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Posts Tagged ‘Wilfred Owen’

PTSD and war

Before we plunge further in from where we got to last time, I need to look briefly at what is known about the impact of war trauma on those affected by killing other human beings. This will help clarify just how disabling the effects of Ian’s experiences were likely to be on someone who was already undoubtedly very vulnerable.

There was an in-depth look at this in a television documentary in the wake of the Falklands War. The programme adduced a wealth of evidence that most human beings have a powerful and deep-seated aversion to killing other people. Approximately 98% of us are to varying degrees averse. For example, there were soldiers in the days of muzzle-loading muskets, who died with their muskets in their hands, the barrel full of undischarged ammunition balls. They had faked reloading without firing, so reluctant were they to risk killing anyone. Others, using rifles, were known to aim to miss or to wound slightly rather than to kill.

There are two outliers, representing about 1% in each case, who have no such inhibitions. One such exception is, not surprisingly, the psychopath. The other exception, which is very surprising, is an otherwise morally and emotionally normal individual who has no compunction about killing.

Psychologists, to their shame, devised training methods, using probable battle scenarios, that made rapid and automatic shooting to kill seem easy and unproblematic. These scenarios were practiced repeatedly until the lethal reaction was instinctive. What no one predicted was how traumatic many soldiers found it, to be confronted in battle with the consequence of their training: a dead soldier they had killed without a moment’s thought. As with Ian, the post-traumatic reactions were often devastating, with guilt and horror as key components of flashbacks and nightmares. In his case the signs of trauma were the unrelenting voices, a waking nightmare in effect.

Some of the horror of this is captured in Keith Douglas’s poem of the Second World War, How to Kill.

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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.

This is an equally disturbing but different kind of trauma from the kind captured in Wilfred Owen’s poems, such as Dulce et Decorum Est.

The intense guilt Ian harboured about his army experiences was too hard to bear and he had buried it. However, his subsequent guilt over throwing his alcoholic partner out of the house because her drinking was consuming his income from three jobs and he couldn’t cope any longer, reactivated the earlier even more intense guilt, because he thought she might die on the street, meaning that he might in a sense have killed her.

During the first period of therapy he felt that he was dealing only with his guilt about her, and that this was the main problem in terms of his voices. This was hard enough. Only later did he come to realise, by the impact of an anniversary effect I’ll come to in the next post, that the far darker army experiences, that he hadn’t yet dealt with, lay still active in this respect underneath.

What use is religious practice here?

There is much evidence that faith and religion are beneficial to mental (and physical) health. They reduce amongst other difficulties: depression, anxiety, suicide, & psychosis. The protectors they provide include: greater meaning and purpose, higher self-esteem, social support, less loneliness and more hope. (Harold Koenig at al. in Religion and Health’ Chapter 15)

My focus now will be on two aspects: reflection and consultation. Buddhism offers the most obvious example of powerful reflective processes. There is also a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that the process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:

it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.

It is the special combination of both these processes that is unique to the Bahá’í Faith as far as I am aware, though variations of each alone can be found in other either religious or educational/therapeutic contexts.

After I qualified and became a member of the Bahá’í community, fully integrating my understanding and practice of these processes into my clinical repertoire took a couple of years. I came to feel the benefits of that were considerable.

These weren’t the only factors I tried to accommodate. The hardest to digest was the belief that the mind is not dependent upon the brain. I have dealt with that in detail elsewhere.

The easiest was the notion that not only is the spiritual core of all religions essentially the same, but also humanity is in essence one: we are all part of the human family and all interconnected, not just at a material level but at a spiritual one as well. This is relevant here. This concept of unity not only serves to dispel any residual sense we might have that someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is somehow a different kind of being from us, but it also clarified that being inwardly divided, as many of us are, is not only a betrayal of our own essential inner oneness but an obstacle to our connecting with others, not just as a therapist but in any relationship. Similarly a community that is at odds with itself with find it hard to connect with everyone on a harmonious basis. I will be returning to that point.

My shorthand description of reflection is to say that it involves separating consciousness from its contents. Consultation, in similarly brisk terms, is the dispassionate comparison of notes, with the emphasis here on the word ‘dispassionate.’

Reflection

In discussing the nature and power of reflection I usually start with Peter Koestenbaum’s book, New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

Reflection, he says (page 99): ‘. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.’ I will look more closely at exactly what this might mean in a moment. Before we move on from his take on the matter, what he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49): ‘The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.’

