Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Despair in the Words of a Poet and a Non Fiction Author

Wilfred Owen’s poetry is powerful. He honors the sacrifice of soldiers--nay, boys--with every line. Those boys pulled themselves through mud, up and out of trenches making themselves a target more easily found and hit. They died in that mud, their blood commingling, lending itself to an uneasy peace that still waits upon us. 

In Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen reveals utter despair in one brief simile:

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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.

Owen does not spare us. He does not shield us from the truth. He reveals the fatigue that endangers them, the exhaustion that makes it impossible for one to put on his helmet before breathing in the gas.

Owen shows us this soldier’s agony and the searing memory his death implants in those who must march and wait for his end. They will remember the boy’s despair-- despair made bright and knowable by comparing the living boy’s face to a devil’s sick of sin.

Homeless in Oklahoma City: Art
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin Photography
I read other words as powerful in an entirely different genre: Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction account of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics where, in Chapter One, Brown characterizes the late 1920s and early 1930s. One descriptive bit of evidence is a cartoon from “October 8, 1933, [in] the American Weekly, a Sunday supplement in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and dozens of other American newspapers” (Brown, Daniel J. "Chapter One." Boys in the Boat. New York: Penguin, 2013. Kindle File.) The central figure in the cartoon is a salesman sitting on the sidewalk, his family close by. Brown describes the cartoonist’s rendering of the salesman’s face as “Haunted, haggard, somewhere beyond hopeless.”

As Owen did with a simile, Brown does with alliteration. He makes despair bright and knowable.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

Writing Challenge:

Make despair bright and knowable with one or more rhetorical devices.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach