Rhymes of a Pfc
by Lincoln Kirstein
New Directions, 180 pp., $3.50
How can it happen, I ask myself, that a book of such extraordinary merit as Rhymes of a Pfc should have been turned down by publisher after publisher, and is now available only because its author could afford to pay the expenses of publication?
I can think of two possible reasons. One is related to our modern passion for labeling people Lincoln Kirstein has long been the name of an impresario, the promotor of Hound & Horn, the Director of a Ballet Company who, by giving George Balanchine the opportunity to exercise his genius, has done as much as anyone alive for the cause of Classical Ballet. An impresario is, by definition, someone who does not himself “create”; should he, by any chance, produce a work of his own, one assumes that it must be the trifle of a dilettante, unworthy of serious attention. The other reason is a side-effect of the instantaneous communication of news which the telegraph and the radio have made possible. During a war, day after day, night after night, we read and hear of little else but war, and our anxiety to learn what is really happening is exacerbated by our knowledge that what we are being told is, at best, but half of the truth, couched, furthermore, in the nauseating cliches of journalese. Consequently, when peace comes, one of the greatest blessings it brings is freedom from war-news, and the last thing we feel like reading is a war-book. It is now, however, over nineteen years since V-J Day, time enough, surely, for us to have gotten over our feelings of satiety. As for Mr. Kirstein the impresario, I can only implore the reader to forget his existence and approach these poems as if they were anonymous.
Despite all changes in values, interests, sensibility, the basic assumptions governing the treatment of warfare in poetry remained pretty well unchanged from Homer’s time down until the Napoleonic wars. These assumptions may be summarized as follows. 1) The Warrior is a Hero, that is to say, a numinous being. 2) War is pre-eminently the sphere of public deeds of heroism by individual persons; in no other sphere can a man so clearly disclose to others who he is. 3) Since his deeds are public, the warrior himself does not have to relate them. That duty falls to the professional poet who, as the legend of Homer’s blindness indicates, is not himself a combatant. 4) The poet’s job is to take the known story and sing of it in a style worthy of its greatness, that is to say, in a “high” style.
It was not until the eighteenth century that, under the influence of the Enlightenment, men began to question the numinous nobility of the Warrior, and, then, the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, involving huge armies and the whole continent of Europe, made it impossible to think of war in terms of individuals and choice. Stendhal, and Tolstoy after him, depict war as an …