I am quoting this upfront so that, if you find what I’m going to say from a faith perspective hard to accept, this might help.

In earlier posts I have discussed how psychosis is a very rigid and inflexible state of mind. I believe it is simply at the end of a continuum along which we all are placed. We all to some degree at times overvalue our beliefs, our perceptions, our simulation of reality. This can bring about a degree of attachment to them that makes us inflexible and highly resistant to contradictory evidence or different perspectives. This does not create a huge problem if our take on reality is not also destructive or frightening or both.

Fixity in the face of often extremely unpleasant phenomena causes an unacceptable and virtually inescapable amount of distress to the sufferer and of anxiety in his friends and family. The distress is what brings the sufferer to the attention of the psychiatric services. Psychiatry then applies the label schizophrenia. This label, in my view, mixes up the content of the experiences with the person’s relationship to those experiences in what can be a most unhelpful way.

Just as it is important to separate our perceptions (voices, visions and other internally generated experiences in other sensory modalities) from our understanding (beliefs, models, assumptions, meaning systems etc), it is crucial also to separate out, from the nature of these experiences in themselves, this loss of perspective and flexibility which I am calling fixity.

I have examined elsewhere on this blog the various ways that this fixity can be dispelled. Here I plan to focus simply on reflection. This is not because they are irrelevant. One, which I term disowning, by which I meant discounting or suppressing uncomfortable contents of consciousness such as pain, grief or guilt, was something Ian described in in the process of our shared reflections: he saw himself as increasingly ‘recognising’ his feelings rather than ‘repressing’ them.

My focus though will be on how reflection enables us to contain unpleasant material in consciousness, giving us time to think about and explore it, prior to integrating it.

Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude) quoted a hadith from the Islamic tradition: ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to 70 years’ pious worship.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

His son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, explored this in a talk he gave at a Friends’ Meeting House in London in 1913. He spoke of reflection, meditation and contemplation as virtually equivalent concepts. He went on to explain their power (Paris Talks – pages 174-176):

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . .

Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

What he says for me maps onto Koestenbaum but in more directly spiritual terms. It explains why reflection, also connected with meditation and contemplation, is so powerful from a Bahá’í point of view.

The mirror analogy along with Bahá’u’lláh’s various references to the human heart as a mirror, led me to ask: what are the possible similarities between consciousness and a mirror?

Basically, a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. In the same way, consciousness is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, imagine and so on. This is also known as Disidentification in Psychosynthesis. In Jessica Davidson’s very brief summary, the affirmation exercise this form of therapy uses reads like this:

I have a body and sensations, but I am not my body and sensations. I have feelings and emotions, but I am not my feelings and emotions. I have a mind and thoughts, but I am not my mind and thoughts. I am I, a centre of Pure Awareness and Power.

Less controversially for most people I suspect, I would prefer to affirm that I have sensations, but these change from moment to moment so I cannot be my sensations. I am the capacity to sense. And so on with feelings, thoughts, plans, memories and imaginings, including our ideas about ourselves and what or who we are. Assagioli’s final affirmation was, as I remember, ‘I am a centre of pure consciousness and will.’

Reflection enables us to find meaning in what we are tempted to call ‘madness.’ It gives us the freedom to examine it even if only in our own minds. Psychosis is almost always meaningfully rooted in a client’s experience.

How might reflection help us find meaning?

Reflection helps counteract the fixity of attachment to the contents of consciousness that characterises what is called the ‘psychotic’ experience. The crucial stepping back relates not just to the experiences themselves, such as visions and voices, but to the explanations the sufferer has created for the experiences, which then cease to be delusional.

What Ian thought was just schizophrenia had meaning. Understanding and integrating that meaning released him from his voices. To understand his psychotic experiences he had to neither suppress them nor surrender to them: he had to contain them so he could examine them.

Recognising that they were simply the contents of his consciousness enabled him to step back, experience and think about them. They no longer had power over him.

I will sharing some of his thoughts on this in the final post.

Consultation

But there is one step further we can go.

When Ian loosened his identification with his experiences, he was able not just to think about them, he could also compare notes with others about what they might mean: he could consult in a Bahá’í sense of that undervalued word.

The Bahá’í International Community, which represents the Faith at the United Nations, quotes Bahá’u’lláh on consultation (The Prosperity of Humankind Section III): ‘In all things it is necessary to consult. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.’

What might He mean by that. Paul Lample in his excellent book Revelation and Social Reality puts forward his view: (page 199):

Consultation is the method of Bahá’í discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.’

