Literature of World War I

Literature of World War I

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Robert Casper: Hello. Welcome to the Library
of Congress, everyone. Nice to see you at
noon on a Thursday. My name is Rob Casper. I’m the head of the Poetry
and Literature Center here at the Library, and I’m
honored to present the first of our programs associated
with the Library’s Exhibit, Echoes of the Great War, American Experience
of World War I. I’m going to see,
before I go any further, I want to just check
something else out. I’m just checking. How does it sound like there? Can you hear me okay? All right. This exhibition in the Southwest
Gallery of of the second floor of the library’s Historic
Thomas Jefferson Building across the street examines
the upheaval of World War as Americans confronted it
both at home and abroad. It considers the
debates and struggles that surrounded US
engagement, explores US military and Homefront mobilization
and the immensity of industrialized warfare and
touches on the war’s effects as an international peace
settlement was negotiated, national borders were
redrawn, and soldiers returned to reintegrate into
American society, a theme that Yusef will talk about a little bit later
in his presentation. Today’s event is
presented in conjunction with the library’s
Veteran’s Day programming. This programming is
part of the Library of Congress Veterans History
Projects programming efforts that began on November
7th and will continue on until November 11th. Congress created the Veterans
History Project in 2000 to collect, preserve, and
make accessible the first-hand remembrances of America’s
War veterans from World War I through the most
recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan so that future
generations may hear directly from veterans and better
understand the realities of war. To find out more about the
Library’s Veterans Day program and its World War I exhibit, you can visit our
website, If you want to see our
literary programming, you can go to We also have a signup sheet
in the foyer if you want to join our Events Listserve
and get more information about the future of
literary programming. Before I tell you more about
this event, let me ask you to turn off your cell phones and any other electronic
devices you have that might interfere
with the program. Also, I’d like to let you know that this program is being
recorded for webcast, and your participation
gives us permission to broadcast this event. So, just so you know. The focus of the Poetry and Literature Centers
World War I programming is to link the literature of
the Great War to the poems and stories of today’s
American poets and writers. For our kickoff event, we’ve
asked one of our greatest poets to set the stage for the series. You can read more about Yusef
Komunyakaa in your program, which should be on your chairs,
and you can see his many honors, including a Bronze Star, which
he received as Managing Editor of the Southern Cross newspaper
during the Vietnam War. I first encountered Yusef’s
work over a quarter century ago when a professor
assigned Dien Cai Dau in our Creative Writing
workshop, and I’m excited to say that Dien Cai Dau is
for sale in the back. I will never forget the
experience of reading this book. I’ve seen war through the
beautiful and violent lyricism of We Never Know, and of encountering the Vietnam
War first through facing it, one of the most powerful
poems of our time. I will always be grateful to
Yusef for what he taught me in that book, and I’m thankful
he is here for us today to remind us what
poems can do to contend with man’s most tragic
engagements. Please join me in
welcoming Yusef Komunyakaa. [ Audience Applause ]>>Yusef Komunyakaa: It’s
a great honor to be here. I would like to say upfront
that I’m not a historian, but I’m a poet who
loves history. I’m going to start by reading
some poems from the Great War. The first poem is
entitled, I’m Being Asked to Write a War Poem,
by W.B. Yates. I think it better that in times like these a poet’s mouth
be silent; for in truth, we have no gift to
set a statesman right. He has had enough embattling. Who can please a young girl
and the indolence of her youth, or an old man upon
a winter’s night? I suppose in a certain sense,
Yates’ poem is a warning, but I’m going to just proceed
to a poem entitled the Death of a Soldier by Wallace Stevens. Normally, we don’t associate
Stevens with World War I. Life, contracts, and death is
expected as a season of autumn. A soldier falls. He does not become a three-day’s
personage imposing his separation, calling for
