On Memorial Day, We Remember

Writing occasional poems for Memorial Day shouldn’t be difficult–as long as we can imagine our audience’s perspectives about this commemorative day.

For Memorial Day isn’t a holiday. It’s not a vacation. It’s not a holy day. It is a day to remember those we have lost and the reasons their sacrifice was necessary. A day to remember when many rose to altruism and overcame selfish needs.

And a day to remember that entering into situations that cause such altruistic sacrifices should not be lightly done.

Two Soldier Poems for Memorial Day

Two poems perfectly capture the warning that Memorial Day is, from the soldiers who are gone to the blithe population that never understands.

In Flanders Field by John MacCrae

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, fly
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 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.

MacCrae’s Poetic Craft at Work

When we glance at this poem, we see the strong rhyme, the opening alliteration, and the juxtaposition of nature with the violence of war, given in the last line of this first stanza.

Deceptively simple, we think, and we are wrong. The power of the first sentence in the second stanza proves it. Lines 2 and 3 of this second stanza connects the Dead with us the Living. So little distance between us, so little separation–that we could also lie there, in Flanders Fields.

He continues his juxtaposition, not only between the LIving and the Dead, but also with dawn and sunset > the span of a day, the span of a life, too short, cut short before we would want it to be.

The third stanza provides the warning. The Dead sacrificed themselves for us. We cannot let the torch they lit be extinguished. If we do, we are cursed, for they will not sleep.

In Flanders Fields Clip Art
Canadian War Bond poster, from https://publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com/2015/07/in-flanders-fields-clip-art.html

#2 of Poems for Memorial Day

Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke’s Poetic Craft at Work

Brooke writes a sonnet, octet and sestet with the accepted ABAB CDCD EFGEFG rhyme.

The Octet

He ties the first and second stanzas together with the word “think” in the first line of each, an obvious connection. Not so obvious is his focus on the physical in the first stanza and the intellectual / emotional of the second. This is working with Plato’s TriPartite Being, body and mind and soul that forms us all.

Mentioning the England of his home, the little dirt of his body that is England in a foreign land, and “English air” and “English heaven” develops the reminder that his death was for his country, for the ideals that his country stood for rather than petty treasure or revenge.

The allusion to the graveside “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” becomes more powerful as he works out the body that gave itself for its homeland: “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed / A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware …”

“Bore, shaped, made aware” is a classic asyndeton, continued on the next line with “Gave”, and the verb introduces the beauty of the country that gave birth to this son who sacrificed himself for her ~

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

The Sestet

The last six lines become all the more powerful, for they capture the person that is lost, not just his body but his mind and heart.

The grouped first three are the mind shedding evil, returning to the universal “pulse” and releasing a connection to the land of his birth. The last three are pure emotion: happiness, laughter, gentleness, and peace ~ those four things that all soldiers long for when the violence of war is all around them.

Poems for Memorial Day Help Us to Remember the Sacrifice

Memorial Day is the day we set aside to remember our soldiers, lost in foreign and domestic conflicts, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s continued existence and our citizenry’s continued freedom.

Memorial Day is gradually extending to include more than soldiers on the battle fronts.

We have Independence Day to celebration our nation’s founding and Veteran’s Day to honor our warriors. We have Labor Day to honor the workers who helped America progress and become the dream of every oppressed worker in the world.

And we have other commemorations that offer opportunities for poets to practice their craft.

MacCrae and Brooke are master poets. Emulate the masters (don’t copy; study and model) to improve your own poetic skills.

Coming Up: Poems for Father’s Day