Key words and phrases here are: ‘from the bottom up’ which I take to mean not imposed in some condescending fashion by those who feel superior; ‘dispassionate’ meaning objective and detached (something I’ll come back to in more detail in the next and last post); and ‘minimising . . . manipulation,’ so no ulterior motives or advantage seeking creep in.

Later he adds further illumination (page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context.’

The key concept here is the ‘collective investigation of reality.’ This means that all parties involved in consultation are comparing notes, sharing perspectives, without undue attachment to their own point of view and not in an attempt to win an argument but with a sincere striving to understand reality better.

Just as the client needs to reflect, so does the ‘therapist.’ It is a two way street. And the therapist needs to model what she wants the client to learn: reflection. If she does not consultation is not possible. She must be as detached from her conclusions as she wants the client to be. If both client and therapist can reflect together as equals they are genuinely consulting. They can achieve a higher level of understanding, a better simulation of reality, together, than they ever could alone.

We are now ready to explore the impact of these processes on Ian and to examine some other important factors and considerations. More of that next time.

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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.

(Selections from the Writings of‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

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

Randall Jarrell

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:

I SUGGEST
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.

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Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

Given my recent interest in Shelley and the poetry of protest, this piece in last week’s Guardian by  caught my eye. It also contains a reminder of a poem by Auden on Sigmund Freud which I must have another look at. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

am on my way to Newcastle. It’s pleasing to note that the city’s university awarded an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King in his lifetime and that the unexpected and impromptu speech with which he received it in 1967 is up there with the legendary “I have a dream” of four years before. It was filmed, then lost for many years, before its rediscovery in the annals of the academy. It was shown to me some years ago and you can view it online. Is it a great speech, though, or more aptly described as a thunderous political poem against racism, poverty and war?

So what better place for a poetry festival, and especially to discuss human rights and the “poetry of witness” with Carolyn Forché? Forché is a celebrated US poet, translator and human rights defender and I am fascinated by the way that this combination of skills and experience must have shaped all aspects of her work. I love her refusal to accept the bifurcation between “personal” and “political” poetry and to embrace instead a notion of the “social” that describes human rights thinking, so much great art and also, surely, the human condition itself. Aren’t we in essence all both individual and social creatures? Our rights and freedoms reflect the yearning for freedom, autonomy, privacy and conscience, but also our need to associate and express as family, community and society. A politics that ignores or suppresses the intimate sphere will allow or even ensure abuses of power in the home, on the streets and in its own institutions.

The poetry of witness has long compensated for censored or corrupted news media when truth must be spoken to power – think of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade or Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Poetry and human rights are very often tied together; think of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry, which are intimate while also tackling the huge themes of feminism, equality and being Jewish after the Holocaust. The civil rights poetry and activism of Langston Hughes are completely inseparable.

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GuernicaWhen I had just begun this blog in 2009 I was much more tentative about what I wrote and the blog posts were much shorter add a result — sorry, did you say it was a shame that changed? Anyhow, I think there is enough of value in this one to justify republishing it in the light of the current sequence on van Gogh. 

There were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.

War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.

It may seem a long way from Guernica to:

But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.

And the impact is similar.

In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.

When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.

Goya’s ‘The Third of May’

I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.

Picasso saw his art in moral terms:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.

During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’

(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)

This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.

Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.

It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.

By Sudarshan Pattnaik: September 2008

Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.

Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.

Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:

Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,

And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.

(Sonnets from China: XV)

Bahá’u’lláh‘s words to Professor Edward Browne still have the same haunting potency now as they did when He first uttered them:

Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.

It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.

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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.

(Selections from the Writings of‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My revitalised interest in Keats is therefore probably not surprising. I have struggled to come to terms with modern poetry and am still fighting a losing battle with most of it for the reasons tackled in the sequence of posts. 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

Randall Jarrell

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:

I SUGGEST
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

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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.

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.

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DadIn memory of all those who died in the First World War and of all those who, like my father, came home alive but with fragments of their being buried in the trenches.  

Dulce et Decorum Est

(Wilfred Owen, 1893 – 1918)

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 flound’ring 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.

Light

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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.

(Selections from the Writings of‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

I am reblogging this sequence of posts to shed light on my recent comments concerning Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts. This is the second in the sequence.

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

Randall Jarrell

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:

I SUGGEST
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

keyesdouglas

Keith Douglas

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.

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.

Read Full Post »

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