[inaudible] death is absolute and without memorial,
as in a season of autumn, when the wind stops. When the wind stops and over
the heavens, the clouds go; nevertheless, in
their direction. When I think about World War I
and the poetry to rise out of that conflict, that war, that
bloody war, trench warfare, I think of Chassoon [phonetic]. And that’s a poem
of his that’s read in Texan, and it’s called They. I like the fact that it’s
called They and not Me. The bishop tells us
when the boys come back, they will not be the same, for they’re that
fought in a just cause. They lead the last
attack on antichrist. Their comrades’ blood
has brought new right to greed and honorable race. They have challenged death
and dared him face-to-face. We’re, none of us, the same. The boys’ reply, for
George lost both legs and Bill’s stone blind. Poor Jim’s shot through
the lungs and like to die, and Bert’s gone. [Inaudible] Atlantic, you’re
not fine; a chap who serve but hasn’t found some change,
and they’re Bishop said, “The ways of God are strange.” Yes. E. Cummings, I have to
admit that E Cummings was one of the first poets
I engaged with, and I never really associated
him with World War I, but here he is, and a strange
poem of his called Etcetera. My Sweet Old Etcetera, Aunt
Lucy during the recent war could and what is more did tell
you just what everybody was fighting for. My sister, Isabel, created
hundreds and hundreds of socks, not to mention shirts,
fleaproof, ear warmers, etcetera, wristers, etcetera. My mother hoped that
I would die, etcetera, bravely, of course. My father used to
become hoarse talking about how it was a privilege,
and if only he could. Meanwhile, myself, etcetera,
lay quietly in the deep mud, etcetera, dreaming,
etcetera, of your smile, eyes, knees, and your etcetera. Come by insinuation, right. [ Audience Laughter ] And what gets said and what
doesn’t get said, I suppose. I think he’s having fun, really. The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen. That’s another name that really
moves to the forefront always when we think about the
poetry of World War I. The Send-Off. Down the close, darkening
lanes, they sang their way to the siding shed and lined
the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were struck
all white with wreath and spray, as men’s are, dead. Dull porters watched them, and a
casual tramp stood staring hard, sorry to miss them
from the upland camp. Then, unmoved, signals nodded,
and a lamp winked to the guard. So secretly, like wrongs
hushed up, they went. They were not ours. We never heard to which
front they were sent. Nor where if they yet
mock what women sent who gave them flowers. Shall they return to beatings of
great bells in wild trainloads? A few, a few, too few for drums
and yells, may creek back, silent, to village wells
up half-known roads. And I’m just going to
read two more poems; well, one more poem associated
with World War I, and this is slightly
different for the simple reason because we get to hear
the woman’s voice. And that’s very important
because there were 947,000 women who work in the ammunition
plants, and 300 died from TNT poison, or explosions. That’s important to know. Women at Munition Making. This is my Mary Collins. Their hands should minister
unto the flame of life; their fingers guide the rosy
teat, swelling with milk, to the eager mouth of the
suckling babe or smooth with tenderness,
softly and soothingly. The heated brow of the alien
child or stray among the curls of the boy or girl,
thrilling to mother love. But now their hands, their
fingers are coarsened in munition factories. Their thoughts, which should fly like bees among the
sweetest mind; flowers gaining nourishment for
the thoughts to be are bruised against the law, kill, kill. They must take part in defacing and destroying the
natural body which, certainly during
the dispensation in the shrine of
the spirit, O God! Throughout the ages, we
have seen, again and again, men by Thee created canceling
each other, and we have modeled at the seeming annihilation
of Thy work. But this goes further,
taints the fountain head, mounts like a poison through
the Creators every heart. O God, must it anew be
sacrificed on Earth? The question at the end of
the poem is really, I think, a moment of protest,
and I’m thinking about other moments of protest. I’m particularly
thinking of an individual by the name of Charles Young. He had done a simple,
he had wanted to be, he was a full colonel,
and he wanted to be part of the war effort, but he was
returned as a full colonel for the simple reason
