Category Archives: modernist poetry

a World War I poem by Edmund Blunden & the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

I was looking for poems today by the poet Edmund Blunden, a British writer-soldier who survived World War I and suffered a lifetime of post-traumatic stress. Last night I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai, the classic David Lean movie about World War II. I’ve noticed that many war movies, beginning from the beginning of war movies, often have a little scene of soldiers entertaining themselves with a makeshift floor show. If the film concerns the Brits, the floor show is always a group of Monty Python-esque crossdressers clowning it up. Kwai drag This scene in River Kwai is astonishing in the way it cuts the show with the actions of other soldiers, particularly in the intercutting of the intense, seemingly calm Japanese officer who prepares for life or death while the soldiers dance. This morning in reading an Edmund Blunden poem I found a similar use of cross-action between the show and the reality just beyond. Some World War I poems are brutal in how much is held back but conveyed in a few pointed lines:

Concert Party: Busseboom

The stage was set, the house was packed,
The famous troop began;
Our laughter thundered, act by act;
Time light as sunbeams ran.

Dance sprang and spun and neared and fled,
Jest chirped at gayest pitch,
Rhythm dazzled, action sped
Most comically rich.

With generals and lame privates both
Such charms worked wonders, till
The show was over lagging loth
We faced the sunset chill;
And standing on the sandy way,
With the cracked church peering past,
We heard another matinee,
We heard the maniac blast

Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
And the red lights flaming there
Called madness: Come, my bonny boy,
And dance to the latest air.

To this new concert, white we stood;
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in tunnels below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.

Orrick Johns and his Olives

One of the very sporadic “characters” in my book is the now forgotten poet Orrick Johns. In fact-checking my own work (yeah, jeez), I came across this very strange and, I thought, cool poem that he wrote in 1915. It appeared in a little magazine called Others which was edited by poet Alfred Kreymborg. To the poem momentarily. First this picture of Alfred Kreymborg taken by Edward Weston in 1920, which I only include because I like it:

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Alfred Kreymborg, by the way, wrote an interesting memoir called Troubadour, if you’re at all interested in modernist poets & artists, published in 1925. I like Kreymborg; he’s unpretentious when writing about his artist friends. He refers to himself in third person, by the way. It’s unfortunately hard to find, and doesn’t seem to have a free digitized version floating around yet. I bought mine used.

But I meant to talk about Orrick Johns, since I’m posting his poem. I unfortunately don’t have much to say about him. He was friends with Sara Teasdale and Zoe Akins; they grew up together in St. Louis, and all moved to New York about the same time. He was somewhat scandalous for winning a major poetry prize out from under Edna St. Vincent Millay’s fine poem
Renascence, which everyone believed she should have won, but didn’t because Orrick had the poverty & depression vote & had more friends. Sadly, even Orrick Johns didn’t think he deserved the $500 prize. But according to Sara Teasdale, he was a mopey sort anyway, in part because he lost a leg as a child when he was hit by a streetcar. Max Bodenheim wrote a poem about him, and Kenneth Rexroth mentions him “hopping into the surf on his one leg” in his moving poem Thou Shalt Not Kill. Orrick Johns, like so many from this era, was a suicide.

Here’s what Bodenheim wrote about him in To Orrick Johns:

O tangled and half-strangled child, you shrink
For ever from yourself, and wear a pose
Of nimble and impenetrable pride.
Yet sometimes, wavering on the sudden brink
Of jaded bitterness, you drop your clothes
And weave a prayer into your naked stride.

And here is Orrick Johns’ poem Olives, a cut and paste from the journal Others.

olives 1olives 2olives 3olives 4