology that surrounds the poem – am I really remembering the events of the Great War when my mind wanders to primary school assemblies or televised Remembrance Day ceremonies? For some reason I am more comfortable with a professional sports team’s obvious appropriation of McCrae’s poem than the easily missed first stanza on the ten- dollar bill. The unabashed co-option of the poem by a general manager with a love of poetry (“Habs greatest GMs inducted into Builder’s Row”) who reached the rank of Lance Corporal in the Great War seems more appropriate than a bureaucratic committee determining which symbols appropriately represent the nation with its Anglophone and Francophone tensions. While Frank Selke’s military service is glossed over in biographies and historical accounts of the Canadiens, the Hockey Hall of Fame notes that he began his sports administration career at the age of 14 and would coach a University of Toronto team to the Memorial Cup in 1919 (“The Legends”). At the outbreak of the Second World War, Selke remained in Canada, heading the Toronto Maple Leafs organization on behalf of another legendary hockey executive — Conn Smythe — who raised an artillery battalion to serve overseas. Managerial decisions made during the war would lead to a falling out between the two that would prompt Selke’s move to the Canadiens in 1946.
“[T]o you from failing hands we throw the torch / be yours to hold it high », the two lines in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room are a textual resource for the players, the organization, and the collective Canadiens fan base. The quotation links the past of the most successful hockey organization in the world, founded in 1909, to the current version of the team (fig. 3). At first it seems odd to find an English Canadian war poem in the largest city of a province that basically had conscription forced upon it in with the Military Service Act of 1917 (Hodgins, Rutherdale). The decision to install the words in the dressing room was Selke’s. The Anglophone from Kitchener, Ontario (which was known as Berlin until the outbreak of the Great War), chose to have the phrase painted — in English and French — above the lockers of the players who would become some of the most legendary men to ever play the game. As Selke set about building one of the greatest teams in Montreal Canadiens history (as general manager of the franchise from 1946-1964, he helped to assemble a team that would win Stanley Cups in seven years), he actively sought to promote Quebec-born Francophone stars while “downplay[ing] the huge contribution of the primarily al-English front office” (Goyens and Turowetz, 91-2).
At the centre of this dynasty was Maurice Richard, a man Douglas Hunter calls “a symbol of the French-Canadian race, a mythic figure for the people of [Quebec]” (147). Richard was the first player to score fifty goals in fifty games, he won eight Stanley cups, and is memorialized in a trophy honouring the league’s annual scoring leader. The famous number nine is immortalized in children’s books, poetry, art, and film. He embodies the cultural, linguistic, and sporting hopes of an entire cultural community. There is no comparative figure in Anglo-Canadian history.
Richard’s notorious glare gazes out at the current roster of Canadiens from below the lines of “In Flanders Fields.” Here it is very clear from whom the torch is being thrown. Players face these words and the portraits of past Canadiens legends before every home game. Visitors to the Bell Centre have the opportunity to tour the dressing room when it is not in use by the players. Tourists can imagine themselves as part of the team. Even for those who do not have the opportunity to attend games in Montreal, the shared experience of watching Saturday evening games has helped to foster a nation-wide imagined community. In Canadiens Legends Montreal Hockey Heroes, Mike Leonetti writes: “even on television the Forum [the Canadiens’ arena from 1926 to 1996] had a special air about it. With the seats close together, there was little room to maneuver, but it was a magical place, especially when the Canadiens were on top of their game” (14). In some ways, the Forum is much more real than the fields of Flanders that MacCrae writes about. The ghosts of the Forum – those who helped the club to twenty four Stanley Cups – seem to loom as large, if not larger than the thousands of young Canadians who rest in fields in Western Europe. As legendary hockey players succumb to age and illness, their names, numbers – and at times their mortal remains, (Richard lay in state at the Bell Centre following his death in May 2000) – are honoured.
Yet, those who fell in the Great War were never repatriated to Canada. Remembering the Canadian war dead has always required an imaginative investment in connecting the there and then of early twentieth century Europe with the here and now of contemporary Canada. It is as if Canadians have learned to remember the Great War via proxy and as the event itself recedes fully out of living memory, the tools used to mediate that remembrance can become unnervingly flexible in that they can be co-opted to serve the needs of present-day communities whose connection to the conflict is increasingly tangential.
