Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Long-Lost American Poet of the Great War

'There is no better book of poems about the American experience in the Great War.' Dana Gioia's praise for John Allan Wyeth's This Man's Army, which was first published in 1928 and re-discovered eighty years later, seems entirely just. Admittedly, the bar has been set low, but Gioia also states that Wyeth's is 'probably the only volume that stands comparison with the work of the best British soldier poets'. That is high praise, and although such comparisons are problematic because Wyeth sounds nothing like those usual suspects, Gioia's claim does not seem manifestly absurd. His introduction, available here, also gives a fascinating account of the archaeological work by B. J. Omanson which brought this long-forgotten book to prominence. And here are Wyeth's Chipilly Ridge sonnets. I would quote from Wyeth myself, if only Blogger were more forgiving of poems whose lines are variously indented.

I have blogged already about Wyeth's brothel sonnet, that marvel of comedy, desire and disgust: Wyeth can pack more into 14 lines than many epics manage. Gioia speaks expertly about the radical rhythms of his sonnet forms, but even that description fails to convey the strangeness of Wyeth's best sonnets as they string snatches of vernacular dialogue across lines. Gioia associates Wyeth with Modernism, and it's not hard to see why. There is even a biographical prompt: based in Rapallo during 1926, Wyeth seems to have counted Ezra Pound as a friend.

But his knack of catching speech rhythms and bringing them into complex relation with formal and metrical traditions has more in common with Robert Frost. Frost writes to John Cournos in 1914 that ‘there are the very regular preestablished accent and measure of blank verse; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get them into strained relation. I like to drag and break the intonation across the metre as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.’ The drama of Wyeth's sonnets comes from this same interplay of rhythm and metre, as the sonnet is stretched to astonishing limits in the need to accommodate materials previously beyond its purview.

Gioia, finally, tempers his praise with the belief that 'the concluding sections of [Wyeth's sonnet sequence] feel inconclusive and anti-climactic': This Man's Army, he insists, 'is a strongly written, authentically detailed, and imaginatively engaging book that fails to reach its full poetic, historical or cultural potential.' Gioia wants the sonnet sequence to have a grander finale. The greatest sonnet sequences of all would struggle to pass such a test: Shakespeare's sonnets 153 and 154, for example, end the sequence with a whimper. But Wyeth ought to be defended on his own terms, because one point of his sequence is its understatement. The final sonnet ends on what seems like a minor key, but it makes the first mention of a new humanitarian disaster all the more potent: “Aw I’m not wounded Buddy—it’s just the flu.”


  1. I must say that when I first read Wyeth, one of the first questions that came to mind was whether Wyeth had been influenced by Frost, specifically (as you point out) his innovations in the use of informal dialogue framed in formal meter, exploiting the natural tension between the two. If Dana Gioia's speculation that the poems were not written until the late '20s is correct, then it is reasonable to suppose he would have known of Frost.

    Frost opened up a whole new territory of possibility when he draped a casual rural dialect over a strict metrical grid, but it was a territory which subsequent poets seemed slow to explore or exploit further, perhaps because they found the formal experiments of Eliot, Pound & company more compelling.

    It has been a frequent observation among literary historians that Frost, whatever his importance as a Modernist in his own right, failed to inspire a school of significant followers among the younger poets of the '20s or '30s. Does Wyeth present a challenge to that observation?

  2. Good point, BJ. It's as if Wyeth, admiring Frost both for his 'hearing ear' and for his sonnets, makes the radical decision to unite the two. Frost tends to use dialogue in blank verse, and very rarely (if ever) in his sonnets.

    These days it can seem that everyone is influenced by Frost, and certainly everyone from Northern Ireland: Heaney, Muldoon, Longley, Carson, etc. The story, admittedly, is different in the States, and in England (where Frost's influence is often mediated through Edward Thomas). But Wyeth looks like the first significant American disciple.

  3. This is very exciting news. Your first post on Wyeth passed me by somewhat, but now I can see that this is obviously a poet I need to get aquainted with, and particularly for my own project. Is this the only full-length sonnet sequence of WWI?
    I find it very interesting how the sonnet seems to be the dominant literary form of the war. Why is this? Is it because of the iconoclasm, the going against tradition, involved in using a traditional form to write about death and destruction rather than the more traditional love? Or is a fourteen-line lyric simply the best way to express onself?

  4. How about the desire to impose some order on chaos? (And this coincidental sidebar: the word I was asked to copy in order to post the brief comment was "trops"--troops, tropes, traps all came quick-marching into mind!)

  5. Another aspect of Wyeth's sonnets that you note, Tim, is Wyeth's "understatement", which seems to me to be a major feature of his poetry. Dana Gioia describes this quality briefly, but cogently, in the following paragraph: "...Although Wyeth's central subject of unrestrained modern war should equal or surpass the domestic violence in (Joseph Moncure) March or Jeffers, his narrative seems decidedly quieter and colmer. Although the book presents a first-person account of the first great modern war -- a conflict generally depicted in literature through shock, horror, and confusion -- the speaker seems to observe his own life from a safe distance. If Wilfred Owen famously declared that his poetry was 'in the pity,' Wyeth's method locates its imaginative energy in objectivity."

    This quality in Wyeth's poems is key, I think, but difficult to characterize. The poems all together possess a remarkable consistencey of tone, which helps to achieve the cohesion of the cycle as a whole, but the tone draws so little attention to itself that it is easy to overlook.

    Wyeth's neutral tone, the narrator's voice, is never raised, never urges or obtrudes, never prompts or persuades, never calls attention to itself. It is like a neutral, transparent undercoat, a gesso, spread evenly over the entire broad canvas of his 55-sonnet sequence, binding it into a unified whole, and establishing a steady rate of movement through one sonnet after another, a smooth unvarying current flowing beneath an often turbulent surface.

    Such a neutral, even tone enables all the other features of the poem, whether dialogue or description, to stand forth entirely on their own merits, without heightening or manipulation. Wyeth's style is the opposite of expressionistic. With a delivery so consisitently monotone, the effect is almost documentary. Wyeth's poems invite comparison with certain AEF field artists, particularly W.J. Aylward, W.J. Duncan, J.A. Smith and E.C. Peixotto, who tend to present the war as a series of preciesely-rendered landscapes, seen from a certain distance, so that all the men and machinery of modern war never dominate the scene, but are shown as transitory elements in a larger landscape which has already borne witness to countless earlier wars and which will endure long after the present war has passed into memory. The war, in other words, is kept in perspective.

    In contrast are the shorter-range drawings of H.T. Dunn and G.M. Harding, far more personal and impressionistic in style, suffused with drama and emotion -- drawings where the artist's style is as much the subject as the subject itself.

    What separates these two groups of artists is their view of emotion as an artistic device. Aylward, Duncan, Peixotto & Smith eschew emotion, wishing to avoid its inevitable distortions. For Dunn and Harding, on the other hand, emotion is more or less the whole point. In their view it is the horror of war which is the heart of the matter, something which a neutral documentary style can never adequately portray. Emotion may distort, but nothing less will ever penetrate to the truth.

    Wyeth, with his imperturbable evenness of tone, belongs clearly to the former camp. Yet Wyeth's case is complex. A primary subject of a number of his sonnets is the narrator's own inner state, his strong emotional response to a particular event. Yet even in these cases Wyeth's method remains objective. He never resorts to expressionism. He makes no attempt to arouse a comparable emotion in the reader; his attempt, rather, is to render the emotion as freshly and precisely as possible -- for the record.