because he was black. Now, he goes to prove that he
is agile, that he’s physical fit because he rides 500 miles from Wilberforce,
Ohio, to DC by horse. And Charles Young comes up again
when we think of San Juan Hill because at Wilberforce,
he had been instrumental in training troops that ended up at San Juan Hill
rescuing the Rough Riders. That was in 1898. What is the situation of the
black man and World War I? For me, it’s also
personal, but I’m going to play this little
clip here from a lyric that I wrote a few years ago. And this is about the 369th.>>I go back in time,
the times like this, thinking about my
brothers fighting overseas. Aha, I go back in
time, time like this, thinking about brothers
fighting overseas. [ Music ] Hellfighters of Harlem,
shaking and studying for [inaudible],
study for a number. Doing up the site,
[inaudible] they’ll set freedom. Singing [inaudible], study for
a number, studying for a number. Oh, oh, oh, Jim Crowe over
here, start a war over there.>>In basic training,
they went to hell. Down Spartanburg,
off to World War I with their regimental flags and their French helmets,
down in the trenches. But they crossed the tree line,
not even giving a few inches of the machine gun fire along
the Rhine River, River, River. But when all was said and done,
they had legions of honor, brass shining in the air. He was a kid; men who dare. But and Jim Crowe over here
to fight a war over there.>>Spare the one [inaudible];
spare the one [inaudible].>>It’s like we’re back in
time to times like these. Thinking about the
brothers fighting overseas.>>Singers now; one, two,
[inaudible]; three, four, want to leave [inaudible]
One, two, [inaudible]>>Okay. The reason I
wrote the lyric had to do with having some
history in my psyche that I was wrestling with. First of all, the Hillfighters
of Harlem, the 369th, fought under the French flag. Like Americans fought
under the French flag. I just wrote an introduction
for an anthology inherent in the war, and I talk
about my Uncle Jesse. I’m just going to read a
couple of paragraphs of that. As I reflect, it seems
as if I’m transposed, standing in the atmosphere of
a memory, a feeling, a place. I can see the room. I can hear a voice. Usually, I’m listening acutely. In this memory, time
is sequential. I’m standing in the living
room with my great uncle, where my great uncle is asleep,
and I hear him sob and cry. This is not the first
time I hear him this way. But in this memory,
I am six or seven, and only the way a
child can, I ask, “What are you crying
about, Uncle Jesse?” He rises, sits on the edge
of the couch, takes my hand and says, “I was on a
death detail overseas. Soldiers were dropping
like flies. We cut trenches in the ice. I learned what dog
tags are good for. I put one into the mouth
of each dead soldier, and the other dog
tag in a canvas bag, and we pushed the
dead into ditches until we come back
to dig them up.” Then, he rose a cigarette from
his red canned, a Prince Abbott. My great uncle Jesse was
a veteran of World War I. He fought under the French flag because at the time the US
military was segregated. This image of him
digging up corpses from the trenches
recurred in my psyche. It had already begun to
direct my childhood play where one fights imaginary wars. But perhaps this knowing
also created a real sense of reflection. At only six or seven I wasn’t
eager to pretend to be dead. I suppose, I’m going
to take a slight turn. I’m going to read a poem
about one year after the war; it’s written in 1919, and
you may know this poem, If We Must Die by Claude McKay. If we must die, let it not be
like hogs hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
while round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making their
mock at our accused lot. If we must die, O
let us nobly die, so that our precious blood
may not be shed in vain; then even the monsters we
defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead! O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered
let us show us brave, and for their thousand
blows deal one death-blow! What though before us
lies the open grave? Like men we’ll face the
murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall,
dying, but fighting back! It’s an interesting poem because
if we think about what happens after many of the
solders return. The war ends in 1918. This is also a moment of
great conflict in America, especially if we look at
the history of lynching, and that is what essentially
Claud McKay is responding to. A lot of the individuals who
were lynched are actually vets. The other thing about the poem,
