Anthony Rudolf STAND 5 (3) 2004


from: Rescue Work: Memory and Text
(An expanded version of the Pierre Rouve Memorial Lecture for 2001)

Robert Graves went off to the Great War with Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience in his knapsack. F.R.Leavis went with Paradise Lost. David Jones, in a book review of Herbert Read's anthology for soldiers in World War Two, The Knapsack, tells us that he himself went to the trenches with Palgrave's Golden Treasury and another book he doesn't name (one would dearly like to know what it was) in his knapsack. Jones tells us that he sometimes asked himself what the poets knew of death as he witnessed it all around him in the trenches. Literature had nothing to do with the world of the trenches. At least, says Jones, Herbert Read could be trusted with an anthology for soldiers in World War Two since he himself had been a brave soldier in the Great War.

But my example of poetry remembered during a combat situation comes from the Second World War, not from the trenches. It involves two of my literary heroes, the American poets George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. Oppen was perhaps the most important of the American poets who saw combat in World War Two. His wife Mary, in her autobiography Meaning A Life, writes that he received multiple wounds shortly before VE Day. An 80mm shell had exploded in a hole where he and two other men had taken refuge. Unfortunately they were killed and George lay there wounded for hours, pinned down by German fire. When night fell he managed to crawl away until he was picked up. In 1977 he wrote a letter to our mutual friend, the literary critic and scholar Milton Hindus. I shall quote a verbatim extract, which should be pinned to the wall of every serious writer, post-modern or not:

"Since 1928 or it may have been 1929 when I first encountered Reznikoff's work, I have thought of him as among the truly great, the truly permanent poets – not, of course, 'taking a position' in the manner of Eliot: I mean only to speak of what I have felt, and what has mattered to me.

"(I was with ((tho perhaps not very useful to)) the US infantry in France during the Second World War, and in the final days of that war found myself trapped in a foxhole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt's little poem – 'they flee from me...', and poem after poem of Rezi's ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is."

This autobiographical story of poetry remembered in extreme circumstances (and yes, Oppen's letter contains literary criticism, sublime literary criticism), joins Jean Améry's memory of the Hölderlin poem as a case study or at least example of a solitary remembrance (unlike Primo Levi's, Robert Antelme's, Flora Scharf's and Jorge Semprun's) but it differs from Améry's in that Oppen is consoled, rescued. Or is he? Perhaps he is weeping because an intense expression of life has reminded him that survival and a return to his beloved wife and daughter is not certain. Reznikoff's poems filled all the space; we do not know if they filled all the time. The consolations of poetry were bittersweet.

An analysis of the differing situations – socio-political rather than psycho-existential – which Améry and Oppen, both men of the radical left, found themselves in, belongs in another argument, but it would have to touch on Améry's status as a slave labourer and seemingly with no intellectual comrades, whereas Oppen is temporarily unfree in a situation where he can actually fight against the common enemy. In a typical move, Oppen had embedded part of a poem written around 1972-1975, 'Myth of the Blaze', in the letter. And so, not only are Wyatt's and Reznikoff's poetry recalled in the letter, but also his own, which reinforces one's sense of the importance of the original episode for Oppen. Rarely have poetry and literary criticism been so deeply inter-twined.

   lost to be lost Wyatt's
lyric and Rezi's
running through my mind
in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre
of the War I'd cried
and remembered

Varlam Chalamov has implied and Joseph Brodsky has suggested that a man who knows poetry by heart is less likely to be broken than one who does not. In the case of George Oppen, this is undoubtedly true. In the infamous Janowska camp in L'wow, Michel Borwicz, standing next to a companion who was about to give up hope, recited poetry to him. This man too regained his strength and the will to live. Andrej Drawicz and Wiktor Woroszylsky, two Polish writers imprisoned in the early 1980s, revealed later that 'A Martial Law Carol' – a poem by Joseph Brodsky a warder pushed under the door of their cell – had meant a great deal to them during their incarceration. But clearly poetry can only be important in extreme situations if you already love it, and love it to the extent of knowing personally important works off by heart, holding them in trust so that the words can be redeemed on demand.