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Private Poet

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 irrational form of human behavior to which men are driven by forces quite outside their conscious control, and a battle as an unholy mess in which nothing happens as the commanders on either side intend. Irrational behavior cannot be sung of in a high style; the notes it calls for are the macabre, the ironic, the comic; and it cannot be truthfully described except by an eye-witness. Since 1800, no poet has been able to “sing” of war, and war poems written by civilians from a safe distance, like “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” have been worthless. At the beginning of World War I, for a generation which had never experienced it, war was still felt to be glamorous, but by 1916, it we known to be, not merely irrational, but an obscene inexcusable nightmare.

It must be admitted, I think, that the Second World War has produced, so far at any rate, less literature of outstanding merit, whether in verse or prose, than the First. For this I can see three possible reasons. The more mechanized warfare becomes, the fewer the number of soldiers directly engaged in combat compared to the number engaged in services behind the firing-line; fewer, that is, are directly confronted by the “naked face” of war. Then, remembering the reckless waste of human lives in the First, the military authorities in the Second were determined to save as many lives as possible and to assign the individual soldier to a post which matched his character and talents. As a result, a draftee with the education and sensibility required to become a writer was very unlikely to find himself among the combat troops; most probably he would end up as a Tec Sergeant with a desk job. (Luckily for us, Mr. Kirstein had the misfortune to have a black mark against him in the records—I have never understood exactly what it was, except that it was something political—and on that account never rose above the rank of Pfc.) Lastly, the emotional attitude of an Englishman or an American to the Second World War was more complicated. In 1914 the nations of Europe had blundered into a war none of them wanted and without the faintest notion of what a modern war would be like. Whatever their politicians and generals might think, by 1916 no common soldier on either side could see a reason why they should be fighting each other. Consequently, what Wilfred Owen called “The pity of war, the pity war distilled,” was a simple emotion of compassion for one’s fellow sufferers in the common nightmare, which made no distinction between friend and foe. In 1939, on the other hand, it was obvious that the German Reich had fallen into the hands of very wicked men who offered the rest of Europe only the alternative of war or capitulation. The compassion which an English or American soldier might feel for his German fellow-sufferer was complicated by his conviction that the latter was suffering in an evil cause. It would have been impossible to write such a poem as Owen’s “Strange Meeting.”

The problem for a poet in writing about modern war is that, while he can only deal with events of which he has first-hand knowledge—invention, however imaginative, is bound to be fake—his poems must somehow transcend mere journalistic reportage. In a work of art, the single event must be seen as an element in a universally significant pattern: the area of the pattern actually illuminated by the artist’s vision is always, of course, more or less limited, but one is aware of its extending beyond what we see far into time and space.

For any American, this raises special difficulties. Until 1922, when immigration quotas were imposed, the United States was the New World, and to leave the Old for it expressed a decision to make a complete break with the past and begin history afresh. In trying to envision the present sub specie aeternitate, it is natural for a poet of the Old World to make use of whatever mythical and historical past is closest to him, as David Jones made use of Celtic Mythology in his great warbook In Parenthesis. An American cannot. For Mr. Kristein, History began in 1848 when his German-Jewish grandparents emigrated from the Rhineland: even had they been Aryan, he could not have used German mythological material, the Niebelungen Lied for example, without being false to them and to himself. For any American, the mythical war is the Civil War.

Yet my civil war’s nearer than that war over the blue; World War II,
Which means zero to me save for drab facts which inspire me to fear; I’m absurdly quiet here
Trying hard to pretend our crack halfback lieutenant, Bill Beady Eye.
Risks a charge under raking cross fire to let fly Carbines and a thin cheer.

At the same time, for all American intellectuals, the Old World had a fascination, an exotic cultural glamor. (Had. The States are no longer new, Europe no longer cultured.) For some it was France, for others, like Mr. Kirstein, England.

   Often Hamlet was Jim;
We got drunk on Shakespeare’s iambics and Britain’s dynastic rainbow. I most remember him
Flipping the pages of portraits vig- netted from the London News—
   The First War’s English dead,
Glorious young men all, each a uni- versity graduate. Fate haloed every head,
All officers, baron or baronet, not one a mere private;
History was alive.

