A Story for Memorial Day

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.



4 thoughts on “A Story for Memorial Day

  1. Rebecca DeMarino

    Dorothy, thank you for sharing this lovely poem and the story behind it. It touches my heart. Interesting, too, about the red poppies. You and I share a favorite poem! I memorized Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening in the fifth grade and it has always remained my favorite. Writer’s Caffeine is always inspiring!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Thank YOU for stopping by here. I love learning the story behind the story….and this one really touched my heart. “Snowy Woods” has to be one of the best American poems of all time. I think the reason some people eschew poetry is that some contemporary poetry, okay, much of it, is not very accessible to the average reader and I certainly include myself in that category. Years ago when I lived in Iowa, an Iowa poet named Jorie Graham won the Pulitzer Prize for her poems “Dreams of a Unified Field”. I bought the book, and will confess I did not understand any of them. Whereas, Frost is so direct, his poems are sturdy and accessible. Emerson, too. Whitman. It seems that contemporary poets feel they need to be obtuse, or maybe they don’t care care to speak to us average folks…I loved “Flanders Fields” because it’s both beautiful and completely understandable, to even the most casual of readers.

  2. Rebecca DeMarino

    I think you are so right! I like poems and stories that can make me feel what is being portrayed. I have always been able to feel the crisp cold of the snow, the warmth of the horse’s muzzle and the quietness of the woods in that poem. You feel you are there.

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