Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth

This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets by John Allan Wyeth.  The University of South Carolina Press, 2008.  First published in 1928.

Before the Clangor of the Gun: The First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth by BJ Omanson. Monongahela Press, 2019.

Reviewed by David F. Beer


Wyeth's 33rd Division in the Line During the Argonne Offensive

We rarely come across a volume of World War One poetry that hasn’t seen the light of day for 80 years, but this is the case of John Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets. 

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These poems were unearthed by military historian BJ Omanson and reprinted in 2008 by Matthew Bruccoli, in his University of South Carolina Press Great War Series. BJ Omanson’s own book on Wyeth, Before the Clangor of the Gun, adds interesting information on Wyeth’s life and poetry. The two books are all you’ll need for an excellent background and appreciation of this little-known poet.

Wyeth’s work consists of 55 sonnets and we suspect his use of "odd" in his title has a double meaning: "more-or-less fifty" plus a hint that his sonnets are not "normal" ones. A traditional sonnet is 14 lines that follow a ten-beat meter (iambic pentameter) and has a consistent rhyme scheme. Numerous poets over the centuries have used the form and it’s still quite popular. A perfect example of a WWI sonnet (in my opinion) is Charles Sorley’s “When you see millions of the mouthless dead/Across your dreams in pale battalions go…”

Many poets have taken liberties with the traditional sonnet form. Wyeth frequently breaks his up to include conversation in English or French, as in number 42 where he relates his fruitless attempts to deliver some maps


A dusty sunset in a smoky sky,
And soldiers idling over the dry terrain.
“Stop here—they’re somewhere out by Harbonnières,
Give me the maps.”
          A rush of foaming flanks,
Australian caissons rattling, galloping by… (Sonnet 42)

These lines also reveal the poet’s tone and subject matter. His entire collection documents his personal experiences while serving in the AEF, from training to eventually joining the headquarters staff of the 33rd Division. He was never in combat but was at times quite close, and each poem describes a specific experience without any further analysis. We’re simply given very concrete vignettes:

Our sidecar jolted and rocked, twisting between
craters, lunging at every rack and wrench.
Through Bayonvillers—her dusty wreckage stank
of rotten flesh, a dead street overcast
with a half-sweet, fetid, cloying fog of stench. (Sonnet 41)

Another example of a "conversational" sonnet is number 30, where the confusion of divisional maneuvers is recounted:

“How’s the liaison, Major?”
         “Not so warm—
The General’s been ringin’ me up all day—‘G-2?
Hello!—Well Major, are you functioning?”
‘Yes sir, I’m functionig’—and here I set
All dolled up in my brand new uniform
And not one goddam message going through!” (Sonnet 30)

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An introduction to This Man’s Army by poet and scholar Dana Gioia, who served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts between 2003 and 2009, gives interesting information on Wyeth’s life and poetry while annotations to the text by BJ Omanson helpfully describe the background situation of each poem. As mentioned above, Omanson’s own book on Wyeth adds additional insight into this long-neglected poet and his work. A citation from Before the Clangor of the Gun gets right to the point:

Wyeth is above all an astute witness—whether of natural phenomena, the peripheries of battle, or the idiosyncrasies of soldiers. His description of everything from the sound of gas shells hurtling overhead, to the reckless banter of enlisted men playing craps, to the drifting perfume of dead men in a ruined village, are as precise and revealing as any in the literature of war. They are his distinguishing feature and what chiefly sets him apart from every other major poet of 1914–1918 (p. 70).

Days before the end of the war Wyeth found himself in an evacuation hospital in Souilly, diagnosed with influenza. This didn’t kill him, however, and he went on to live a long but sparsely recorded life. We do know he lost interest in poetry and took up painting, spending a lot of time in Europe. His penultimate poem (54) gives us a glimpse of his hospital experience:

Fever, and crowds—and light that cuts your eyes—
Men waiting in a long slow-shuffling line 
with silent private faces, white and bleak.
Long rows of lumpy stretchers on the floor.
My helmet drops—a head jerks up and cries
wide-eyed and settles in a quivering whine.
The air is rank with touching human reek.
A troop of Germans clatters through the door.
They cross our line and something in me dies.
Sullen, detached, obtuse—men into swine—
and hurt unhappy things that walk apart.
Their rancid bodies trail a languid streak
so curious that hate breaks down before
the dull and cruel laughter in my heart. (number 54)

If you’re interested in the unique rhyme scheme Wyeth employs you can easily determine it from this sonnet. If you’re not interested in poetical technicalities, that’s OK too. We can all enjoy reading these poems and short books to gain insight into the mind and experiences of a WWI poet who has been happily rediscovered after lying in obscurity for so many years.

David F. Beer




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5 comments:

  1. David, thank you for this excellent review. The poet's new to me.

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  2. The University of South Carolina Press Great War series is doing great work.

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  3. Michael KihntopfMay 28, 2019 at 4:04 PM

    Great review. Cheers

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  4. Thank you very much for the review, Mr Beer. Wyeth has received serious scholarly attention in England for some time now, thanks especially to the work of Tim Kendall, but Wyeth has so far received relatively little attention from American scholars of WWI poetry. Perhaps your review will help to remedy this. Thanks again.

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    1. You are most welcome, sir--and thank you for your note and for all your good work.

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