ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



Noncombatant poets' responses to World War II are vast and varied. Because the war killed more civilians than soldiers and displaced millions more, included the Holocaust and the systematic extermination of other targeted populations in both Europe and Asia, and concluded with the explosion of two atomic warheads, it is difficult even to define who is and is not a combatant or what is and is not part of a topic called "World War II." In this week we will look at two canonical Modernist poets, one of whom was a civilian in America, far from personal danger, and one of whom lived through and wrote during the London Blitz. Both wrote major poems in response to the war, and the work of both can be said to occupy a border zone between "war poetry" and a more general philosophical meditation occasioned by war.


HD: Trilogy (We will discuss "The Walls Do No Fall")
  • An excerpt from a letter by HD

  • The best treatment I've found of Trilogy as a war poem is : 

    • Graham, Sarah H. S.: 'We have a secret. We are alive.' H.D.'s Trilogy as a response to war.

      Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Austin, TX) (44:2) [Summer 2002] , p.161-210.
which you can find on the Literature On Line database via http://library.gmu.edu.

Stevens: from Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. (NOTE that "Lettres d'un Soldat" was never collected by Stevens into any of his books. Two passages were included as separate short poems in his first book, Harmonium. So the entire "Lettres" does not appear in all editions of Stevens' poems today. Be sure yours has it, or get a photocopy elsewhere.)

Our discussion of Stevens will focus on "Lettres d'un Soldat" (p 538) and "Esthetique du Mal" (277).
We'll also look at: The Snow Man 8, The Bird with Coppery Keen Claws 65, The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts 190, & "The immense poetry of war..." 251.

Other important poems responding to war include: Idiom of the Hero 184, Yellow Afternoon 216, Martial Candenza 217, Man and Bottle 218, Asides on the Oboe 226, Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine ideas 227, Examination of the Hero in Time of War 244. It's unlikely we'll have time to discuss them, but if you develop an interest in one or more of these and want to bring it to the table, let us know.
  • Bookstore photocopies:
  • Milton J. Bates: "Stevens' Soldier Poems and Historical Possibility."
    James Longenbach: "Writing War Poetry."
    Eleanor Cook: "War and the Normal Sublime: Esthétique du Mal"

  • A few quotes on "Death of a Soldier" on the MAPS website   http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/soldier.htm

From Between History & Poetry: The Letters of H.D. & Norman Holmes Pearson by H. D.; Pearson, Norman Holmes; Hollenberg, Donna Krolik.
Available as an eBook http://mutex.gmu.edu:2143/Details.aspx
Pearson was HD's friend, confidant, and, later, her executor. They exchanged over a thouand latters. One chapter of this volume deals with the war years.

Poetry? you ask. I am to say, why I wrote, when I wrote and how I wrote these fragments. I am to state this simply, for people who may not be altogether in sympathy with my own sort of work. I wish I could do that. I am so afraid I can not. But the inner world of imagination, the ivory tower, where poets presumably do live, in memory, does stand stark with the sun-lit isles around it, while battle and din of battle and the whole dreary, tragic spectacle of our times, seems blurred and sodden and not to be recalled, save in moments of repudiation, historical necessity. I had not the power to repudiate, at that time nor to explain. But I do so well remember one shock, a letter from Miss Monroe, timed, nicely to arrive [and] greet me, when I had staggered home, exhausted and half asphyxiated. (I and my companion had been shoved off the pavements, protesting to a
special policeman that we would rather be killed on the pavement than suffocated in the underground.) Miss Monroe was one of the first to print and recognize my talent. But how strangely, farcically blind to our predicament! The letter suggested with really staggeringly inept solicitude that H.D. would do so well, maybe, and finally, if she could get into "life," into the rhythm of our time, in touch with events and so one and so on and so on. I don't know what else she said. I was laughing too much.

Ivory Tower?

That was and is still, I believe with many, the final indictment of this sort of poetry.

In order to speak adequately of my poetry and its aims, I must, you see, drag in a whole deracinated epoc[h]. Perhaps specifically, I might say that the house next door was struck another night. We came home and simply waded through glass, which wind from now unshuttered windows, made the house a barn, an unprotected dug-out. What does that sort of shock do to the mind, the imagination—not solely of myself, but of an epoc[h]? One of the group found some pleasure in the sight of the tilted shelves and the books tumbled on the floor. He gave a decisive football kick with his army boot to the fattest volume. It happened actually to be Browning. He demanded dramatically, "what is the use of all this—now?" To me, Fortu and the yellow melon flower answered by existing. They were in other space, other dimension, never so clear as at that very moment. The unexpected isle in the far seas remained. Remains.



Times and places?

Additional Stevens poems available on line: The Comedian as the Letter C, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, Peter Quince at the Claveir, The Snow Man, Sunday Morning, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird : on Representative Poetry On Line http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poet311.html