Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast. Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

laurence_binyonOn an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading.

Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.

Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza – lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” – is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.

Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen – who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice – provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

the handwritten “ode”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams. The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.

Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front – many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.

controversies

Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” – meaning to despise or treat with disregard – or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.

Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”

The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.

But that’s not the only anomaly. In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” – in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.

the sale

Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Michael ondaatje: a lion at the cat’s table

Review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

In English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it. But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner.

ondaatjeIn English all the cool loanwords are German. The catalogue of human emotions would be incomplete without the world-weary melancholy carried by weltschmerz or the self-destructive yearning of sehnsucht. Schadenfreude – to take pleasure in another’s suffering – has proven indispensable, and zugzvang, a beautiful concept derived from chess in which a person is forced to be the author of his or her own destruction, appears everywhere once you’ve learned it.

But Katzentisch comes to English only in translation. Literally “the cat’s table,” it refers to a low table at which the well-heeled feed their pets. Metaphorically it’s the kiddies table, or for big humans it’s the badly lit table in the restaurant corner. In politics and business, the cat’s table is reserved for the office that exists but has lost the authority to act. It is also the title of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel.

The Cat’s Table opens in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was formerly known) in the early 1950s with an eleven-year-old boy boarding the Oronsay, a liner bound for England. At mealtimes he sits at Table 76 – “the least privileged place” in the dining hall – with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, and an eccentric array of adults: among them a frequently tanked pianist who teaches the boys dirty lyrics; a botanist who tends an Ayurvedic garden in the ship’s hold; and a quirky spinster who consumes crime novels and houses pigeons in her jacket.

While the doyens of the Captain’s table “constantly toast one another’s significance,” the boy learns that all that is interesting happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. “It would always be strangers,” the adult narrator reflects, “at the various Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me.”

Seemingly The Cat’s Table courts a biographical reading: both the author and the narrator are named Michael, both were born in Colombo in 1943, both emigrate from Ceylon to England in 1954, both relocate to Canada as young men, and both become feted writers. In his “Author’s Note”, however, Ondaatje insists his “imagined rendering” is fiction, not memoir. It is an unnecessary disclosure: anyone familiar with Ondaatje’s oeuvre will know his project has long been to dissolve the boundaries of fact and fiction. But given the felonious events that transpire on board the Oronsay – sorcery, larceny, murder and more – perhaps a distinction was thought legally prudent.

Whether the author and the narrator share an antipathy toward authority or not, Ondaatje has been dining at the Captain’s table since his second novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize in 1992. Or more precisely, given the cinematic prejudices of our age, Ondaatje was ushered into literary “significance” four years later when Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation by the same name won nine Oscars, two Golden Globes and six BAFTAs.

The skyrocketing effect Minghella’s English Patient had on Ondaatje’s career cannot be overstated. The film became compulsory viewing for the fashion set, stimulating the book’s sales in excess of two million copies worldwide. Both the book and the film, Ondaatje muses in a 1997 interview, acquired “a slightly sacred fog” in the public imagination.

Not surprisingly The English Patient also became a target for satire. Shortly after the film’s release a popular Seinfeld episode pilloried its worthiness, deeming people who didn’t like the movie – as Elaine didn’t – “flinty hearted” and “untrustworthy.” For her aesthetic insurrection Elaine is punished with a trip to Tunisia (the filming location of The English Patient) where she must live in a cave in order to save her job. Similarly in Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Damned (2011), hell is a place where The English Patient plays on eternal loop.

But before afflictions of fame, Ondaatje enjoyed the relative obscurity afforded a poet. Beginning with The Dainty Monsters in 1967, Ondaatje has published a total of eleven books of poetry, earning him the steady admiration of critics and a select but ardent trove of readers. In 1991 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems assembled twenty-five years of Ondaatje’s greatest lyric poems in a tour de force: the title poem – “The Cinnamon Peeler” – which would surely stand among the best erotic love poems in English, as well as the much anthologized “To a Sad Daughter”, “White Dwarfs”, “Last Ink” and the extraordinary elegies for his mother and father, “Light” and “Letters & Other Worlds”, to name a small handful.

Ondaatje’s poetry – like his novels – often intersects with history. His second book, an imagistic suite of poems entitled The Man with Seven Toes, was inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser series of paintings (1947-57) and Colin MacInnes’s brief account of Eliza Fraser’s fascinating but tragic life: shipwrecked off the Queensland coast in 1836, she was captured by aborigines and rescued by David Bracewell, a convict whom she betrays upon arriving in civilization. (Fraser is also the subject of Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves.)

But Ondaatje’s career wasn’t underway until his second book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) – a grab bag of poems, prose, photographs and fictional news stories about sociopathic William “the Kid” Bonney and his gang of killers – fell into the wrong hands.

