Saturday, December 10, 2016

Joyce Kilmer and godlessness in poetry

Kilmer in 1908 and ca. 1917
Visiting England in 1914, upon seeing the long lines of men waiting to enlist, Joyce Kilmer—American poet and journalist—exclaimed, "My God, if I look at these boys much longer I'll have to hook on at the tail of this queue and join up with them!" He enlisted on 23 April 1917, shortly after America entered WWI. Just a few short months before enlisting, however, Kilmer would interview Florence Earle Coates on godlessness in poetry, where we glean the following gems from Mrs. Coates:

"The business of art is to enlarge and correct the heart and to lift our ideals out of the ugly and the mean through love of the ideal. ... The business of art is to appeal to the soul."
"...poetry needed no renascence. It was not young, it is not old."
"Beauty is eternal and ugliness, thank God, is ephemeral.  Can there be any question as to which should attract the poet?"

Kilmer was killed in action on 30 July 1918, but not before he sang—reportedly—his last song:
THE PEACEMAKER
UPON his will he binds a radiant chain,
     For Freedom's sake he is no longer free.
     It is his task, the slave of Liberty,
With his own blood to wipe away a stain.
That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain
     To banish war, he must a warrior be.
     He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,
And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.
What matters Death, if Freedom be not dead?
     No flags are fair, if Freedom's flag be furled.
Who fights for Freedom, goes with joyful tread
     To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,
And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head
     Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.
The Saturday Evening Post cover (12 October 1918)
in which appears Kilmer's "The Peacemaker"
"Godlessness Mars Most Contemporary Poetry" was published in The New York Times Magazine (10 December 1916).

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