Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Puptent Poets, 1945 — Intro


A couple-three days ago, I blogged about a book titled Puptent Poets that I lucked upon in a used bookstore. It’s the genuine article, the real thing, from 1945, with old newsprint paper. It’s even got a torn couple of pages where a previous owner had tried to slit two pages apart but probably used a finger rather than the requisite blade. Such character in this particular book I’ve got in my hands. I really ought to put it in an archival plastic sleeve.

The reason I say “the real thing” is that Puptent Poets has evidently been reissued within recent time, sez Amazon. In 2002, to be precise. And with an “improved" cover. (On the left below is the redesigned 2002 cover, on the right the original 1945 cover.) The title of the book is certainly easier to read in the new cover; in the original one, the letters spelling out “Puptent Poets” blend into the map behind them. Nevertheless, I’m still partial to the old cover. Though, undoubtedly, the paper of the reissue will last longer than the paper in my 1945 book. (By the way, Amazon also has for sale the old Puptent Poets.)

   

I’m subtitling today's post “Intro” because I thought I’d show you the Foreword of the book. The story of how Puptent Poetry came to be is fascinating. (This is in italics because the foreword is italicized in the book.)

Foreword

        Throughout the Mediteranean Theater of war, it is respectable to be a poet.
        Men in uniform who might once have regarded poetry as a matter for “long hairs” and “softies,” are writing poems themselves and, what’s more, signing them.
        Truck drivers are no less inclined toward the muse than the company cook; a machinegunner will dash off a verse during the lull of battle; the stony-faced topkick is producing love lyrics, and there’s a laureate in every company. As one CO remarked:
        “It's a wonder we get any work done.”
        The birth of the Puptent Poet took place more than two years ago when The Stars and Stripes, Mediterranean, in its first issue published in Algiers, opened its columns to soldier verse.
        It was a modest beginning. A mail censor named Lt. Gillespie turned in a few stanzas on the theme that he had accidentally slashed up one of his own letters while censoring company mail. The next issue contained a cynical, anonymous verse berating the thick mud of Oran.
        It may not have been apparent at the time, but the two versifiers had set a pattern for two years of Mediterranean poetry. From the beginning, the poetry department of The Stars and Stripes was open to all ranks. Furthermore, no one had to be a great poet, nor even a very good one to break into print.
        Poems came in faster than the editors had dared to hope. From Casablanca to the sand-swept wadis of Tunisia, soldiers struck out boldly, discovering first that some thing were better said in poetry than prose and, second, that The Stars and Stripes would publish what they wrote.
        Critical standards set by newspapers in the United States were never adopted. Poetry critics were not allowed on the premises. What went into the paper was the best of the Army's verse-making that day, or that week. If the meter was wobbly and the rhymes eccentric or missing, no one got excited.
        In two years of Puptent Poetry, no great war poet has revealed himself. What the Puptent Poets department has provided is a kind of open forum whose only requirements are a poetic leaning and an interest in writing about the war as well as living it. The result has been about 1,000 published poems in a little more than two years, and about 15 times that figure filed or returned to the writer with a note of regret.
        Returning these notes and encouraging the Puptent Poets to try again has given Cpl. John Welsh, III, of Washington, D. C., a steady job as chief poetry editor and has made him one of the busiest correspondents in the theater.
        Together with Cpl. Charles A. Hogan, of Trenton, N. J., who served as poetry editor of the Naples edition before going to France in a similar capacity, Cpl. Welsh compiled this the first Stars and Stripes Puptent Poet anthology.

                                                                                —The Editors

Here’s the first poem in the book; I’m guessing this sonnet has pride of place, on a page by itself, because it also functions as a kind of intro.

Hatred’s Yield

I’ve seen “the crosses row on row,”
I’ve seen the graves at Anzio.
In Flanders fields men cannot sleep—
Their faith, the world found hard to keep.
Versailles’ fate was slyly sealed
Before earth’s gaping wounds had healed,
And now again rows of crosses
Mutely tell of nations’ losses.
In how many fields,
In how many lands
Will soldiers die by soldiers’ hands?
Until at long last mankind yields
To truth and reason’s studied choice
Ignoring hatred’s strident voice.

                    —Pvt. Jack P. Nantell

When I was researching the poetry of the Vietnam war for my book Radical Visions, I often found references to poems in Stars and Stripes — just references, mostly, not actual quotations of poems — and usually scholars would say those poems were gung-ho, pro-war, unlike, say, the best work of Wilfred Owen. Well, looking at this poem that’s walking point in Puptent Poets, it would seem this scholarly viewpoint is a bit off the mark, at least in the WWII context. While Private Nantell is no Wilfred Owen, antiwar sentiment is shared by the two poets.

Nantell’s sonnet starts off in the manner of John Clare, in couplets or pairs of rhymed lines. In the poem’s opening, Nantell displays quite a bit of acumen about WWII’s political relationship to WWI. At the beginning of line 9, at the volta or turn employed by Petrarch in his Italian sonnet, the form of the poem changes in a savvy-filled switch to an envelope quatrain (abba), used often by Petrarch. And then Nantell returns in lines 13 and 14 to Clare’s couplets. My point is a simple one: Nantell is no slouch in his “sonnet-ing”; this private knows his prosody. One revealing gesture occurs in the line “soldiers die by soldiers’ hands”; since there is no identification here of the various sides of friend and foe, Nantell is suggesting that soldiers are soldiers, regardless of which side they fight on — a theme that is parallel to WWI verse by Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and others. Nantell, he the man.

Okay, enough analysis. As the book’s Foreword says, “Poetry critics were not allowed on the premises” when Puptent Poets was being put together in the Mediterranean editorial offices of The Stars and Stripes. As in my previous post about this anthology, I’ve made no corrections to either the poem or the foreword. Watch for more on Puptent Poets soon.


Won’t you comment, please, friends? Look for a blue link below that says Post a comment and click it once. If you don’t see that, look for a red line that starts Posted by Vince, then click once on the word comments in that line.

Ingat, everyone.  



Note: the first post about the Puptent Poets anthology can be read here.

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