John Allan Wyeth, Ezra Pound & the random particularity of war

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reducedExcerpted from Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

wyethalone_cropped2_trans            Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”


BJ Omanson

Haunting old bookstores and how I discovered a lost classic of WWI literature

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reduced

From Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“Of the countless times I have drawn a dusty old  book from a dim shelf in a used-bookstore during the past forty years or so, only once can I claim to have discovered an unknown classic of American literature. Not that I recognized it as such at the time. Not even now, on the eve of its re-publication by a university press, can its status as a lost classic be said to be a matter of general perception. But— I rush ahead of myself.  Let me begin at the beginning.

Ten minutes walking distance from our house in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the early 1990s, stood a two-story used-bookstore of the old style: several thousand worthy, out-of-print titles of history, literature, science, travel, art, music and the like, in a 19th-century brick storefront at the periphery of the old downtown, along a high embankment over-looking Decker’s Creek. There were no romances on its shelves, no self-help books, no celebrity autobiographies, no junk. Very few paperbacks. No helpful salespeople or progressive muzak to endure, no Starbucks, free wifi, best-seller displays or any other such irritating “amenities.’  It was still in that golden, Arcadian, pre-digital age, with well-worn overstuffed chairs in out-of-way corners, a foot-stool and ladder for the high shelves and a dozing cat on the window-seat. A few dozen bins of paper ephemera, and shallow drawers of old prints and maps. If you wished to come in for two or three hours of undisturbed browsing, not a single soul would say a word to you. Or if you were in the mood for some wayward, discursive, off-beat conversation about books or any other subject under the sun, the old gent behind the counter was generally good for it— at least until the dawn of the computer age when every bookseller in the country was abruptly faced with the necessity of putting his entire stock online. As soon as that happened, the conversation dried up. The colorful old codger behind the desk was reduced to a sullen automaton jabbing a keyboard and endlessly cursing. Once computers arrived, like an alien invasion, the old havens of dust and suspended time, of relaxed and literate conversation, were facing the sunset.

I describe all this because it was the setting for my discovery. By the early 1990s I had been reading the poets of the First World War seriously for a quarter of a century— poetry, biographies and criticism—and had a personal library of over a hundred volumes just about the poetry of the war. It was part of a much larger library which filled my office (dubbed “the Dugout” by my wife) in which every square inch of wall space from floor to ceiling, and even covering the windows, was hung with equipment from the war: helmets, gas masks, cartridge belts, canteens, and even a Model 1917 McClellan saddle, as well as rusted barbed wire, rifle barrels, shell casings, bayonets, forks, tin cups and other relics dug from French woodlands and fields. But most of all the walls were covered with books on nearly every aspect of the war: Western Front, Eastern Front, Homefront, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, Africa and Italy— books on the ground war, sea war and air war. There were books on movements against the war, and on John Reed and the Russian Revolution. But it was the literature and art of the First World War which fascinated me most of all, especially the poetry.

So I remember very well the afternoon that I pulled a certain thin volume off a high shelf in Wolf’s Head Books. I had been over their WWI section more times than I could count and had looked into each book in that section with some care. Every WWI title that came into my hands was a title I considered buying and, never having sufficient funds for all the books I needed, I took my time looking each one over as a prospective purchase. I knew, or thought I knew, every title in that section. I was doing research for a book about my grandfather’s unit in France in 1918, and was especially eager to add more American titles to my working library. But beyond that particular project, I was still intently focused on the poetry of the war, and on that day I found an American poet of WWI that I had never even heard of.

wyeth1

          It was a thin black book with faded spine and lettering worn off, which is probably why I had passed over it until then. (picture to left shows copy with dust jacket).  From the moment I opened it, I was intrigued. I had never heard of John Allan Wyeth, or his book, This Man’s Army, but that in itself was not too unusual. I had turned up dozens of nondescript volumes of American war poems, published in small runs by obscure publishers, and even more often self-published. It was a time in history when poetry was enormously popular, and when amateur poets from all classes and backgrounds were as numerous as leaves in a forest. The number of books of war poems published during and immediately after the war was immense, and I had never failed to discover one or two new ones with each passing year. So holding another such book in my hands was not especially noteworthy. But my first skim through the book told me I had found something unusual. For one thing, it was a sizeable collection of individual poems, and they were all located in France, during the war, with place-names for titles and in chronological order. No other book of war poetry I could think of employed such a systematic and documentary arrangement. It was laid out like a soldier’s diary. I scanned the list of French towns and place-names, and as soon as I saw Chipilly Ridge I guessed that the poet had been with the American 33rd Division. Later investigation would bear this out.