“The ex-Prime Minister [of Canada] John Diefenbaker was essentially out of a job, but he was a very cantankerous, wonderful old demagogue,” Ondaatje recalls in a 1997 interview. “He read the book, and he just hated it. So he called all the cameras in for a news conference, and he said, ‘This is disgusting!’ There was a picture of me on the front page of the newspaper.

“Only about eight people had bought the book, so it was quite sweet in some way for him to read it,” Ondaatje laughs. “I wasn’t so upset by him disliking the book, but it put me into a tailspin about being semi-known. Even on a small scale, it was difficult not to be self-conscious about being a writer.”

Ondaatje’s early style is challenging but the effects are stunning. Ever evading a master narrative, he tells stories through pieces of song, faded photographs, snatches of conversation. The pieces don’t always meet at the edges, sometimes they overlap, and it’s left to the reader to make the meaning and provide the glue. Ondaatje’s writing never seems to move in straight lines. As Pico Iyer says, “It circles and slants and echoes and returns.”

In 1970 Ondaatje published a monograph on fellow Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen. The two writers share more than an emotional climate – a moody often erotic reverence for violence and beauty – they feed from the same lexicon of wounds, scars, madness, dreams, broken glass, bones, chaos, and kindnesses. Ondaatje offers a description of Cohen’s künstlerroman, The Favorite Game, that could easily serve as an artistic statement for his own practice:

“It has the effectiveness of a long prose poem,” he writes, “with each scene emerging as a potent and enigmatic sketch, rather than a full blown detailed narrative. As in a poem, the silences and spaces, what is left unsaid, are essential to the mood of the book.”

Ondaatje’s novels would, in time, surpass his mentor’s in ambition, sophistication and reach. Alongside The Man with Seven Toes and Billy the Kid, his poetic novel-of-sorts, Coming Through Slaughter – a jazzy, syncopated riff on the short, mad life of legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden – all stand as amphibious texts bridging Ondaatje’s poetry and prose.

In 1982 Ondaatje’s masterwork in prose appeared in the form of a memoir, Running in the Family, which chronicles his return to Sri Lanka to grapple with the lives of his parents: his father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was a tea and rubber-plantation superintendent afflicted with alcoholism; and his mother, Doris Gratiaen, a part-time radical dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan. Both were prominent inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon’s flamboyant if frivolous colonial society. Ondaatje writes:

I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.

Despite his earlier prose works, Ondaatje calls In the Skin of the Lion (1987) his “first novel”. It is also one of his best. Set in Toronto in the 1920s and 30s it imagines the lives of the Macedonian immigrant community who built the city’s bridges and waterworks. Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and lives lost to official history builds a searing narrative even as its language and circular structures pull its telling towards poetry.

Increasingly since The English Patient, Ondaatje’s novels have become less experimental, the shifts in perspective less dramatic, the language more denotative. Anil’s Ghost (2000) follows the life of Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan and forensic anthropologist, working as a Human Rights investigator during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Divisadero (2007) divides its attention between a family in 1970s California and an author in pre-World War I southern France. Both novels are skillfully drawn but neither quite manage the magic of his earlier works.

And so it is with his sixth novel, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s preoccupations and signatory motifs are present in abundance: dogs, thieves, acrobats, tapestries, wounds, dreams, jazz, and poetry. And his eye for the cinematic moment still pulls off a splendid stillness. Each morning of the 21-day passage, the boys wake at dawn to spy on an Australian roller skater who races the perimeter of the deck and showers fully clothed: “When she left we followed her footprints”, the narrator confesses, “which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them”.

A study of one’s childhood is not uncommon in late-career writers. Perhaps having lost much of his childhood to the desperate antics of his parents, Ondaatje is compelled to return to the puzzle of his early years. If Tolstoy, Conrad and Coetzee had not pre-empted him, he says, he would have called his novel Youth.

Yet in stripping back the sophistication of his narrator’s voice to accommodate a child’s perspective, Ondaatje has deprived The Cat’s Table of the force of language that largely carried his earlier works. And in attempting a more straightforward telling, he has exposed his inherent weaknesses with narrative. One wishes he’d held his nerve and stuck to his earlier rhythms that, while difficult, were dazzling.

Ondaatje admits he doesn’t remember the day in 1954 that he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the port of London. In his novel, he imagines Michael is met by his mother but he’s not sure he will recognize her face. He is wearing his first pair of long trousers, socks, and a thin cotton shirt. “You must be cold, Michael,” his mother says, pulling him to her. He can see part of the world to the side of her, the figures rushing past barely aware of him in his mother’s arms, the borrowed suitcase with all he owned beside him.

A reluctant guest or not, Ondaatje has earned his place at the Captain’s table – if not for this novel alone, but for what came before it, and for what we hope might follow.

Originally published under the title ‘The Cat’s Table’. Rev. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Australian Literary Review (October 2011): 23.