Lacking a common mythological past, every American artist has, in weaving his pattern, to make use of a personal mythology which means that, in order to make this intelligible to others, he has to provide many more autobiographical facts than a European would need to. Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein is, as he tells us, a member of three minorities. (To a western European, the term minority has no emotional significance.) Firstly he is a Jew in a society which was, and still is, more anti-semitic than it cares to admit. Secondly, his parents were assimilated enough and rich enough to send him to Exeter and Harvard, institutions almost exclusively wasp: he has never known either the ghetto home life of New York Jews or the heterogeneous society of a State High School and University. Lastly, he is an intellectual aesthete who in childhood was, or believed himself to be, a sissy (again a term with no real European equivalent): consequently, his Lame Shadow, half worshipped, half despised, is a gentile inarticulate warrior-athlete. In peace time, relations between people of different educational backgrounds and cultural tastes are impossible or artificial; in war the only compensation for its discomforts and horrors is that such relations become possible, for in war there is only one significant social-psychological division, the one between officers and enlisted men. Mr. Kirstein relates his experiences in a roughly chronological order. He undergoes Basic Training in the States; for himself and his fellow draftees, the war still seems pretty remote, but mothers and wives are already beginning to receive regretful telegrams. He is shipped over to England, where he is billeted in a Manchester suburb and finds himself assigned to the Third Army More training for the Invasion, the prospect of which looms steadily more menacing. He crosses the Channel twenty days after D Day, and is in the real terrifying thing. Though he never himself fires a shot, he is in close contact with combat troops, he comes under shell-fire, and he gets wounded, even if only in a jeep accident. With the Third Army, commanded by General Patton, whom he greatly admires, he enters Germany where he makes his one big contribution to the war effort. By a fantastic stroke of luck, he learns where the bulk of the art treasures looted by the Germans from all over Europe have been hidden.

His principal literary influences are, I should guess, Browning, Hardy, and Kipling. From the first he learns how to write a dramatic monologue, from Hardy and Kipling a fondness for complicated stanzas, which he handles with great virtuosity. How effective, for example, is the rhyming and the sudden lack of rhyme in the following:

We woke up early one morning. My! what a gorgeous day!
We’d crossed Germany’s borders to capture a German May;
Strawberries-in-wine was the wea- ther. All outdoors smelled of fresh heather, And my captain has a lousy toothache.

The characters he meets and the stories he has to tell are of all kinds. Some are comic, like the Major who builds himself a fireplace out of liberated bricks which turn out to be made of dynamite. Others are ghastly, like the drunken Captain who kills an innocent civilian but, when it comes to his Court-Martial:

The charge was not murder, may- hem, mischief malicious,
Yet something worse, and this they brought out time and again:
Clearly criminal and caddishly vi- cious
Was his: Drinking With Enlisted Men.

Others, again, are concerned with sex, depicting it as the grubby activity which in war time it usually is.

From Kipling, too, I think, he got the idea of trying to let his G. I.’s speak in their own low—very low—style, and in this he is brilliantly successful as Kipling was not: Kipling’s Tommies speak stage Cockney. Not being a born American and, therefore, not quite trusting my own conviction that Mr. Kirstein had gotten the speech right, I have tried the poems out on a number of people born and bred in the States, and they have all confirmed it. Again, as a born Englishman, I am astounded at his success. In England, during the nineteenth century, it was possible for writers like Barnes and Hardy, who were brought up in the country and lived all their lives there, to reproduce accurately their local rustic dialect, but no English writer who has had the equivalent of Mr. Kirstein’s education—Winchester and New College, let us say—can ever hope to imitate the speech of another class.

That Mr. Kirstein should succeed is a credit, I think, not only to his ear, but to American culture; whatever its faults, it is at least not bedeviled by accent-consciousness. Not only can Mr. Kirstein reproduce “low” American speech; he also catches the subtle variations of vocabulary and intonation within it which distinguish one kind of character from another. Here are three examples.

I thought: Gloria, if lze in some Christless spot
Who’d I turn to? Fred, natch. So the Least poor I could do—
Try and help Himm. Hotel room in Norfolk with Whooo but a marine guard. Get the picture? I had to get permission from his commandant before they’d let
me innn. They left the door Open so they could listen and
needn’t Buggg it. Now I begin to Understand
it’s Court-Martial offenssse: but—they better Be Sure and Prove it. Just get us a good lawyer, but your
Sainted Mother now found that Some people are just Viiile.
   ….
Program formally opens as Fatso (tenor M.C.) Brays “Rose Marie,”
Shoots two lousy flat jokes. A fruity trombone introduces La Tony,
Who grabs at her cue. Dialogue goes
Sorta like this: “Hey you gotta ful- la bag there, Rose Marie sweetheart; what’s (rolling her eyes) “you got in it?” “Just like you, sista: it’s fulla shit.”
(Groans.) Now: the chorus. In tutus, six boys:
Indescribable noise.

….

We had 75’s, 88’s, 101’s, evry fuck- in gun you kin think of
In hills back of this town, listenin fer one shot.
They hear this one shot.
Christ: we start to fire, just at roof level:
One, two, three.
Then we hit a leetle lower, a leetle lower—an lower.
Special, we pick out any tall tow- er, like a church steeple.
One, two, three.
Man, was this cute! Like a type- writer:
One, two,
Three.

I shall not pretend that Mr. Kirstein’s poetry is without faults. Any reader will notice passages which are clumsy, or prolix, or overloaded with adjectives, or too defiantly unfashionable. I cannot believe, however, that any poet, no matter how accomplished, will read these poems without admiration and envy. As a picture of the late war. Rhymes of a Pfc is by far the most convincing, moving, and impressive book I have come across.

Letters

Letters January 14, 1965

Jeeps and the Man November 19, 1964

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