Monday, December 7, 2015

The Lie

I saw a notice a couple of weeks ago announcing the anniversary of the death of Wilfred Owen, the British war poet. I asked Thriller Guy if he thought he could write a blog entry about poetry and it’s place in the thriller writing business. We all know TG is One Tough Hombre, but at this suggestion he went and hid in the closet, afraid that I would spill the beans about his writing a poem or two every once in awhile. He’s afraid he might loose his battlefield cred.

Ridiculous. I pointed out to TG that many traditional warriors I have known were poetry fans, particularly of Owen’s poetry. Here’s piece about Owen’s death in World War I, 1918.

“In the days before his death, Owen had been excited because he knew the war was almost over. The Germans were retreating and the French had joyfully welcomed the British troops. In his last letter to his mother, Owens wrote: "It is a great life. I am more oblivious than yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." A few days later, he was trying to get his men across a canal in the early morning hours when they were attacked by enemy fire, and Owen was fatally wounded. The war ended the following week.”

I have suggested elsewhere that a good way to start one’s writing day is to read a poem before beginning the day’s work. I have found that whatever one reads, fiction or non-fiction, before one begins, can influence the style of the work that comes after. Maybe not overtly, but at least subtly, and the stylistic mannerisms can hang on for longer than one might suppose. Of course this can be “fixed” in rewrites, but it’s better to go into the work as clean as possible. This suggests that a good way to start is to read nothing at all, but TG and I read the newspaper at breakfast first thing in the morning so my/our brain is already tainted when I sit down to work. My solution is to read a poem before beginning. The easiest way to do this is to sign up for Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac which comes in your email and begins every day with a poem. Because they’re the ones choosing the poem, you don’t have to worry about finding one on your own. Another benefit is if you do like a particular poem, you can buy or lookup other work by the same poet.

You might think that you would then be in danger of picking up a particular poetic style that would ride on the back of your own words when you start to work, but I have found that this doesn’t happen. But there is a particular sensibility that does crossover, and that is a good thing. I can’t exactly name what this effect is, but it’s not harmful and, I have found, gives a sort of ease that works in your favor, especially when you are starting out the day. And if you warriors out there are afraid that your savage prose will be enfeebled by the poetry, you can always read the many war poets who have written throughout history. A good place to begin is with the site

Here’s a bit of Wilfred Owen to get you started: his poem, Dolce et Decorum Est. The Latin title comes from the phrase from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Read the poem and see how Owen puts the lie to that sentiment. And try reading the poem before you begin your next day’s writing, or any other poem, to see how it works for you.

You can come out of the closet now, Thriller Guy.

Dolce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind 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 blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the Garrison Keillor link - I've been trying to find a way to (easily) incorporate more poetry in my life. This is exactly what I've been looking for.

    I think poetry is helpful for all writers, but its rhythms can really help thriller writers. I know I write better stuff when I'm paying attention to the beat and flow of language. Since grad school, I've really slacked off on the poetry reading. No more.

    Thanks for the reminder. :)