In previous posts I’ve written about the power of poetry to soothe our hearts and calm our minds,and to teach us as writers about imagery and economy of language.
I attended a dirt- poor, rural school that had no teaching resources apart from chalkboards, textbooks and one 16mm film projector that was shared among all the teachers in grades 1-12. What we had were teachers who insisted that we learn the rules of grammar and spelling, and who required us to memorize and recite poems. Some of them, such as “The Little Turtle”, first memorized in third grade are still in my head along with “Invictus” a poem that my father loved until his last breath, and Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
In May of my fifth grade year, our teacher assigned John McCrae’s 1915 war poem, “In Flanders Fields”, often quoted now on Memorial Day. I memorized it and recited it, word perfect but didn’t think much about it until I became an author interested in knowing the stories behind the poems. In 1915, Major John McCrae was serving as a physician with his Canadian unit during the Second Battle of Ypres. The unit came under heavy fire and an 8 inch German shell exploded, killing 22-year old Lt. Alexis Helmer. The unit chaplain was not available to conduct Lt. Helmer’s funeral service, so Dr. McCrae filled in. It is said that he composed “In Flanders Fields” immediately afterwards. He submitted it to The Spectator magazine, which rejected it, but Punch magazine published it in December of 1915 . It became one of the most often quoted poems of the time and popularized the red poppy as the flower of remembrance for the fallen.
As you read his words, experience it as the author did. Feel his sorrow and his bravery, and notice also how his words paint a vivid picture of the field where artillery fire drowns out the songs of the lark, “still bravely singing by.” I hope this poem feasts your writer’s heart, and inspires you to seek unforgettable images for your writing.
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, May, 1915
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 by
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 us 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.
Did you memorize poems as a student? Have any of them “stuck in your head”? How have they influenced your writing? If you are a regular reader of poetry, which poets would you recommend to others? Leave a comment and let me know.