If We Must Die, Churchill, World War II, reads the poem to
the English people, to Britain. He doesn’t say anything about
Claude McKay writing it. But it’s an interesting moment
because the poem has a life out of its context, you
know, and that is important. I suppose — I’m going to
read a few of my poems. I’m going to read a few
poems from War Horses. I’m going to read from a section
called, it’s a strange title, Love in a Time of War, but I think you can
believe in that, right. Here the old masters of Shock
and Awe huddle into War Room, talking iron, fire and sand,
alloy, and nomenclature. Their hearts lag
against the bowstring as they daydream
of Odysseus’s bed. But to shoot an arrow
through the bull’s eye, the 12 axes lined up in a row is
to sleep with one’s eyes open. Yes, of course, there stands
lovely Penelope like a trophy, still holding the brass
key against her breast. How did the evening star
fall into that room? Lost between plot and loot,
the plucked string turns into a lyre, humming praises
and curses to the unborned. I want to say, okay,
here we are. When our hands caress
bullets and grenades or linger on the turrets and luminous
wings of Reconnaissance planes, we leave glimpses of ourselves
on the polished hardness. We surrender skin, hair,
sweat, and fingerprints. The assembly lines
hum to our touch, and the grinding wheels record
our laments and laughter into the bright metal. I touch your face, your breast, the flower holding
a world in focus. We give ourselves to each other,
letting the workday slide away. Afterwards, lying
there facing the sky, I touch the crescent-shaped
war wound. Yes, the oldest prayer is
still in my fingertips. Someone’s beating a prisoner. Someone’s counting red leaves
falling outside a clouded window in a secret country. Someone holds back a river, but the next rabbit jab makes
him piss on the stone floor. The interrogator orders the man to dig his grave
with a teaspoon. The one he loves, her name
died last night on his tongue. To revive it, to take his
mind off the electric wire, he almost said, There’s
a parrot in a blue house that knows the password,
a woman’s name. I said I wouldn’t write
about Vietnam anymore, and I found myself thinking
about the 14, 15 young black men who threw themselves on grenades
in Vietnam, and I’m still trying to make some sense out of that. Where does it come from? It’s not rehearsed;
it’s not practiced. Maybe you can help
me, but I’m going to read this poem
called Grenade. There’s no rehearsal to turn
flesh into dust so quickly. A hair trigger, a cocked hammer
in the brain, a split second between man and infamy. It lands on the ground. A few soldiers duck, and the
others are caught in a half-run, and one throws himself
down on the grenade. All the watches stop; the
flash, smoke, silence; the sound fills the whole day. Flesh and earth fall into
the eyes and mouths of men; a dream trapped in midair. They touch their legs and arms,
their groins, ears and nose and saying, what happened? Some were crying;
others were laughing. Some are almost dancing. Someone tries to put the
dead man back together. “He just dove on the
damn thing, sir!” The flash, smoke, silence. The day blown apart. For those who can walk
away, what is their burden? Shreds, a flash, and
bloody rags gathered up and stuffed into a bag. Each breath belongs
to him; each song, each curse; every prayer is his. Your body doesn’t belong
to your mind and soul. Who are you? They remember the man
left in the jungle; the others who owe their
lives to this phantom. Do they feel like you? Would his loved ones remember
him if that little park, a statue erected in
his name didn’t exist, and does it enlarge their lives? You wish he’d lied down
in that closed coffin and not wandered the streets or
enter your bedroom at midnight. The woman you love,
she’ll never understand. Who would? Do you remember what
he used to say, “If you give a kite too much
string, it’ll break free.” That unselfish certainty. But you can’t remember
when you began to live his unspoken dreams. How are we doing for time? Maybe questions. Maybe a dialogue.>>I think that our
reading is up. I’m going to take that reading
just to ask the first question, which is, it gets at our heart
though while we read this [inaudible] series. You began by reading some
things from [Inaudible]. To engage here, can you talk
a little bit about [inaudible] and War Horses and how
those poets and poems matter to you connected to that
work, how you might have felt, continuing the kind of
theme [phonetic] versions of those poems were engagement. Yusef Komunyakaa: Well,
