Reader’s Corner: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry

German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)
German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)

This Saturday June 28 marked one of the year’s uglier anniversaries: 100 years since the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was gunned down in Sarajevo, helping to topple that teetering Rube Goldberg contraption of treaties and animosities that started World War I.

More books will be written about the causes of the war, the way it was fought, the aftermath, and so on. Relatively few of those books’ pages will have much to do with one of the war’s most important aspects: What it was like for the soldiers unlucky enough to have fought it.

For that, we could do worse than to look back at the great Wilfred Owen, a young British officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers who was killed in action just one week before the Armistice. From his mournful, furious Dulce et Decorum Est, about a soldier dying from a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Latin in the last two lines is usually translated as “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” It’s a rather odious line from Horace that has often been taken seriously, most often by the sort of propagandists who like to get young men exited about going off to war.

New in Theaters: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ Probes Activist’s Suicide

Aaron Swartz: 'The Internet's Own Boy' (Filmbuff)
Aaron Swartz: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ (Filmbuff)

Netzien Aaron Swartz’s suicide was a rallying cry for many in the tightly-wired community of online activists. The story of this 26-year-old’s short, dramatic, impassioned life makes up the new activist documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.

The Internet’s Own Boy is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Maybe it’s something about Boston. For the second time this summer we’re seeing a documentary hinging on bad behavior in the city’s federal law-enforcement community. Although Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger paints a damning portrait of prosecutor indiscretion, Brian Knappenberger’s melodramatic, idealistic The Internet’s Own Boyis more troubling. That could be because in Berlinger’s case, it’s hard to get worked up about the mishandling of a case against the screamingly guilty and murderous Bulger, whereas with Knappenberger the victim is a widely beloved 26-year-old Internet activist who hung himself, arguably after being zealously hounded by the government. That the film doesn’t quite prove, or try to prove, that (as one unseen voice has it) “[Swartz] was killed by the government,” it makes for disturbing viewing nonetheless…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: June 27, 2014


New in Theaters: ‘Whitey’ Gives its Subject Too Much Credit

‘Whitey’ Bulger in his younger years (Magnolia Pictures)

whitey-posterJoe Berlinger has worked on some amazing true-crime documentaries over the years, not least the ground-breaking Paradise Lost trilogy. With Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, though, he (inadvertently or not) buoys the facetious mythology of Southie crime boss ‘Whitey’ Bulger as some noble gangster.

Whitey opens today in limited release and will probably show up on cable later in the year. My review is at Film Racket:

Fortuitously hitting theaters well before Scott Cooper’s fictional (and likely mythological) take on Bulger’s life, Whitey doesn’t try to be the feature-length nonfiction take on the South Boston crime lord. Instead, true-crime documentarian Berlinger zeros in on the sort of thing he normally does best: the trial itself…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: The Uses of Poetry, If Any

Poetry mosaic at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson building (Library of Congress)
Poetry mosaic at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building (Library of Congress)

William Logan is a poet, though we shouldn’t hold that against him. He wrote with good-natured verve last week for the Times on his chosen metier and whether or not it really serves any purpose. In “Poetry: Who Needs It?” Logan’s summation of the current state of verse is notable for its directness, not to mention being just plain right:

The dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one…

Does this matter? Is it a problem that schoolchildren who were once made to memorize at least some piece of doggerel (even if it was just something from Kipling) now encounter poetry only as that thing which they’re told is good to “express themselves”?

Probably not, but Logan’s proposal is a sound one nonetheless. Try teaching poetry again, he says:

Shakespeare and Pope and Milton by the fifth grade; in high school, Dante and Catullus in the original. By graduation, they would know Anne Carson and Derek Walcott by heart. A child taught to parse a sentence by Dickinson would have no trouble understanding Donald H. Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown unknowns.

If nothing else, it would beat learning all that horribly useful STEM curricula now the rage in our nation’s schools. Who knows? A few more dreamy and unemployable poets might lighten up the country.

New in Theaters: The Non-Musical ‘Jersey Boys’

The 'Jersey Boys' sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)
The ‘Jersey Boys’ sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)

jerseyboys-poster1If the touring production hasn’t played at a downtown theater near you yet, it soon will. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys was already one of the most successful of the jukebox musicals that have plagued enriched Broadway over the past few years; and that was before Clint Eastwood (having a week or two off, apparently) decided to make it into a movie. One point for his unaccountably dull and strangely non-musical version: It has Christopher Walken.

Jersey Boys opened wide on Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

When Rob Marshall filmed Chicago, he didn’t try to jam Bob Fosse’s meta-narrative into a standard dramatic structure. Marshall understood that film viewers can accept, just as theatergoers do, that the characters will occasionally start belting out a song with full-band accompaniment against an instantaneously-appearing backdrop; reality be damned. Certainly he tarted up the whole thing with quick edits and spotlight razzle-dazzle, but it stayed true to the original show’s spirit. This is not the case in Jersey Boys

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: June 20, 2014