Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A (Mainly) Patriotic Song

As part of the Birmingham Literature Festival, I saw a poetry writing workshop at the library advertised with the theme of conflict, peace and reconciliation. Bringing together as it did two passions of mine, I decided to give it a go.

Poetry has always been something I have done both alone and untaught, so I was excited but also somewhat apprehensive about what it might entail. In reality it involved a few people who were interested in writing poetry doing so together, sharing words and ideas with some guidance from a couple of "real poets" (whatever that might mean!). Below is the poem which I began on that day and have added to and tinkered with since. I think it is now finished. It probably requires something of an explanation, so here goes:

The workshop began with a visit to the library's Voices of War exhibition as a source of inspiration. This poem was inspired by the front cover of a Patriotic Song, "Britannia's Glorious Flag". Musical references, then, run throughout the poem. When I looked at it, my eye was immediately (and probably slightly illogically) drawn to the top corner where there were some musical notes showing this was a piece of music written in a flat key, not what you would usually choose for an upbeat piece of music. Coupled with the stories in the exhibition of those who took a courageously anti-war stance, I wondered whether this could have been a tiny act of resistance, or at least a recognition that all was not joyful and triumphant. More normal for this kind of music would be a major key which lends itself nicely to a play on a double meaning.

The other thing that struck me about the propaganda items, including this one, is how we look at them and smile at the naivety in which people were taken in by them. We recognise them for what they are ...  but somehow cannot apply that same good sense to current military propaganda, and so 100 years on we fall for the same myths, just dressed up in different language and imagery.

Hopefully some, or all of that is portrayed in the poem below:

Mouths yawning wide
Eyes closed
We sing
Of patriotic duty
And naive hopes of victory
For flag and mother country

From somewhere in their midst
This one foresaw
There was a sombre note
And shared his voice
In this the choice
Of a B flat key
Some semblance
Of creativity

Perhaps he saw in his mind’s eye
On these dark lines
Which never meet
Too many
Cutting deep in flesh
And painted red

Perhaps he had already heard
What staccato beats
Through shattered minds
And resonate
In yearning hearts
In a silent fear
That dares no longer sing

And this his song
His only way
To say
He would not dance to the Major’s key

As looking back
With eyes made wise
With knowing smiles
We sagely nod
To this the tune
We say
We would not tap our feet to

And yet
The orchestra plays on
As still we listen
And close our eyes
To the murmur of these lullabies
A gentle drone
We hear as truth

As one white poppy
Still flutters
In a sprawling sea of red