Holding High the Torch: Contemporary Reflections
The key difference between the two uses of “In Flanders Fields” – on the ten-dollar bill and in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room – is the existence of two communities that Wertsch identifies: the imagined community and the implicit community. The first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” on the ten-dollar bill is a textual resource for an imagined community, transitioning out of its function as a resource for an implicit community when an individual pauses to reflect on the minute print. In a hockey arena in Montreal, McCrae’s words serve as the guiding link between past glories and present and future hopes for athletic success. For players in the dressing room, the words likely become part of the décor over time, fading from everyday awareness until one pauses again to consider the lines that were composed nearly a century ago. Regardless of how “In Flanders Fields” is used as textual resource, Wertsch reminds us that “Collective remembering is (1) an active process, (2) inherently social and mediated by textual resources and their affiliated voices, and (3) inherently dynamic. However we go about building on these claims, the voices of collective remembering promise to shape memory and identity for as long as we can peer into the future” (178). Key to this reflection on collective remembering is the fact that individuals themselves determine how they use textually mediated memory resources for their own specific purposes. Wertsch notes that “despite all [of the theorizing and analysis] we can’t ever say what people do with a text or if the recipient does what the producer intended” (117). John McCrae never had the opportunity to comment on the adoption of his poem as a national symbol or a cultural tool, of remembrance. However, the speaker in his poem directly addresses the reader; it is up to the reader to decide if the torch, and the complexities of nationalism, sacrifice, and the glorification of the noble dead are worth contemporary reflection and imagination.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verson, 1991.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers Trans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry. Ed. Marcus Clapham. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1998. 18.
“Canadian Ten Dollar Bill.” Canadian Journey. 2001. Bank of Canada, Ottawa. jpeg.
Fussell, Paul. TheGreat War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Goyens, Chris and Allan Turowetz. Lions in Winter. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1986.
Graves, Dianne. ACrown of Life: The World of John McCrae. Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1997.
“Habs greatest GMs inducted into Builder’s Row.” Canadiens.com, The Official Site of the 24-Time Stanley Cup Champions. 11 January 2007. Web. 21 November 2011.
Hodgins, Bruce, W. Canadiens, Canadian and Québécois. Toronto: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1974.
Holmes, Nancy. “‘In Flanders Fields’ – Canada’s official poem: breaking faith.” Studies in Canadian Literature 30.1 (2005): 11-33.
Hunter, Douglas. War games: Conn Smythe and hockey’s fighting men. Toronto: Viking, 1996.
If Ye Break Faith. 1917. CWM 19850475-013. Canadian War Musem, Ottawa. War Museum. Web. 18 November 2011.
Jefferess, David. “Responsibility, Nostalgia, and the Mythology of Canada as a Peacekeeper.” University of Toronto Quarterly. 78.2 (2009): 709-727.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Recessional.” Kipling Poems. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 95-96.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 527-528.
McCrae, John. “In Flanders Fields.” In Flanders Fields and Other Poems. Toronto: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919. 15.
Prescott, John F. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae. Boston: Mills Press, 1985.
Robertson, Ian. “To you…” 2010. jpeg.
Rutherdale, Robert. Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.
“The Legends.” The Official Site of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Web. 21 November 2011.
Vance, Jonathan. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997.
Wertsch, James, V. Voices of Collective Remembering. Port Chester: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Megan Robertson completed her PhD, “Networks of Memory: Creativity, Relationships and Representations” in 2017. She is currently working as Learning Strategist at Kwantien Polytechnic University. She has recently published: “What Sound Can Do: Listening with Memory” in BC Studies 197 (Spring 2018) and “Epistolary Memory: First World War Letters to British Columbia” in BC Studies 182: The Great War (Summer 2014).
“We go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” —Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry.
Can literature and the arts be irenic? How are the arts a unique vehicle for promoting peace? How do they enhance memory? How do the arts play a role in the formation of public opinion? What possible effects could they have in policymaking? How might literature and the arts be a vehicle of resistance to tyranny? While the role of epic poetry has often been to present the heroic grandeur of wars past, providing a type of justification for wars future, some poets have endeavored to depict the horrors of war in such a way that the cost of human suffering penetrates the reader’s consciousness. This issue examines and theorizes the role of literature and the visual arts in search for “positive” peace (the elimination of causes of violence and the avoidance of conflict) and the creation of a peace culture, by drawing attention to the writer or artist’s method and form, circumstantial motivation, use of memory and language as counter-propaganda, as well as reception by the public.
