Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War Part 2

Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War Part 2
A medal designed by Karl Goetz to commemorate the Battle of Verdun; a terrible battle fought from February to December in 1916 in which over 300,000 soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands more wounded. This battle had as many losses as most wars saw in their entirety up to this point in history and it was still not the worst of the First World War. Death personified is shown whisking away a woman; an accurate and disturbing testament to the war that was supposed to end all wars.

For the last few months I have been gripped with a fascination of the First World War. It was one of the last topics in United States history I taught at the end of this past school year. As I have said before, I want to try to create an emotional connection to the war to help make learning about it matter. I hope I have, in some small way at least, achieved that with “Death Dances Across the World”.


"Death Dances Across the World"
By: Daniel Derasaugh

Within dark clouds and flashing light,
moving behind such a veil; a ghastly sight.
Tearing ground with every swipe.
Her gleaming scythe gathers from every type.

She looms over all,
as millions die and nations fall.
A towering wraith with a shroud of soot.
Broken bodies wail under foot.

She harvests, she gathers,
the ground breaks and taters.
Still millions more are sent.
Have not enough souls been spent?

Death dances across the world.
Incinerating peace and the last of hope.
Bursts of light from mortar shells,
reveal her form, the horror tells.

On November 11th her blade grows dull.
Blunted from many a reaped soul.  
Of this, the first of two great harvests ends,
as souls to heaven or hell the reaper sends.

“Death Dances Across the World” is my attempt to sum up the level of destruction and loss of life as a result of The First World War, while at the same time acknowledging in the last stanza that such a horrific global conflict would not be the last.

Personification of Death

I used the personification of death as a way to connect to the period. Death is not an unusual image used in relation to the First World War, or any event that causes such massive loss of life.

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Obverse of the British Recreated Version of Karl Goetz’s Lusitania Medal.

Goetz’s Verdun medal, shown in the featured image, and his Lusitania medal shown to the right, are just two of many examples that show death personified. It is this morbid theme that I am attempting to carry on with this poem.

The Goetz medal; the one shown here, is a British recreation that was produced as a propaganda piece to show the brutality of the German U-Boat attacks against civilian ships. Goetz’s original was made as a German propaganda piece to show disregard of the warnings of using passenger ships to transport arms and supplies to the Allied Power nations. The ticket salesman on the right side who is selling civilian passengers their tickets to the ship is shown to be a skeleton.

Using death as a character also carries another purpose. As fantastical as it is to imagine a monstrous skeletal figure hidden in the smoke of burning cities and battlefields walking across the land to reap the lives of soldiers and civilians, it is also not pleasant. It is supposed to be unsettling, but interesting as well.

Poetry as a Lure

The base purpose is to help readers visualize the consequences of the war and to build interest in the period and hopefully study it deeper. Perhaps using the creative avenue of poetry can help spark that interest. Some people do not need this, but others may. “Death Dances Across the World” and the two poems from  Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War are written to be lures to build interest. They are not something to study, but to be read before asking: “Do you/I want to know more?”

If we wish to the learn from the consequences of previous generations; good or bad, making it matter is key.  But we can not do any of that unless we know and understand the past.

I hope this helps.

Landscape
Ruins of Vaux, France in 1918

 

 

 

 

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Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War

Historical Poetry: Connecting to History Through Poetry – The First World War
A graveyard of sorts stands where a lush forest once grew. Broken and burnt trunks of trees stand as markers with smoke rising in the background. Haze, or more smoke, drift among the markers. Soldiers walk in the foreground with experiences detained as memories in their minds; experiences we could never fully understand, nor would we wish to. Yet we should seek to empathize with them as much as we can, to not just learn about history, but connect deeply with it, to understand the consequences of the past to help us prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Emotion and visualization are the best tools we can use to connect to a historical period or event. In my second post I included a quote by David McCullough, which I will include again because it works so well here:

History is about people. History is human… You have to get to know the people. You have to get inside their lives.

-David McCullough

The purpose of the following two poems is to inspire an emotional connection to the tragedy of the First World War. These are poems that describe a basic overview of the war itself, nothing specific about a person or event, so they do not go as deep as other poems about similar topics have, but it is a start for me, anyway.

The Great War
By: Daniel Derasaugh
A false calm hides resting chaos.
While forces build their strength.
Ignorant of their new power;
such destructive might.

Pressure mounts, peace strains.
Then a spark; a tiny yet terrible flash.
The vortex forms and rapidly death begins its spiral.
Churning and cranking.

Slowly, flesh is drawn to the grinder.
Faces and futures.
Torn and tattered.
Crimson to bone, bone to powder.

Only Echoes remain…

…echoes.
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Marching British soldiers, 1917.
Field of Battle
By: Daniel Derasaugh
It is silent now.
The earth is still, the air is calm
the last echoing moan has now ceased.
Succumbed, and silenced;
quiet.

Yet hours before,
Beneath a dark sky cloaked in clouds,
the ground rumbled with deep concussions.
Far away thunder and nearby blasts
cracked the air.

Doom, not weather.
Death, not rain.
The Earth lay torn and burning.
Rifles sang out their chorus,
Munitions burst with atmospheric flashes,
like lightening upon the horizon.

Death stood tall,
casting a cloaking shadow upon her spoils.
WWImontage
Trenches and the destroyed road to Bapaume.

The understanding that people experienced and endured periods we study is essential to making it matter. It allows us to connect to what ordinarily we can only know through a photo, or perhaps a video or written/verbal first hand accounts.

1024px-General_gouraud_french_army_world_war_i_machinegun_marne_1918
French soldiers in the ruins of a cathedral during the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918.

We have to tap into the emotions of those who experienced what we are studying, and to do that we have to tap into our own emotions in order to empathize as much as we can. We can never really match their experiences, but we should try to make our understanding as profound as we can.

The further the event was in the past, the more guesswork it becomes, but we can make educated guesses. The real goal is to seek that connection; make it matter, then get into the content and facts of the subject area.