Even with such a lesson before him, how heedless is man! Still do we see his world at war from pole to pole. There is war among the religions; war among the nations; war among the peoples; war among the rulers. What a welcome change would it be, if only these black clouds would lift from off the skies of the world, so that the light of reality could be shed abroad! If only the darksome dust of this continual fighting and killing could settle forever, and the sweet winds of God’s loving-kindness could blow from out the well-spring of peace. Then would this world become another world, and the earth would shine with the light of her Lord.
Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the second of four relatively brief posts on the subject.
The first poem I want to consider, of the ones Fuller discusses in his book Who is Ozymandias?, is a war poem. It illustrates one of my difficulties with what I feel are the left brain tendencies of modernism to strip away organic tissue and reduce it to lifeless abstraction (see the first two links in the list at the bottom of this post for more on this issue).
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
It was, it seems, a popular poem. Presumably the extreme theme helped.
Why don’t I find it satisfactory as a poem? I find myself asking, ‘Is it too abstract for all its apparent “telling detail”? Is it too stripped down?’
Basil Bunting put his advice to young poets on a post card:
Basil Bunting was asked so many times for advice by young poets that he had a postcard printed with his key points:
1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape
Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.
What exactly is the shape kept here in Jarrell’s poem (and I feel in Briggflatts, or perhaps is should be Brick Flats, Bunting’s supposed masterpiece) when all the jettisoning and cutting have been done? There’s certainly no spare flesh on The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.
The trouble for me is that this process squeezes the life out of a poem leaving only a skeleton. And, perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, that’s all I think we’ve got here in Jarrell’s poem. And how many of us can honestly say that we’d prefer to spend an evening with the skeleton of a friend rather than with the friend in person?
In the end, with a skeleton poem, rather than enjoying the shared creative enterprise offered by an achieved poem, the reader has to perform instead the miracle of raising the dead. We have to exert tremendous effort to put life back into a collection of words that I sometimes suspect might have been more stones than bones to start with. The poet’s desire to pare it all back, even at the risk of creating a brick-wall puzzle, has killed any hope of our finding a poem: even in this case, where the puzzle is not too great, we have a fossil poem at best – bone turned to stone and quite dead – where it would take too much specialist expertise to recreate a sense of the living original.
Maybe that’s what the poet wanted to achieve as an expression of his take on the mechanistic modern world, but it’s not the kind of poem I want to read: it seems to me to capitulate to, rather than effectively protest against the left-brain desiccation of the life world that poetry should, in my view, resist at all costs. The distillation process here has not enhanced the potency of the poem, as the poet perhaps expected, but made it a quisling instead.
So, even when I know what the theme is and can sense the acute tension created by the ball-turret as womb-of-death imagery, it can’t rival the full human impact of such poems as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by Wilfred Owen or the deeply unsettling Keith Douglas lyric, where compassion and creativity are deeply fused (see link to Practising Compassion at the end of this post for more exploration of this issue):
How To Kill
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
(There are two brilliant chapters on the war poets, including Keith Douglas, in my recently explored Death of the Poets – pages 155-203.)
The skeleton problem is not the only barrier between me and much of modern poetry, though it is perhaps the most important. Fuller lists many others including borrowed characters and troublesome titles. Next time I’m going to consider a particularly irritating habit which seems to me to make even less sense than reducing the words of a living poem to a pile of bones.
- The Master & His Emissary
- McGilchrist on the Divided Brain
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- The Experience of Poetry (2): edges of unease
- Brick Wall Poetry (1/3): when does a puzzle wreck a poem?
- Practising Compassion (2/2)