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The Poem and the Poppy

Reading 'In Flanders Fields.' And choosing to wear the flower.

Stephen Osborne 10 Nov

Stephen Osborne has written about poppies and remembrance in Geist and Saturday Night, where some of the ideas expressed here first took shape. He is the editor of Geist, whose website is here.

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Flanders Fields, First World War

[Editor's note: This essay by Stephen Osborne, editor-in-chief at Geist magazine, signals the start of a new collaboration between The Tyee and Geist -- two leading independent voices in B.C. Watch this space in the future for articles, reviews, cartoons and more -- all from Geist contributors.]

Early in the 20th century on a Saturday afternoon in New York City, a woman from Georgia who worked for the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries found two dozen red silk poppies in Wanamaker's Department Store, after searching for them all afternoon in the shops along the stretch of Broadway known as the Ladies' Mile. Her name was Moina Michael and she was 49 years old. That evening, on the ninth of November, 1918, Moina Michael distributed her poppies to a gathering of friends and colleagues, an event she later described as the "consummation of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy," the artificial flower that millions of people fasten to their lapels every year in the second week of November.

According to her memoir, Moina Michael had conceived of the Memorial Poppy that Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m., after reading the poem "In Flanders Fields" in The Ladies Home Journal and composing a poetic response entitled "We Shall Keep the Faith" on the back of an envelope. Then she went out to search for poppies.

"In Flanders Fields" is remembered today in fragments by generations of schoolchildren and former schoolchildren, and is often dismissed by critics who object to the soft imagery of larks bravely flying, foes quarrelling, and sunsets glowing.

The name of the poet, less well remembered, is John McCrae, a Canadian doctor with a literary bent, and his poem, a rondeau of 13 lines that opens with an image of poppies blowing, or growing (as we try to recall the lines now, between crosses row on row, and then the lark and something something down below), is one of the best-known poems in the English language. The often misquoted first stanza can be found in the fine print on the Canadian $10 bill:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Beneath 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.

The verses that moved Moina Michaels to action on the streets of New York were composed on the battlefield in Belgium during the engagement known as Second Ypres, in 1915, after the death of a young lieutenant named Alex Heimer who was blown up by an enemy shell.

Alex Heimer had been a friend of John McCrae's; that evening McCrae performed funeral rites over those of his friend's body parts that could be recovered and wrapped in a blanket and put into the ground. Next morning McCrae was observed sitting on the back of an ambulance with a notepad in his hand, looking out at the cluster of wooden crosses marking the improvised graveyard where Alex Heimer now lay in a broken field of new poppies. Later McCrae showed what he had written to one of the other officers, and then he crumpled up the page, and the officer (a man named Scrimger) had to persuade him not to throw the poem away. Later that year it was published in Punch, a popular British magazine, and within months it had become the best-known poem in England.

McCrae learned of his poem's popularity when he overheard his own words being recited by recruits trudging through the mud on their way to battle, an event that must have resonated eerily for the author of a poem whose collective "voice" emerges from the grave:

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.

Second Ypres lasted 17 days; it was the first engagement of Canadian troops (6,000 of whom were lost) in the Great War. By the end of that war, 60,000 Canadian soldiers were dead and another 160,000 were wounded or maimed. These were enormous numbers for such a small country (Canada's population was only eight million): they amounted to one casualty for every three Canadian families. Not a single body was returned to Canada for burial, and the empty tombs that appeared as memorial cenotaphs in every town and city in the country became for most Canadians their only recognition of a great public and private loss, in a war that by its end had lost any "meaning" that it might once have had. That war remains as a vacant space in the heart of a nation.

Dreams and memory

By giving material form to an image in a poem, Moina Michaels gave the world a way of marking and masking the incomprehensible destruction of human life set in motion in Europe in 1914. Such a simple act required a complex transformation: the poppy had long been the symbol of forgetfulness and dreaming: the Greek god Hypnos holds a poppy in his hand as he gestures toward the world of dreams. Now the poppy was to signify its contradiction, which is remembrance -- remembrance subsumed into the iconography of chivalry, and given the added burden of vigilance, duty, and unspecified faith.

What McCrae's poem overlooks, as do the memorials erected all over the country, is the moment of transition between life and death (how did "we" come to be lying in Flanders fields?): the heart of the poem, like the heart of the cenotaph, is an empty place.

The poppy refashioned by Moina Michaels is the token of the phantasmagoria into which a generation plunged and through which we continue to stumble as if drugged: we are the future that the dead are talking to. Today the poppies blow in the fields of Afghanistan. The poppy, with its implicit promise of oblivion, has become the proper emblem of the unspeakable. "In Flanders Fields" closes with a threat uttered by the dead, who, we are reminded, are not yet really dead:

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.

Emptied bottle

John McCrae studied medicine at McGill University, where he became a member of the Pen and Pencil Club, a group of artists and writers who met in a studio and once a year ate a ceremonial supper. He went to South Africa as an artillery officer to fight for the Empire against the Boers, and in February 1900 he met Rudyard Kipling, who told him that he talked "like a Winnipegger."

McCrae emerges from his letters as a man who loved horses, dogs and fox hunting. His poems, some of which appeared in The University Magazine, were works of sturdy versification: he was not afraid to compare Quebec to Helen of Troy; his poem on the Battle of Trafalgar contains the line: "rang the cheers of men that conquered, ran the blood of men that died"; and often he speaks for the unfortunate dead, on whose behalf he says (in a poem called "The Unconquered Dead"): "Not to us the blame of them that flee, of them that basely yield."

When I began to understand what the shock of the Great War was for those who disappeared into it, and their families, and what it must have been for my grandfathers, both of whom survived the trenches in Belgium and France and both of whom remained silent about what happened to them there, I was nearly 30 years old, and had always refused to wear a poppy in November.

One of my grandfathers was dying and he didn't know who I was when I went to see him in the hospital. The other lived in Winnipeg and I hadn't seen him for years. I went to Winnipeg one hot, mosquito-filled afternoon and we sat in his cool, dark, mosquito-free rec room, and drank a bottle of gin; he sent his dog, a black lab, out to the store for groceries. We didn't talk about the war. He told me that you can always get 80 drops from an empty vodka bottle: this was something he had proved "scientifically" when he had been an engineering student, in the time before the war.

Now I always wear a poppy in November, and when I pin it to my lapel, I think of my grandfathers and the generations of plain people like them who go to wars made for them by others for the obscurest of motives. John McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918; he did not see his poem subsumed into communal memory. His poppies blowing and his larks bravely singing have entered the repositories of kitsch; they are immortal. The team motto of the Montreal Canadiens retains the impossible semicolon: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high." The quarrel and the foe are forgotten by schoolchildren as soon as they commit them to memory, but the poppies stay with us; the torch remains uncaught, and the dead, for the foreseeable future, remain undead.

McRae's poem fails to tell us what that war was, but it serves well enough to mark the terrible void at its heart: it has proven itself to be a poem that sticks. Moina Michael's poppy, although often associated with traditions of militarism distasteful to many (including both of my grandfathers), is taken up every year by millions of plain people willing to register a claim in the empty fields of war. The poppy is our acknowledgment of those who go into the void.

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