it’s interesting, with, especially with Yates,
because as a teenager, I would read Yates to my
cousin, and don’t even ask me where that came from, but
that was the situation. But I never really thought of
Yates as a war poet in any way; and yet, when I go back
and look at his work, I do see flourishes; I
do see moments there. Even with the automatic
writing as such, you know. But when I started writing,
okay, I thought I would write, not about Vietnam
but poems generated through my imagination, especially when we
think its realism. Those were the poets
I was really reading, the surrealist poets, and also
some of the Negritude poets, such as images there,
[inaudible]. How did I get to the war poems? I’ll tell you exactly how. I was in Louisiana, and it
was a summer; it was August, and I was renovating a
house, and what I liked to do if I’m doing physical labor, I like physical labor,
especially carpentry. I keep a pad of paper close by,
and I would descend the ladder and write a line down, and I found myself
writing a poem titled, Somewhere near Phu Bai, and I just couldn’t stop writing
the Vietnam related poems. I said I would stop
writing those poems as such. Yes? [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>Yusef Komunyakaa:
Somewhere near Phu Bai. The moon cuts through night
trees like a circular saw, white hot, and the guard’s shot. I leaned on the sandbags,
taking aim at whatever. Hundreds of blue still
stars cut a path, fanning out, shiver
for a second. If anyone’s there,
don’t blame me. I count the shapes ten meters
out front over and over, making sure they’re
always there. I don’t dare blink an eye. The white painted back of the Claymore mines
like quarter moons. They say Victor Charlie
will paint the other sides and turn the blast towards you. If I hear a noise, will I push
the button and blow myself away? The moon grazes treetops. I count the Claymores again. Thinking about buckshot
kneaded into the plastic C4 of the brain, counting
sheep before I know it. So, yeah, that’s the
point that got me to the Vietnam-related poems. Yes?>>So, my question
is [inaudible]. So, my question is I’ve been to European [inaudible]
Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes.>>Many of them said I never
thought about talking of it. Some of them said I never
want to talk about this. And some of them talk about
it and say I never want to talk about it again.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes. Yes.>>When you wrote those
poems, was it cathartic, or was it like driving or
drove into a bed of oil where everything
came [inaudible]?>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Well,
yes, everything came forth for the simple reason because
I think it had something to do with the way my mind works; not
to talk about things as much as to visit them again and again through a severe silence,
a kind of meditation. But I think it has a lot
to do with where I grew up in Louisiana, a small
town, that I would venture out into the trees, into
nature, and I took in all of those elements; and
perhaps, in a certain sense, I was rehearsing being a poet. I’m particularly thinking
about the small things, how we take in the small
things, not the monumental, but those small things
that are accumulative, and before you know it,
we have a surprising world at our hands, you
know, the psyche. That’s what I feel. I don’t know if I, if I’d grown
up in the city, I don’t know if I would write
poems in the same way. It would be entirely different because we internalize
a terrain, and that internalized
terrain becomes an overlay for how we experience
and see the world. So, that’s what I believe. Yes?>>Yes. Just to continue
on that note, could you describe your writing
process a little bit more because as you mentioned when
you were doing carpentry work and you have a pencil
and paper near you. How do you write a poem? Are you involved in a workshop? Do you write a poem and share it with somebody else
and get the feedback? Do you write a poem five, six, or seven times before
it’s considered a poem? Just describe the process
by which you write a poem.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: I often
say that I love the principles of jazz and proposition. So, I write everything down. Upon initially maybe 100 lines, and I very systematically cut
it back to 40 lines or 30 lines. Sometimes, I have the allusion
that a poem is complete that I return to
and cut it in half. Also, revising, sometimes I
start at the bottom of the poem and read the poem
back up through and see how many exit
points are there, places where the poem