The importance of literary and artistic contributions to the obtaining and preservation of peace has been recognized by awards such as the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize (awarded to Mahmoud Darwish in 2003), and others, often lesser known, such as the Leeds Peace Poetry Award or the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award. Although the connection between the arts and the search for and preservation of peace is instinctively acknowledged, its exact nature is imprecise. This issue opens considerations that should be further explored.
The word “peace” itself may be considered problematic. Is it merely the absence of war? Thesaurus and dictionary listings for the noun and adjectival forms of the word include the following synonyms that inspired some of the authors of this issue: Peace, peaceful, peacefulness, concord, harmony, harmoniousness, friendship, cordiality, amity, amicableness, goodwill, accord, agreement, pacification, conciliation, truce, neutrality, ceasefire, armistice, nonaggression, nonviolence, calm, calmness, tranquility, serenity, restfulness, repose, quiet, quietness, silence, hush, still, stillness, placidity, composure, repose, relaxation, rest, restfulness, serenity, pacific, pacifist, peace-loving, unwarlike, nonviolent, nonaggressive, non-belligerent, non-combative, mild, easygoing, gentle, amiable, amicable, friendly, good-natured, peacemaking, placid, even-tempered, irenic, dovish, conciliatory, placatory, inoffensive, pacification, peaceful, quiet, restful, serene, tranquil, undisturbed, restful, balmy, harmonious, cordial, friendly, strife-free, peaceable.
The papers offered in Arts of War and Peace 1.2 result in part from a conference held in Caen (November 2010), co-hosted with Claire Bowen, as well as several articles originally planned for a projected issue of LISA e-journal, called “Poetry of War / Poetry for Peace.” In many ways AWP has grown out of LISA and the encouragements of Renée Dickason, who is deeply thanked for allowing several earlier papers to be printed here.
In addition the issue of Arts of War inaugurates publication of original translations. Poems by the German poet Ernest Stadler are translated into French by Julien Collonges and into English by Richard Sheppard : the expressionist “Awakening,” written in 1913, may now be read as prophetic. For readers of Stadler, other translations exist in French by Philippe Abry, Eugène Guillevic, and Lionel Richard and in English by Michael Hamburger. Closing the issus are new poems by Owen Lowery, some of which suggest memory’s role in building a desire for peace.
Edited by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, 8 November 2013.
The title of this inaugural issue, The Fallen & the Unfallen, is drawn, by way of homage, from Geoffrey Hill’s first collection of poems, For The Unfallen (1959). The cover illustration is a photograph of the memorial stone for poets of World War I found in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey (unveiled November 11, 1985). The list of names is framed by a quotation from Wilfred Owen, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
Some of the papers presented in this issue result from workshops held at the University of Caen that examined poetry from First World War poets, and works inspired by them. While the shift from the poetry of World War I to poetry about the Vietnam War may seem a bit abrupt, in fact it was soldiers’ shell shock that motivated many of Freud’s studies, leading to his theories about trauma during and immediately following World War I. Trauma theories have played a significant role in our perception of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it was during the Vietnam War period that war poetry from World War I came into general public appreciation. Jon Silkin fostered a renewed appreciation of World War I Poetry in Britain, with an influence extending to other English speaking countries, by way of his periodical Stand, which in 2012 celebrated its 60th anniversary.
I would like to thank Rosanna Warren for the candor of her interview, Jon Glover, Stephen Romer and Jeffrey Wainwright for their poetry, and the contributors who have submitted state-of-the-art articles and generously offered reviews for this inaugural issue. My heartfelt thanks is also due to Michael Taugis who provided assistance and editorial footwork.
It is particularly moving for me that the inaugural issue presents work by Thomas Christopher D’Arcy and Dominic Hibberd. The former has written about war poetry and has had the personal experience of being a soldier. The latter regrettably passed away this past August. Dominic Hibberd was a groundbreaking scholar who ensured that Wilfred Owen and Harold Monro would be of interest to future generations. He was also endowed with a pleasant spirit. It was my privilege to show him a small part of Caen and its University when he attended a workshop there in 2005.