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TreeHouseLetter feature: Poetry for Emergencies
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Poetry is a way of getting something right in language. Nemerov
It’s a batshit crazy world, especially for our friends of freedom in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have everything at stake. From a recent update, they have 137 civilian and military deaths, 304 injured, and over one million fleeing the homeland, though the numbers may be higher.* When the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky received an offer to evacuate from the United States, he replied with the now famous, I need ammunition, not a ride.
That’s a one-liner, a paraprosdokian, used with comic effect. He was letting folks know where he stood and mocking critics and politicians who would run for safety.
Seeing how the evacuation in Afghanistan played out, it’s no surprise he skipped on that offer. What may surprise Europe and Russia is the willingness to risk everything, when that means losing the homeland, life as the Ukrainians know it, and his own life. Zelensky has a good way with the crowd, drawing on experience in theater and comedy and his use of language, to muster support and belief in the cause, to motivate.
That’s called leadership.
He understands the value of effective communication, especially in dire times. When you live next to a bully, you better be ready to fight. There’s no limit to the power of rhetoric and its skillful use at the podium, but it is only effective when spoken by a man of character.
How do words make a difference? Here was one statement with the power to galvanize support across countries. I need ammunition, not a ride. My senior in high school talked about it at the dinner table; I heard a radio commentator talking about it with his son who wanted a shirt with Zelensky on it.
The Ukrainian President walked into the trenches, took selfies in the capital, and he’s out there and in the fight because he wants to let his people know that he is all in. Character.
Don’t think for a moment, that he’s not scared. I imagine he is. And I imagine that his family is scared too.
Poetry for Emergencies: Rhetoric and War
This brings me to Poetry for Emergencies. I have two poems to share from Howard Nemerov, a contemporary to such luminaries as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, household names in poetry circles.
Here’s what makes Nemerov different. His grandparents were Eastern European Jews and their children had such success in the United States that they provided Nemerov with a privileged childhood, fancy prep schools, and high living. He refused to help run the family department store and opted instead to write, which was a great disappointment to his father. After graduating from Harvard in 1941, he volunteered to serve as a pilot in World War II, flying bombing missions for the Royal Canadian Air Force and then for the United States Army Air Force.
After the war he wrote his first collection of poetry and began teaching. He distinguished himself again and again, as recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, as the U.S. Poet Laureate.
How to tell poetry from prose? I think Howard Nemerov knows. His notable poem helps distinguish this slippery place. Six lines long, it consists of a quatrain with rhyming pattern, A-B-A-B, and a couplet. Here it is.
Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry
By Howard Nemerov
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
Can you see them, the birds feeding in the drizzle? The silver aslant turning to random, white, and slow. You simply couldn’t tell, but you know it changed when the flakes flew instead of fell.
It’s brilliant, luminous, with that wispy wintry quality of watching something solid through a mess of weather. Alliteration and assonance in the words feeding and freezing. The movement of drizzle and the movement of snow. So like prose and so like poetry.
This next poem is one of Nemerov’s most popular and it ruminates on the war dead among his battle buddies, the men in the air, something his peer could not do. Revered poet Robert Lowell evaded the war, petitioning President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a letter to explain why he was a conscientious objector.* This is an essential difference between the poets and relevant today when the plight of a free nation needs a leader who has both the rhetoric and the courage when the bullets are flying.
A short four stanzas long, the poem includes the phrase Per ardua ad astra, which is the Latin Motto of Britain’s Royal Air Force. It means, Through strife to the stars.
The airmen in World War II ran a risky business and many died, as much as 46 percent in the Royal Air Force and nearly a quarter of U.S. deaths overall.* Close to a quarter of all World War II deaths for the United States.
The War in the Air
By Howard Nemerov
For a saving grace, we didn’t see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.
Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,
Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.
That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness’s sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.
*Per ardua ad astra is the Latin Motto of Britain’s Royal Air Force:
Through strife to the stars.”
Nemerov’s friends and fellow airmen died up there in the sky and they didn’t see the blood and gore on the ground. Their ghosts seldom come back because, hitting the earth and the incompressible sea didn’t leave much behind. These were the men who had no graves but only epitaphs.
Was it the war we won? What of the losers–those who weren’t so lucky–who we left out there. In the air, in the empty air. Empty for so many things, sadness and that hollow feeling, the lack of the body for the survivors to mourn over, the sadness of a mission when it is over.
The phrase is an echo from the end of the first stanza: In the clean war, the war in the air. And the last stanza, the end of the poem: In the air, in the empty air.
The Warrior Poet and the Soldier Scholar
Poetry or prose, the collective and extensive body of Nemerov’s work reflects the mind of a Warrior Poet. His wife said, “Howard really started to educate himself after he became a teacher. In spite of his Harvard degree, he felt there were gaps in his knowledge and he determined to fill them. I’ve never seen a man study so.” Maybe he is a Poet Warrior, one who has left the profession of arms to tackle full on the art of poetry.
As for Ukraine, the world is learning more about this stalwart at the helm. What I did not know was that Zelensky was educated as a lawyer, a man of letters. His parents were Jewish and his great grandfather was murdered in the holocaust, along with his three brothers.
For such evil and brutality, letters alone are not enough. The courage of the soldier alone is not enough. Mens sana in corpore sano is the Latin phrase for a healthy mind in a healthy body, or sound mind in a sound body. Leadership requires both, and moral leadership must have a foundation of character.
Nemerov disobeyed his father to lead the literary life. After his studies at Harvard, he volunteered to serve his country. He was a Soldier Scholar. A Warrior Poet. All the world needs such a man.
We watch Zelensky from the comfort of our own hard-won shores of democracy. But that is a fragile and fleeting thing, and we are rooting for Ukraine.
*Civilian Death Toll in the Ukraine at least 102 but Feared Higher – U.N. (Reuters, FEB 28, 2022)
*A Million People Have Fled Ukraine as Russia nears Takeover of Port City, by Jerome Socolovsky and Jonathan Franklin, NPR Mar 3, 2022
*Excerpt of Robert Lowell’s letter to FDR which leaked and was reported on front page of NYTimes. He was sentenced to prison for one year and one day for his refusal to serve. “Dear Mr President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me in your communication of August 6, 1943 for service in the Armed Force. I am enclosing with this letter a copy of the declaration which, in accordance with military regulations, I am presenting on September 7 to Federal District Attorney in New York. […} You will understand how painful such a decision is for an American whose family traditions, like your own, have always found their fulfillment in maintaining, through responsible participation in both the civil and military services, our country’s freedom and honor.”
Lowell’s father was a U.S. Naval Commander so I can imagine how such news affected the family. Later, Lowell vehemently opposed the Vietnam War. In WWII, war deaths amounted to 405,399 with total casualties over 1,076,245. Sitting in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut was likely a life-saving convenience for his conscientious objection to the draft. Meanwhile, 16 million other men and women such as Howard Nemerov (in one of the most perilous jobs, a pilot) would serve in the Armed Forces and carry the mantle for him. When, on such a scale of atrocity and evil as perpetrated in the Holocaust, would Lowell have found a war just and moral enough for him to serve?
*U.S. Airmen Made Up Nearly One-Quarter of U.S. Deaths Overall, about 100,000 U.S. airmen died in World War II, representing nearly one-quarter of total U.S. fatalities. The material costs of maintaining an air force were likewise astronomical, with the United States losing almost 100,000 of its 300,000 planes produced during the conflict. (George H.W. Bush’s Role in WWII Was Among the Most Dangerous, World War II pilots were shot down at an alarming rate—including Bush. by Jesse Greenspan, History.com FEB 13, 2019)