What caught my attention most of all was that the entire book was a single sonnet sequence. I had been interested in sonnet sequences for a number of years, as it happened, and had only recently completed a sequence of fourteen sonnets describing my grandfather’s experiences at Belleau Wood. Wyeth’s sequence, however, was over fifty sonnets long and, reading through just a few of them at random, indicated that not only were they highly skilled, but unusually innovative as well. What was most exciting was that they were written, not in an elevated, formal tone, but in a cool, concise, dispassionate voice, spiced with slangy soldiers’ dialogue, French villagers’ patois, and filled with as many small particulars of life at the front as any of the finest soldier-diaries I had read.”


BJ Omanson

Life and Death in Spoon River Country

StarkCountyPoems_cover

Last Stand

When he woke in a cloud of pain to find
that he’d been installed in a narrow bed
in a strange room, a part of his mind
returned to the morning he lay half-dead
in the Argonne Forest, awaiting help,
expecting deliverance, counting upon
a fellow Marine— but no such hope
supported him now. He was on his own.
He ripped that abomination, that tube
and needle, ripped it out of his vein
and, laying hold of the lamp like a club,
he raised a thunderous shout till a rain
of running feet on linoleum poured
indignantly down the hall to his door.

Like Bowie near death at the Alamo,
propped against pillow with pistol cocked,
the old man waited for faces to show
in the open door and launched his attack,
hurling bedpan, lamp and telephone
at the scrambling nurses. They had him packed
and escorted home within the hour.
That evening, dug in like a cornerstone
on his own farm, resolutely locked
against all reason, lord of his tower,
he defied his family’s threats and pleas
till they crow-barred the door and found him dead,
draped in a coat, sitting upright in bed,
a Winchester rifle across his knees.
~ ~ ~ ~

Nowhere to Nowhere

When they sold off the farm she took the child
and caught a bus out of town— as for him,
with everyone gone and everything grim,
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
doused them in kerosene, struck a match
and watched as they burnt to ashes, watched
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
heading god-knows-where and he didn’t care—
he was down to nothing, a gypsy’s fare—
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
down to a bone-jarring ride on a train
through country dying and desperate for rain,
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Proprietress of the Party Line

It wasn’t so much that she listened in
on our every call, it was that she took
not the slightest trouble to mask the din
and clatter of pots and pans as she cooked,
or bothered to set the receiver down
as she bellowed out the door to her boys
or cursed a pig off the porch. All the town
had to talk above or around the noise
of Lucinda’s chaotic life, and yet,
we’d not have embarrassed her on a bet
by letting her know we knew she was there—
the dullness and drill of her daily fare
had left her, like most of us, deadly bored;
whenever she blew off steam, we just paused
and held our tongues till the turmoil passed:
we wouldn’t want her to miss a word.

* * * * *

The Prodigal

In the end the thing that disturbed him most,
the thing he remembered most through the years,
was when he returned to the family place,
to the hard unforgiving acres where
his father still farmed, and recalled again
the inherent knowledge he once possessed
simply by being his father’s son—
a knowledge foregone, consigned to the past,
till he saw it rise up in his father’s face
as a look of reproach: that nothing gained
by talking has worth, that cattle and land
are the only wealth befitting a man;
that a landless man is like Adam cast
from the Garden, shamed, and forever lost.

* * * * *

There Are Stories

There are stories you know without knowing quite
how it is you know them, stories without
any point to speak of, except the point

of their own peculiar strangeness, stories
as empty of purpose as any abandoned
barn in these barren fields, enduring

against all likelihood or good reason.
One such story took place around here
a lifetime ago. An old couple died—

whether, as may be, by Providence
or simply by luck— they died, either way,
on the very same day. He died before lunch.

The daughters decided to tell her nothing.
She appeared to take no notice of sharing
her bed with a corpse, except to complain

of his icy feet. She was dead before dark.
And that’s all there is to that story.
No one recalls anymore who they were.

%d bloggers like this: