In·ter·punct shares book reviews, art news, lit theory and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. It seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.
The Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was first written by Christina Rosetti in 1872, before it was set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. The carol was popular with World War I soldiers. One can imagine that the carol’s lyrics – Rosetti’s poem – held poignant meaning for the soldiers in the trenches and for the veterans who returned from the front with memories of fallen comrades in the snow.
War has paralleled civilization. The oldest surviving piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has often been cited by modern day military historians as having described the constellation of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And the world’s first author known by name, Enheduanna -- daughter of Akkadian Emperor Sargon who, in turn, appointed her priestess – has among her surviving poems a “Lament on the Spirit of War”:
You hack everything down in battle….
Modern day military poetry was popularized by the likes of World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Isaac Rosenberg, Alan Seeger, and Charles Hamilton Sorley, to name a few. But military poetry has been there even before these 20th century luminaries first entered the literary stage. Consider Stephen Crane’s “War Is Kind” (1899), Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867), Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” soliloquy” from Henry V, Act IV, scene iii (1599), and even as far back as the Old English heroic poem “The Battle of Maldon” (written after 991 AD).
Like Christina Rosetti’s poetry, many military poems have similarly been encapsulated in ditties and songs. The Greeks of Antiquity traditionally wrote in poetic verse, to celebrate a military hero or military event, that would then be transformed into a dirge. The English bard-minstrels, and French troubadours of old followed suit, with two examples being “Wulf and Eadwacer,” an Anglo-Saxon ballad (circa 960 – 990 AD) as well as Marie de France’s “Song from Chartivel” (late 1100s AD). Not surprisingly, therefore, are the well-known American classics of “Yankee Doodle,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Francis Scott Key’s now-famous “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Meanwhile, in the East, both Chinese martial artists and Japanese samurai warriors were encouraged to develop alacrity in writing poetry. Chinese and Japanese warrior-poets were groomed to see poetry and war as complementary pursuits, where poetry would illustrate combat’s glory and horrors while concurrently portraying the honor and virtue demonstrated by the warriors who fought. For these warrior-poets, too, nature was a theme – perhaps because the return to nature was akin to a psychological rejuvenation assisting with the recovery from war’s after-effects. Besides, the exercise of poetry promoted good form – or, good order – of the mind, which was vital to the warrior-poet’s spirituality and meditative life. Just as the martial arts eventually become a way of life for the practitioner, so, too, do both Zen and poetry become ways of life – punctuating every aspect of the practitioner’s lifestyle.
Also for these Asian warrior-poets, poetry was appealing for its brevity. The skills of thinking as a poet with an economy for words was, for a warrior, similar in discipline to the thought-training about deployment of limited resources and battlefield decisiveness as a strategy. Additionally, poetic succinctness was a type of simplicity interwoven with nNature. And this simplicity was sought to balance the fog of war's confusion and the chaos of the battlefield. Some might say that for the warrior-poet, poetry became a means to convey the enlightenment and deepened Zen understanding received from the battleground’s revelations.
Take Basho, the illustrious Japanese haiku master who lived during the Edo, or Tokugawa, period. The Edo period was a time when the Tokugawa shogunate stabilized the country with their “no more wars” campaign, that simultaneously encouraged the growth of the country’s arts and culture. Basho’s brand of poetry, the haiku, grew in prominence because it leveraged the stillness of Zen, attention to detail, meticulousness in word-choice, and utilization of Nature as motif. There are scholars who deem Basho as the Wordworth of Japan. Both Basho and Wordsworth emphasized exposure to nNature as intrinsic to spiritual development, wherein a good relationship with nNature assisted in connecting the individual to his soul, thus making nNature a therapeutic means to de-stress and regain authenticity.
Contemporary society’s industrialized, urban purview makes the return to nNature somewhat difficult. Even Wordsworth recognized that, which was why he wrote poetry about nNature so that his readers could remove themselves from the “artificial social conventions [and] the squalor of city life.” For Wordsworth, the reading of,, as well as the creation of,, poetry on nNature -- and by extension, poetry in general – assisted in relieving the loneliness, sadness, even the disillusion of society. Essentially, nNature transforms a person so that he re-accesses his mind, individuality, and uniqueness to help mitigate the pain or difficulty encountered.
Accordingly, Wordsworth drew correlations between poetry and the ‘self-actualization’ (think, Maslow) of the mind. Indeed, Wordsworth deemed poetry to be “emotion recollected in tranquility.” And scholars ultimately saw Wordsworth and Basho agreeing that the act of writing poems (or haiku) was soothingly restorative, consequently bringing the poet closer to some measure of therapeutic realization (Wordsworth) or Zen-like revelation (Basho).
Comparable to Basho, Wordsworth embraced simplicity. But Wordsworth’s was reminiscent of childhood, that “magical, magnificent time of innocence [when] an intense bond with nature [still existed],” and when children “[had] access to a divine, immortal world [that they then lose contact with when they] age and reach maturity.” The ache to return to that childlike wonder, innocence, and curiosity compelled Wordsworth to pen poems that celebrate idyllic childhood in the hopes of reviving that lost connection to curative nNature.
So,, as we reflect on those World War I soldiers having a fondness for the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” perhaps what they were finding comfort in is the Christ child being born in the manger – that innocent who would grow up to heal the world with his sacrifice. The symbolism is not lost on us of a tiny light in the world emerging in that dark stable, like that first spark in the darkness from which emerged the entire universe, and like that first ember of inspiration born in the creator-poet’s mind who has touched a bit of the divine to create and birth something of his own as well.
In·ter·punct shares interviews, expositions, poems and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. Like the interpunct, which is a middot used to separate syllables, this blog seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.