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Remembrance Day

by Zettel 

Posted: 13 November 2006
Word Count: 158
Summary: The problem with poetry is to ensure that one's words to do justice to the idea one is trying to express. This falls short. But it tries.

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Remembrance Day

Etched in unforgiving stone
washed in bitter tears
blood red poppies do not atone
across the bitter years
the sadness and the loss
as each November nears
we mourn the glorious dead
as blood-strewn leaves are shed

There is for me no glory
in being simply dead
or killing for one’s country
however badly led
War the lethal custom
to which mankind is wed
that measures love of nation
by how much blood is shed

These Universal Soldiers
really are to blame
for their blind obedience
to fear of social shame
that condemns their precious sons
to replay the lethal game
Old men send the best of us
To die in duty’s name

One hundred years of war
has still not brought us peace
their restless souls accuse us
that we have not claimed release
from the force of selfish lies
whose shameful cries increase
Our debt to the glorious dead
that senseless violence must cease

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Comments by other Members

Jordan789 at 04:44 on 14 November 2006  Report this post
I was taught that rhyming is dead. Not to say that you can't do it, you can write however you want, but it just immediately pops out at me--whether because I was taught it or because there is something in it that I haven't seen done very well since Frost. But I think part of the problem is that so many of the lines used rhyme, and when it was absent, then it aroused in me some apprehension.

Secondly, adjectives are nice to a degree, but they can very easily grow tiresome and read as almost meaningless compared to strong verbs. Action is where we find beauty and boldness in word.

My last complaint, which I'm afraid will strike a very sour chord, is a question of originality in idea. The whole poem seems somewhat redundant and preachy. As if I could break off two or four line sections and post them an anti-war protester's poster.

Zettel at 09:39 on 14 November 2006  Report this post

There is an art in criticism of poetry as well as writing it.


Ambitions of Lisa at 12:33 on 14 November 2006  Report this post

I have to say that I think you have taken a brave approach and I personally think it works very well.

Rhythm and Rhyme are certainly not dead in poetry and it takes much skill and talent to get it right. I think that you have made it work and the rhyming of this piece brings to mind the military marching of the soldiers you have written about.

I also see a realistic message in the poem, which displays meaningfulness and emotion.

I very much enjoyed it.. :)


Zettel at 13:03 on 14 November 2006  Report this post

Thanks for the comments. Even more welcome on this occasion for obvious reasons. I'm glad you got something out of the poem.

Each year I find the remembrance day service moving of course but I wonder whether if we could ask those who died what they would wish to be the form of our remembrance they might say - have party and think of us. Let the children and young people celebrate the joy of living, as that is what we made our sacrifice for. And try harder to prevent more senseless lost lives.

There is every year a striking absence from the 'celebrations' of young people of the very age that vast numbers of the dead were when they died. And with the military bands and hierarchies of power and privilege on show I wonder what solace there is for the recently bereaved loved ones of a soldier in Iraq who perhaps opposed the war and happen not to have a religious faith.

The poem, badly perhaps, tries to suggest that what the dead would want is not a celebration of death but of life.

But as I said the words perhaps do not do justice to the idea. Which is certainly something more than a slogan.

thanks again for the comments. Encouragement always welcome.



Jordan789 at 03:56 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
OKay. Let me clarify a bit and try not to argue for a certain form of poetry. I shall stick to the details.

First stanza: I like the image evoked by the blood-red poppies, and of a graveyard with the names etched in stone. Focusing on the names, rather than the full on image of the graveyard testifies to making the poem more personal, in a pretty sort of way. I would only cut the last two lines, because repeating "blood" draws unnecessary and, in my opinion, vulgar attention to "blood" which seems a bit too much when we're focusing on war.

Second stanza: I don't really feel good about the word "glory" thrown into this poem because it seems simply as the reverse of what a pro-armed forces commercial might say, reading as something like: "For Glory, For Honor, For Your Family, Join the Army." etc. And here we have a simple negation. Second problem I have with this stanza is "however badly it is led" because it seems to change the focus of the poem, slightly, and comes across almost like a bad joke about a priest and little boy, or Michael Jackson joke. I was expecting a rimshot.

I like the conclusion to the stanza, and, I'll admit, even the rhyme, with the measuring of blood compared to the love of the country. I don't necessarily like calling war a "lethal custom" that unites mankind. It seems redundant, only for the sake of rhyming. I'd scratch it and try to work something else.

Similarly, I like how the next stanza ends, with bringing up the idea that old men send the young men off to war, and it might even be veterans in charge of doing just that.

This last thought gives me an idea. I think the first stanza could stand alone and be a successful poem by itself. The light, image driven way it presents a perpetual cycle, which is heavily discussed throughout the rest of the poem. I really feel that the remainder of the poem forces itself into platitudes, whereas the first stanza lightly presents a scene that encapsulates the remainder. And the reader would see the rest.


Jordan789 at 03:58 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
To add on:

After rereading the comment at the head of the poem, I think that maybe too great of an attempt was made to portray an "idea" as the focus of the poem. A task which, I think, can be accomplished more successfully if single time frames are examined. Also, I think you can even keep "blood" in the first stanza twice, if everything else is axed.

James Graham at 15:38 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
I have to say I'm in two minds about this poem - interested in the content - in detail, not just generally because it's about stuff I agree with - but unsure about the way you've treated the subject.

The poem touches on real issues. For example, 'War...that measures love of nation/ by how much blood is shed'. I think this does express simply and effectively the value that's placed on 'the nation' by political leaders; it obscures any other measure of one's love of country, such as love of its landscape or its literature.

The idea of the dead accusing us of still not having seen through the lies (last verse) is telling too. We think, inevitably, of WMD. But I like to think there has been some progress since WW1. There was opposition to the war in 1914, mainly from left socialists and communists; opposition to the Iraq adventure nearly a century later has been much broader based.

The 'old men' too - those who are safe send others into danger. And the 'social shame' that came with conscientious objection, and the courage that was needed to deal with that.

Lots of issues are touched on, issues that are central to our thinking about war. But as I read this poem I can't help wishing for something less generalised, more tied to a specific context from which the ideas could emerge.

An actual Remembrance Day ceremony might offer such a context. I haven't watched the Cenotaph ceremonial on TV for years, but I imagine snapshots of it might allow anti-war feeling and ideas to emerge. Did Blair lay a wreath this year? It seems to me that the presence of political leaders and Royals have always turned it into a power statement, an ideological show. What are we supposed to be remembering, about WW1 for instance? The (temporary) victory of British imperial interests over Germany's imperial ambitions? Or ordinary men and women who were caught up in this power game? All I'm trying to say (and maybe you don't agree) is that such ideas take on more life if they emerge from a specific context - a ceremony, a war photograph, the war experience of someone in one's family.

Some of the comments you make above (in your most recent comment) suggest that very thing - looking directly at a remembrance ceremony, noting the military bands and the absence of young people, and drawing certain ideas and ironies from it.


joanie at 17:34 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
Hi Zettel.
The poem tries to suggest that what the dead would want is not a celebration of death but of life.

I would agree with that sentiment, I think. I was reminded instantly of when I was standing in silence for the July bombers and I could hear the birds singing away ......! I wrote:
No one told the birds.

We stood in silence
to remember those who died;
they sang out in praise
an anthem for the living.

I was more encouraged by their celebration of life than depressed by the recent events.

This is such a huge issue, which is hard to deal with in any medium. I know what you mean when you say you want to write but you wonder whether you have done it justice. It's difficult!

I like the opening stanza of this and agree that it is strong enough to stand alone. I love rhyme and believe that it is far from dead, although I do like strict form if there is precise rhyme, as you have here. It's a personal prefernce, I think, but I would be inclined to keep a rhyming pattern. The first stanza isn't the same as the last, for example.

I enjoyed the read, Zettel, and I'm glad you have approached the subject.


Zettel at 20:30 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
Thanks for the comments.

This poem was prompted by seeing on the cenotaph the 3 words 'the glorious dead'. For the first time I s struck by an ambiguity first that there is nothing glorious about being dead. And everything we know about the first and second World Wars tells us that there was to say the least nothing 'glorious' about the circumstances of most of the deaths of those being remembered. Mostly random, often in obscenely appalling conditions and sadly, frequently pointless and unneccesary.

Neither the veterans who survived, nor I think were we able to speak to them, those who died, would for one moment think in terms of anything glorious. Like James I feel most of these ordinary people were victims of circumstance. What Gwynne Dyer describes as 'War - the lethal custom' (which I can highly recommend). With the serried ranks of power and privilege around the cenotaph, the overwhelmingly military tone of the marching bands etc. Plus the trappings of religion. I found myself wondering - what is there in this for recently bereaved loved ones of those lost in Iraq? If they have no religious faith (a big issue in itself) and were opposed to the war, the only form of remembrance they can shareis surrounded by symbols they either don't agree with or are the very cause of their loss. I was angered to see Mr Blair place his wreath - what on earth must the recently bereaved have felt?

