By the time I have a substitute this coming Tuesday, my advanced class will have hit the halfway point of our latest novel, Erich Maria Remarqe’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This is the fourth year I’ve taught the novel (though the first time I’ve taught it to an advanced-level class) and I’ve always done the same thing when we hit the halfway point, which is take a short break and cover some World War I-era poetry and some other material from the period–both literary and historical.
The reason for the break is practical because chapters seven and eight of the novel are massive and while I gave the class a reading schedule when I passed out copies of the book a few weeks ago, you can’t assume that everyone sits down and goes and read the novel that very night. It’s also a break designed to be helpful to better understand the war itself, as while Remarque’s voice is virtually unmatched, I always like to show other perspectives.
Enter the poetry of World War I, which has gotten a bit of the short shrift in recent years, especially as there are many high school English classes that barely touch poetry at all, and those that do tend to go with the classic Brits or modern Americans. Don’t get me wrong, I love modern American poetry–a couple of weeks ago, this same class made a valiant effort at breaking down Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”–but what I love about some of the poetry I use from the First World War is that quite a bit of it comes not from people who had MFAs from Ivy League schools are were part of the Iowa Mafia, but from actual soldiers (much like Remarque and his novel).
On Tuesday, I’ll have the class complete a worksheet that goes along with five poems. The first is what I consider requisite when reading the poetry of the First World War: Lt. Col. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” The other four I picked because they are by two poets who are in direct contrast with one another: British soldier and author Wilfred Owen and American “People’s Poet” Edgar Guest. The specific poems I’ve chosen are Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and “The Last Laugh,” and Guest’s “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” and “Thoughts of a Soldier.”
Now, I’m sure that the word in the last paragraph that made some people recoil in horror and maybe even go all Scanners was “worksheet.” It is the bane of every “forward-thinking,” “technology-enabled,” “living in the 21st Century” teacher who would see a day off as an opportunity for learning and would set up a lesson wherein their classes watch their appendectomies live than run off 120 worksheets and leave them for a substitute. I actually see the value of the worksheet here, however. The class that will be reading these poems is extremely discussion-based. We talk. A lot. And that’s awesome. But sometimes I think that sitting quietly and writing down your thoughts on something is just as valuable as the back-and-forth with a classmate or a teacher. The questions on the worksheet involve the expected exploration of literary devices and how well they either get the poem’s message across or affect the audience, but toward the end I have a couple of questions about whether or not my students like the poems, as well as their opinions on war and patriotism.
Wilfred Owen’s poems deal with the realism of war. “The Last Laugh” is had by the weapons on the battlefield, as he deftly uses onomatopoeia and personification to get across the violence and terror of the war (the poem also has one of my favorite opening lines: “Oh Jesus Christ, I’m hit!” he said, and died). The sentiment of “Dulce et Decorum Est” can be summed up in its last stanza:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could paceBehind 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 bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
The latin phrase translates as “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” It falls right in line with what Remarque says at this point in All Quiet on the Western Front, especially during the scene where Paul Baumer spends an afternoon at a biergarten with his father and has to endure his father’s friends’ armchair quarterbacking of the war he has been fighting and in which he has been watching his friends die. Guest’s poems, on the other hand, are right in line with what Paul’s teacher, Kantorek, tells all of them, as they celebrate the soldier and glorify his duty to his country. I have been reading through Over Here, a collection of his poems that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and I can see why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/ Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.”
I’m not saying they’re bad poems per se, but they have all the weight of one of the plethora of country music songs released in recent years that celebrate the American spirit. This is why it’s taken me quite a while to get through it–I get sugar shock. By now, you’ve probably realized the other reason why I don’t have this as a back-and-forth discussion in class, which is that I’m not the most patriotic person out there. I don’t hate America or anything, I just have never been very patriotic (I’m also not a Republican, so … yeah), so I think that taking away my and other students’ ability to interject any of my opinion or views into the discussion of the poetry actually benefits them. When you have a topic whose discussions can often get heated, it’s good to start by taking a moment to think it through yourself and get your opinion together before you discuss it with other people (especially if you’re one of those students who doesn’t like to speak up very much).
But opinions about patriotism aside, exposure to these poems is beneficial because it helps capture a particular moment in world history in a way that goes beyond the basic facts that are memorized in history class. Owen’s vivid realism is simultaneously exciting, gory, and moving; Guest’s flag-waving is a sentiment that still exists today, albeit in different forms (country songs, television programs, random “shared” posts on Facebook) and each has its place and its use.