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Two Poems

Memorial Day Weekend is almost upon us.  Traditionally that's a huge day on the SF convention calendar, and one that usually finds me off at one con or another.  Indeed, Parris flew off this morning, and is now in Kansas City with old friends and new, preparing to enjoy Conquest, one of our very favorite small regional conventions.  (I'm not with her.  I'm at home working.  But don't feel too sorry for me, I get my own con next week, when I travel to Charlotte for ConCarolinas).

Much as I enjoy the holiday aspects of Memorial Day, however, I try not to lose sight of the day's true meaning -- to remember those who have fought and fallen in defense of our country.

I was never a warrior.  I served in VISTA, not the Army or Air Force, and I opposed the Vietnam War.  But I have written a good deal about war and warriors, and read even more about those subjects.  Together with Gardner Dozois (a Vietnam era vet), I edited WARRIORS, a mammoth anthology of stories about war and the men and women who fight them.  The glories and horrors of war lie at the very center of A SONG OF ICE & FIRE.

Way back in grade school, like many other lads of my generation, I was taught to recite one of the classic poems of those subjects: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE.   I don't think they teach that in grade school any more, so maybe some of you younger folks have never heard it.

Stirring stuff, even now.   As a kid, I found it enormously moving.  I can still remember chanting those lines in class, surrounded by the other kids, all of our voices joining as one.  (Do they still recite poems aloud in grade school?  Somehow I doubt it).

It was not until many years later, however -- until college -- that I first encountered the reply to Tennyson's ode, penned a generation later by Rudyard Kipling.  It moved me to tears the first time I read it, and it still does, all these years later.  Some things never change (sadly, sadly)... and with the VA scandal and America's treatment of its own veterans very much in the news, Kipling's poem remains as topical today as it was then.

So here's the second act, the part that comes after the glory.  Kipling's THE LAST OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE.

 So on this Memorial Day, here's to the poets... and to all the warriors.  Let us honor the dead, by all means... but let us remember the living too.


May. 22nd, 2014 07:47 am (UTC)
Goodness. I've never come across that particular Kipling poem before, although I am a firm believer that Kipling has a lot more to him than being the apologist for imperialism that he's often painted as.

That may not be one of his best in terms of readability but he certainly knows how to kick you in the guts. Thanks for sharing.
May. 22nd, 2014 07:56 am (UTC)
Those are good poems. Perhaps you would also enjoy war_poetry.
Soumik Biswas
May. 22nd, 2014 08:44 am (UTC)
It's a shame that the first one is popularized while the second one, as beautiful as the first, isn't. I guess that mimics reality.
Jose Sarmento
May. 22nd, 2014 10:54 am (UTC)
Kipling's poetry
I am not a very big fan of Kipling's prose... but a lot of his poems read straight to the heart, and stir, and stay.
Jennifer Wolfersberger
May. 22nd, 2014 11:49 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting these poems. I remember studying them in school (in the 80/90s) but studied them well before I understood what war really meant. I read the poems very differently now and appreciate your post for the reminder.
May. 22nd, 2014 11:57 am (UTC)
Operation Enduring Freedom Veteran
Thank you! See you at Con Carolina !
May. 22nd, 2014 12:32 pm (UTC)
Amen to that,
brother. Amen to that.
Eric Ando
May. 22nd, 2014 01:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you
Thanks for your perspective George! I'm a US Army Iraq vet. I served with 2 heroes who gave their life in that pointless conflict. Many of my friends bear the scars of our time there. War is hell. It should ALWAYS be the last resort. I wish our leaders realized this.
Jen Wilson
May. 22nd, 2014 01:17 pm (UTC)
Two memorable and thought provoking pieces here. Cheers George for reminding us what this holiday is all about!
May. 22nd, 2014 01:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing those. I'd never seen the one by Kipling before and that . . . I can't manage words for how moving it was.

I hope one day it'll stop being so topical.
May. 22nd, 2014 02:26 pm (UTC)
As far as I know, no they don't recite poems out loud anymore.