possibly could end because I think we want the
reader to know everything, when in fact maybe that’s
the wrong direction to go because the reader is also
an instrument of inquiry, of genius, and a cold
creator of meaning. The reader is cold
creator of meaning. Yes. I believe that. Yes?>>Could you about with your
fellow Americans how you combine surrealism and use it? I’m thinking about folks
like you are experienced.>>Yusef Komunyakaa:
It starts with define, and I read everything
aloud as I’m writing. So, I think maybe
that’s part of it. Also, if we think about it, I remember Richard Hugo saying
something very important. He said, “You know, I write
poems in long and short lines,” And I didn’t know what he was
talking about when I first heard that until I really thought
about it over and over. What he was talking about
essentially was a kind of modulation, the movement of
those lines across the page, not just, you know, straight
down, a vertical plunge with a certain number
of syllables per line because we don’t really
think or speak that way. To just hear it; you
don’t have to dance it, but you can hear it, right. Language is our first music. Language is our first music,
and the body is a resonator. Yeah.>>So, if you wouldn’t
mind talking about why someone has read, and someone’s not
a great [inaudible] because having had theories
about both Americanism and the ways [inaudible]>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yeah. I, yes. You know,
I’ve gone to Chicago and there’s a little park
dedicated to Milton Olive, and there’s a photograph of him. He’s 18 years old. He went to job school, and I still have real
difficulty trying to go there. What was he thinking? Because I’m quite convinced
that if a grenade landed here, who would be the volunteer? Most people would run. That would be not
to cover the grenade with one’s body, you know. And so, but you have a theory.>>It’s in the margin that [inaudible] a life
well lived is worth a life that has meaning.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes. Yes, yes. And also,
it depends on how that individual has
been initiated into the family or community. I think that’s part of it,
maybe, because it’s impulsive. Yeah.>>And I guess that’s
as good a reason as any.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes.>>[Inaudible] reason to that
that he had carried the word, covering the bodies
of their children and some answers it like that.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yeah.>>Actually, what you said, what
you just said, I was thinking about that very much that if
I don’t have family members who were in the military,
but you know, reading things that one reads and watching
children get in wars, you can’t get into a field
that and just start thinking of how much it’s, you know, these other people
and their families. They have their back;
we have their back, and are still are going to be some individual source
get a real trade [phonetic].>>Yusef Komunyakaa:
Yes, of course, yes.>>But I think it’s much more
likely because, like you say, they’re in the community
as well, you know.>>Yusef Komunyakaa:
[Inaudible] Yes?>>I’m very touched by the idea
of the generosity of the person who just like support others. Do you think it has
anything to do with age? You at times [inaudible]
that [inaudible]>>Yusef Komunyakaa:
That’s right.>>But as you say, the
commanders are older but the soldiers
themselves are young. I wonder if they’re, that
conflict [inaudible]. And actually, it is a kind
of idealism [inaudible]>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes.>>How [inaudible]>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yes. They are very young, usually,
and it doesn’t have — well, in the case of the 14
or 15, throwing themselves on grenades, from First
Lieutenant all the way down to Private. But yeah, they’re all young. [Inaudible] Yes?>>[Inaudible] all of those?>>But even in that calm, it
was, a sturdy mind was for those who — [inaudible] for those who could walk away,
what is our blessing? Because I think that’s
all of us.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yeah.>>And also possible
provocations whatever war our country engages in.>>Yusef Komunyakaa: Yeah. What is that burden? That is what I felt, and I’m
quite sure other veterans felt some –>>It’s not that [inaudible].>>Yusef Komunyakaa: As
well, yes, but it’s a burden.>>Well, I hate to
[inaudible] but these. Okay, thank you so much Yusef. [ Audience Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

local_offerevent_note September 30, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *