Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Channel Firing

While “the glebe cow drooled” may be my favorite half-line of poetry ever (I exaggerate, but only a little), what I really love about Hardy’s poem is the way he inserts humor into what is, at heart, a dark and dreary poem.

After all, the theme of the poem is fairly well summed up by Parson Thirdly, who says “Instead of preaching forty year… / I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.” After all, if the whole point of abstinence is to set a good example that’s not going to be followed, one might as well get a little enjoyment out of the deal.

I also like the humor in the early lines, where Hardy describes the way the various animals react to the great guns firing off in the English Channel, especially since I think they’re also symbolic of various groups who existed in pre-WWI Britain (or the world, for that matter).

While drearisome
arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into their mounds,

The glebe cow drooled.

I think Hardy himself was one of the wakened hounds, and this poem was a bit of his howling. He saw the portents of war–it’s not as though the hostilities that erupted after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand came out of nowhere. The major European powers had been rubbing up against each other for a long while. That there hadn’t been an open war between them in a while was as much a matter of luck as anything.

I look at the mouse who drops the altar-crumb as those people who saw war coming, but instead of raising an alarm, ran for cover so quickly that they even left behind food. These are the displaced that appear in every war. The worms are withdrawing as well, but into their mounds, ready to feed on the aftermath.

And then there’s my favorite, the glebe cow, or the cow that grazed on the land beside the parsonage. It’s drooling, completely unconcerned by what’s going on around it, and a more cynical person than me might think that Hardy was taking a shot at the Church of England by making it a glebe cow in particular. Okay, I’m that cynical, or at least I’m hopeful. Hardy was at least doubtful about the traditional role of God, and while he might not have been taking a direct shot about the Church’s role in promoting nationalism, it could certainly have been a subconscious one.

I think Hardy’s doubt about God’s presence also comes out in stanza six:

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do, for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

At the very least he’s questioning the idea of the Judgment Day, a primary doctrine in the Christian faith, and that ties in well with his theme, which is that nothing really changes for man. We’ve been “striving strong to make / red war yet redder” since the first time a proto-human discovered that you can kill prey more effectively with a rock than you can with your bare hands. Our movement toward suitcase nukes and unmanned aerial drones with missiles is simply that of better technology. No wonder Parson Thirdly sighed.

September 27, 2008 Posted by | Channel Firing, Thomas Hardy | Leave a comment

To Lucasta, About That War

Last week, as I was prepping for my current section of poems about war and politics this semester, I came across a poem by John Ciardi that I’d never seen before, the one this post is named for. It’s a clear reference to Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” a fairly abstract piece that casts Lucasta as a symbol of chastity and purity, the perfect woman for whom Lovelace must prove himself worthy of by having an affair with a mistress named war. It’s a poem I teach almost every semester, not because I have any great fondness for it, but because it serves as a nice contrast to the more reality-based poems that come out of World War I and afterward.

Ciardi’s poem falls into that latter category–his Lucasta may be just as pure and chaste as Lovelace’s, but Ciardi’s speaker has no illusions about his lack of traditional honor. He says “I did / what booze brought me, and it wasn’t you.” Of course, Ciardi’s speaker isn’t a nobleman running off to claim a king’s favor. He is, rather, “a swag-man, under the clock,” on a ship headed for Europe, “over the hump where the wolf packs hid.”

Ciardi’s soldier isn’t in it for the glory, which is just as well, because there’s precious little of it to be had. He’s an earthy type, dealing with each day as it comes, and drowning what memories he can in drink or sex, and his mistress certainly isn’t battle.

Ciardi’s poem ends with a clang, shutting the door pretty tightly, but given what he’s responding to, I don’t think that’s a total mistake:

and the gulls blew high on their brinks,
and the ships slid, and the surf threw,
and the Army initialed, and you
were variously, vicariously, and straight and with kinks
raped, fondled, and apologized to–
which is called (as noted) war. And it stinks.

So it’s not a surprising end to the poem, and it doesn’t offer much room for the reader to roam around, but I don’t know that it needs to offer that room. The thing about war poems, I’ve found in my limited experience with them, is that the ones that glorify it are always dishonest, and the ones that reject it completely are often simplistic. Poems like this one, and “Dulce et Decorum Est” for example, aren’t so much anti-war poems as they are poems that seek to be honest about the ugliness of war. They don’t take a stand and say “war is wrong”–the poets both volunteered for military service, after all–but they do demand that people be honest about what war is like, and not glorify it or hide it behind abstracts and euphemisms.

September 26, 2008 Posted by | John Ciardi, Lucasta, Richard Lovelace, war poetry, Wilfred Owen | Leave a comment

Good cover letter advice

My old friend Chet (Alan to pretty much everyone else) is an editor at Relief, and he just posted some advice on cover letters. Some of it is specific to their journal, since it’s a Christian journal, like this piece.

Do not tell us that God wants us to publish you.

Lots of people tell us we should accept a story because God told them to write it. Some imply—or even say—that if we don’t accept a story we’re going against His wishes. Now, we certainly believe that the Spirit can move in people when they write, and that God’s hand, especially when requested, is capable of guiding creativity. This fact alone, however, is not a free pass to publication. And telling an editor up front that they’re sinning if they don’t publish you is a really good way to bias your reading.

I will freely admit, however, that the reason they published me was because I threatened to infect them with my atheist cooties unless they gave in.

P.S. The rest of the advice really is top-notch as well, no matter who you’re submitting to.

September 10, 2008 Posted by | Alan Ackmann, Relief | Leave a comment