Back when I was in school, I discovered A.E. Housman. To an Athlete Dying Young was and remains my favorite poem to this day. Charge of the Light Brigade comes a close second.
May. 22nd, 2014 03:43 pm (UTC)
I remembered our Ms Liao Lamco in High school...
..who taught us world history and lit reading the Charge of the Light Brigade (Lord Alfred Tennyson) and Kipling's The Last of the Light Brigade..She was to me, the strongest teacher ever in terms of voice and ways of teaching! A very interesting woman..! In a Catholic private school for girls.

Home alone, George? <3
May. 22nd, 2014 04:32 pm (UTC)
For Johnny
Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.
Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

John Pudney (Served in the RAF - this poem was written during an air raid in 1941)

Even now, many of the rough sleepers, etc. are ex-services personnel.
Katherine Chambers
May. 22nd, 2014 04:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing, George!
Beautiful, sad, difficult poems..my husband is in the Navy and returns home today from a long underway, and it's good to know that artists I admire share a similar admiration for those in the service. Thanks for the words and wisdom!
Hardy Krger
May. 22nd, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
...of you to show the aftermath of war not only in your novels. Keep on the good work and the keen eye to the reality.

Greetings from Germany, Hardy.
Alexis Martin
May. 22nd, 2014 07:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you, George! Great authors, great poems... Speaking of which, the poet Charles Baudelaire said "Among the men only those are grand : the poet, the priest and the soldier. The man who sings, the man who blesses, the man who sacrifices others and himself. All the rest is ripe for the whip."

A bit harsh, but it tells a great deal about the aesthetic who gave birth to the notion of nobility.

A thought for all soldiers, dead or alive, who sacrifice themselves...
May. 22nd, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
I thought you should know that I taught "Charge of the Light Brigade" to my high school students in January. It is still alive and well, and my students were fascinated by its themes of unquestioning loyalty and the ridiculous human cost of war.
May. 22nd, 2014 08:55 pm (UTC)
Teach them the Kipling too. The two are bookends, I think.
May. 22nd, 2014 10:00 pm (UTC)
I hold the Kipling one in higher regard. Not just because his work was some of the first to inspire me in my teens, but because this poem is about how we discard our heroes once they've outlived their dramatic usefulness to us. That is far more important than a poem about how men blindly rode to their death because someone misunderstood an order.
May. 22nd, 2014 08:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

-- Lt. Colonel John McCrae
May. 22nd, 2014 08:41 pm (UTC)
Reciting Poems
I read the Charge of the Light Brigade as a High School speech project. Has stuck in my mind all these many years.

Must confess I'd never heard of Kipling's sequel.

Most of us start as war enthusiasts are shocked into pacifism by its reality and only latter come to understand its rare though real necessity and come to appreciate those who must experience its horrors.

See you at ConCarolina.

May. 22nd, 2014 09:08 pm (UTC)
I definitely don't remember doing those poems in school, though they sound sort of vaguely familiar. I did not know that something I say with a fair frequency is a paraphrase of the first poem. "Mine is not to reason why. Mine is just to do or die." Interesting change made in the second sentence - it's something I grew up hearing somebody around me say. I'll have to be more mindful of from whence it came in the future.
May. 23rd, 2014 06:10 am (UTC)
Thank you for this post. I come from a military family and I just lost my grandfather (WWII veteran, Pacific Theater) ..who was also my godfather, my foster-father--because that's something we do in my culture--and I don't know if I'd be able, at the moment, to read the poetry without having a breakdown
...but, again, thanks.
May. 23rd, 2014 06:28 am (UTC)
We had to memorize poems to perform with expressive body language. Do they still do that? One can hope. Some teachers amaze me.

So many fallen heroes with unsung songs. </p>

Happy weekend, George.

May. 23rd, 2014 07:00 am (UTC)
I remember having Tennyson switched for the writings of Emerson,followed by Walt Whitmans (who he influenced) poetry during the Civil War. I personally find Whitmans view and attitude to me more in sync with my time of war in comparison to those that would quote "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" that is taught still in school.

