Saturday, 28 November 2009

Canadian Poetry from World War I

I missed the publication this summer of a new anthology: Canadian Poetry from World War I, edited by Joel Baetz. By chance I stumbled across it recently, when I was carrying out some amateur research into Robert Service's war poetry.

The recurring theme of Baetz's introduction is that 'Canadians were by and large fervent supporters of the war effort, from its very beginning until its final moments'. A soldier's memoir after the War might talk of a 'nightmare' period of history, but typically his devotion remains intact, and he concludes that the War remains 'the greatest adventure of [his] life among the most glorious men that the world has ever produced.' The poems collected by Baetz seem to support this argument: if there is a Canadian Sassoon or Owen, his work is not represented here. And, sadly, that is a value judgement as well as a political one. Baetz admits that when he is asked, 'But is it good poetry?', his answer is: 'It's always interesting'. The poems are interesting, but I would hesitate to call them good.

The exception is Robert Service. Baetz selects six poems from Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man. They are the best in the book, and they convey the spectrum of Service's responses. One moment he is dutifully celebrating 'the soldier's proudest part': 'He died with the glory of faith in his eyes / And the glory of love in his heart.' The next moment he is writing a traumatised dramatic monologue of a soldier caught on the wire: 'Of the thousands that wheeze and hum / Heedlessly over my head, / Why can't a bullet come, / Pierce to my brain instead...' Pierce to is especially brutal, acknowledging what needs to be pierced even before the bullet reaches the brain to deliver merciful oblivion.

However, the greatest revelation in the anthology is Service's prose, a selection of which Baetz includes in an appendix. An editorial footnote reports that 'Service's Records of a Red Cross Man was a series of weekly correspondent pieces beginning on 11 December 1915 and running until 29 January 1916. Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man was published later that year. The pieces read as documents of Service's experiences as a stretcher-bearer and ambulance driver...'

Service's accounts are, by turns, wry, terrified, courageous and fascinated. An explosion forty yards away leaves the poet staring mesmerised at its 'black snake-head of smoke': 'Then turning round I find I am alone. Like magic every one has vanished.' So Service crawls under his ambulance, and hopes that the man he is waiting to collect --- who is said to be 'dying' --- will hurry up and die so that he can go. It is honest heroism, apparent again later when Service must transport a badly-burned soldier:

The skin of his breast is a blueish color and cracked open in ridges. I am sorry I saw him. After this, when they put the things that once were men into my car I will turn away my head.

The editor of the Toronto Star declined to print the passage. The Ottawa Journal printed it in its entirety, and incurred the wrath of the Chief Censor for doing so.

It may seem to be damning with faint praise to recommend a poetry anthology for its prose, but Baetz's introduction and Service's first-hand accounts make Canadian Poetry from World War I an important book.

1 comment:

  1. This anthology recalls us to your site's lengthy debate over the efficacy, if any, of American war poetry. The best U.S. writing of WWI came as prose, and usually from ambulance drivers, most of whom entered the war early on, their service and conditions more akin to the British soldier's experience: Hemingway, Dos Passos (I believe), and E.E. Cummings--a capital poet whether upper case, or class, or lower... depths.