So, the thought progressed, not only did the millions who died lose their lives but they also lost their voice. Those left behind past and present, simply have to believe that the sacrifice was not pointless, in vain. Yet the loved ones of soldiers killed in an illegal war let alone those dead through 'friendly fire' (what an obscene expression that is)are either excluded or they have to buy into the lie of 'glory' celebrations through military rituals shamefully for me, sanctioned by the church.

That said, I think you are right James, to bring home what I want to express, I need to make the poem precisely focused on the particular because it is the general, distorting absorption of the deaths and the experience into the generalities of a false sense of 'patriotism' to whioh I am objecting most . So I think this poem needs a radical re-think. If I get round to it I hope those of you who have found this one provokes thought might give that one a look. These are difficult issues, and distilling them into satisfactory and non-distorting form may be byond my ability we shall see. The anti-war song of Buffy Sainte-Marie 'The Universal Soldier' was always a challenging song. But then it should be.

Thanks again for the comments.

Souchong at 22:56 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
hi zettel
i noticed the refs to the universal soldier. great song. i also felt that the last stanza was kind of reminiscent of the carol 'it came upon a midnight clear'. it seems to me that in many ways u have drawn upon traditional ways and vocabulary for talking about war - an approach which is perhaps alien to many of us now.

i look forward to seeing what you do with this.
best wishes

NinaLara at 08:40 on 17 November 2006  Report this post
I'm very impressed with the amount of comment this has inspired!
I too found the rhyme uncomfortable but the poem held my interest because it was expressing that other great discomfort I feel about remembrance day! I think that the posts above point to the complexity of the and depth of feeling involved here and I think it should be written about.
Jordan mentions a lack of originality - my fear is that poetry has ceased to express political ideas or comment on great events because there is a fear of 'lack of originality'. We all need to accept that there is nothing original left to say - just perhaps represent the world from our particular individual angle of time and space.
I think James is right about focusing in ... I would suggest that you close your eyes and watch the conflicting images go through your head when you think of rememberence day then make a list. It may help you get closer to the contradictions ... expressed so brilliantly by Owen:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

James Graham at 18:55 on 17 November 2006  Report this post
Nina has made a very good point - that poets may be reluctant to comment on world events because of fear of lack of originality. They should take the plunge. Z, there have been some criticisms of your poem since you posted it, and maybe it does need reworking, but the importance of writing this kind of poem on this kind of subject can hardly be overstressed, I think. I hope you'll experiment with the ideas and see what emerges.

As for possible lack of originality, maybe the problem is that the doings of politicians are so lacking in originality! We had the Suez anniversary recently, and that fiasco has been compared (rightly in some ways) with Iraq. Another fine mess. Sometimes you would think history really does repeat itself. The first military action of the First World War was an invasion of Iraq. OK then - if politicians keep on doing the same old stuff, writers have to keep on pointing out the same old absurdities! Writers will do their thing with more originality than politicians anyway.



Z, it's a very telling point you make about families of those killed in Iraq. I suppose in any group of people you would find different feelings and attitudes, but I imagine many of them would feel the Cenotaph ceremonial was a travesty. Especially at the moment when Blair laid his wreath.

Zettel at 00:07 on 19 November 2006  Report this post
Thanks so much for the interest and so many thoughtful comments. So much good advice I felt I had to focus. So the redraft seeks to take James's point about a personal, intimate epicentre for the ideas which if separated from a real person, can seem didactic or preachy.

A comment about rhyme. The pattern here is uneven but intentionally so. I have tried to let the rhyme follow the thought rather than the squeeze the thought into a fixed structure. This less structured form is common to popular songs some of which I find immensely moving. The lack of fixed structure also for me at least, makes the rhymes a little less intrusive and contrived. Only a little.

As for the legitimacy of the spirit of this version. I have known about 6 men of my father's generation who saw extended hand to hand combat and worse - artillery bombardment. All killed and saw death. Very different, one thing united them - they never wanted to talk about their experiences and they dismissed with an impressive silence any kind of gung ho, macho, nationalistic conversations on the topic.

I suppose at heart my poem seeks to bring out the contradiction between the profoundly personal private thoughts of at least some of the veterans and the glorifying tone of the ceremony of which they were a part.

Thanks again for all the comments and the time you have all given this.

Mind you Nina - it's a bit mean quoting a sublime poem from a truly grat poet beside my poor efforts! Then again one can never be reminde enough of Owen.

I'm sure my new one has as many faults as the old one - but I'm not sure I can do much more with it.




Sorry Wilfred - great poet!


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