Tennyson's Ulysses and Idylls of the King could be argued as his more paramount writings though.
May. 23rd, 2014 01:10 pm (UTC)
This is the most moving and thoughtful Memorial Day commentary/post/article I've seen in years. I'll be sharing this blog post.
May. 23rd, 2014 06:12 pm (UTC)
from Spain
Dear Mr. Martin,

I come from a military family in Spain, and to me is happy and sad at the same time to see how you greet your veterans. Happy because you do, sad because my fellow citicens do not, or at least far less than worth. Due to the last military dictatorship we had just 40 years ago, spanish society is not very supportive to its military, and therefore there are some forgettings about our heros. But we had truckloads of them.

I know this is not just on veterans, but on praising them with the art you master, writing. Unfortunately I cannot offer you some spanish poetry on them. Our finest poetry is from the time we never lost battles, or from when we were beggining to do so. But I would like to offer you some samples of braveness in the spanish style. You know, riding to death is something crazy, but before the enemy guns begin to shoot you think you have chances, and after that you cannot simply turn your horse around and say "stop, I want to get out of the train". In the (crazy) spanish way, death is something that has to come, that happens only once in life, and that has to be memorable. Something of the like of the "goos death" the daimyo talks about in The Last Samurai.

I want to offer you the Last Stand of Luis de Velasco in Habana, the defense of Cartagena de Indias by Blas de Lezo, The resistance of Moscardó in the Alcazar de Toledo in the Spanish Civil War, the Alcantara Regiment sacrificing themselves for the rest of the army at Annual, the spanish navy at Trafalgar, standing while the french where fleeing, the Tercio Viejo de Nápoles at Castelnuovo, and many others. Read of them, you will understand them even less than the charge of the light brigade. But they will make you say, hey, what are this people made of?

I know I wrote on many defeats up there, but "winners take it all", and are usually well praised for their deeds. Remember Bernardo de Gálvez (Galveston...) who was an spanish officer, and whose descendants are still officers of the spanish army. You can find histories of spanish victories against the odds, specially from the times when "Spain was like a sword, with the hilt in Castille and the point everywhere".

I want to offer you another small tale, of crazy loyalty to mission and King, but from a different kind. I recommend you to read about it more than about the others, because it is one of those cases in which reality is greater than fiction. It is the embassy of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo to the great Tamerlan. If the spanish filmmakers where like the hollywood ones, there would be few blockbusters on it.

Finally, one last thing, of course I write this on national pride, but remind one thing. You do not live in "Holly Faith" but in Santa Fé. To some extent, it is yout historical legacy, too. You have given me hours of intelectual pleasure with your prose, this is a gift of gratitude. Enjoy!

Kind regards,


P.S. Sorry for the poor english.
Adam Brock
May. 23rd, 2014 10:00 pm (UTC)
War Poetry
Those are both great poems. I like this one too, written by Owen during the first WW. Vivid, horrific, and dismissive the glory of death.

Wilfred Owen
Dulce 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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.
May. 24th, 2014 12:34 am (UTC)
war poems
Speaking to the points made previously about taking care of the soldiers after their usefulness has passed I suppose "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" expresses the lack of concern for the wounded and fallen and also horror and sacrifice of war. As a ten year old reading this in a time before the proliferation of graphic images in media desensitized young people, the last line of this brief poem had a jarring effect on me.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Edited at 2014-05-24 12:37 am (UTC)
May. 25th, 2014 07:22 am (UTC)
I don't celebrate the fallen. Dying in war is not a thing to celebrate. Remember. War is hell.
May. 28th, 2014 09:35 pm (UTC)
I had never seen the second one before. Thank you very much for sharing these.

May. 30th, 2014 02:45 am (UTC)
Thank you for this post. My Grandfather, Father, and both of my brothers have and still serve the U.S.. Growing up an Army 'brat' I learned to love this country and have always tried to thank those who serve for my freedom. Regardless of politics, our American soldiers and their families choose a life of sacrifice that ensures many others to be free; regardless of whether one agrees with the 'war'. Again, thank you.


George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

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