When has war not been a kind of life?

–I finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” from World War I and the following lines:

What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream? 
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication? 
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….

“What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?” reminded me of an anecdote from John Ashbery, the poet, in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s appetite—his form of hunger—did indeed produce the perfect drawing. Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me of very different story, seeming to make the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, what can be more perfect than the image that emerges, infallibly and unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

–Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: Somehow together, and find this too is life.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

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