Written 12 Jan 2014
Last week, quite by chance, I came across a copy of Herman Charles Bosman’s Uncollected Essays by V. Rosenberg (Ed.), Timmns Publishers, 1981. As always, Bosman’s off-beat view of the world and wry sense of humour comes through beautifully and for the first time I was struck by the very strong views he expressed about poetry. For example, he wrote, “The essential characteristic of the psychologist is that he knows nothing about life. Otherwise he would not be a psychologist, but a poet” (p. 55), and I think he was quite right. Of course, I don’t mean being a poet in the sense of having the skill to know your trochee from your spondee, or your enjambment from your caesura. I am speaking of being a poet in the sense of being able to write a phrase or verse that gives a voice to that unutterable moment; the ability to assemble an otherwise incoherent word structure that makes perfect sense. Read any Bob Dylan lyric and you will know what I mean.
The expression of these unutterable moments is often associated with times of heady love or wonderment, but they are mostly prompted by upheaval and despair, wars, deaths, and so on… One such poem that caught my imagination, when I was still a boy, was Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang (written abt. 1918). I do not know the exact circumstances described by Sassoon – it certainly was to do with World War I – and perhaps it really was about Armistice Day. No matter, in my mind it is about the triumph of the human spirit of those miserable soldiers in muddy trenches who had to endure the nightmare described by Churchill in the Commons as “every 24 hours nearly a thousand men are knocked into bundles of bloody rags”. And in the midst of this horror:
EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on- on- and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
I was reminded of this poem in 2007 when I had the opportunity to visit the Civil War battle site at the Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee. http://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm . Incidentally, it was my great privilege, in the 4 years during which I lived in the USA, to get a sense of how that Nation was formed by the European immigrants who first turned on their Colonial masters in the War of Independence (1775 – 1783), then they turned on their neighbours in the Mexican War (1846 – 1848), then they turned on one another in the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and then finally they did for the indigenous population in the Indian Wars ending around 1890. All pretty brutal stuff with plenty of cause for poetry, as was the case in the battle at Shiloh which took place over two days in April 1862, the first day going to the Confederates and the second to the Yankees. Some 20,000 men were killed or wounded in that battle as the shocked and inexperienced men “saw the elephant” (colloquial for “experienced combat”) for the first time. And as I wandered around that site I tried to imagine what would have gone on in the minds of the poor wretches who were thrown into that melee.
Before the battle, the attacking Confederate soldiers were reminded of their duty. They were told that what was required was “a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries, sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honour… remember the dependence of your mothers, your sisters, and your children on the result… with such incentives to brave deeds your generals will lead you confidently to the combat”1. As it happened, despite the belief that everything in their world was at stake, the Confederates lost. And so I wondered how that sense of loss could be expressed.
Semiotics is the study of the signs and symbols that we use in communication. Just as words are signs and symbols by which we communicate, so gestures convey meaning and while it is not an area that I have followed too closely, I have no doubt that if poetry can be expressed in words, so to, I believe, can poetry be expressed in gesture. After all, we speak about the fine performance of an athlete as being “poetry in motion”. So you can imagine my satisfaction when, while pondering the plight of beaten Confederate soldiers, I saw what is shown in the following picture. It is a piece of semiotic poetry, that expressive gesture that, for me, captured the unutterable moment.
The picture is of part of a larger Confederate Memorial at Shiloh that shows on the right, the men going into battle on the first day, heads held high, weapons in hand; and on the left, men coming out of battle at the end of the second day, heads down, swords gone. Actually, I found the whole piece rather uninspiring because the message was all too obvious, but look at that open hand. It says exactly what I thought the defeated and bewildered men would have felt. In modern parlance, perhaps, you could hear him whisper with a slow shake of the head, “W.T.F.” For me, it is pure poetry.
1McPherson, J. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, p. 407.