FAREWELL TO ARMS : poems for Remembrance Day

In 2002, in a long piece for The Guardian, the distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that:

«The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187m, the equivalent of more than 10% of the world’s population in 1913. Taken as having begun in 1914, it was a century of almost unbroken war, with few and brief periods without organised armed conflict somewhere. It was dominated by world wars: that is to say, by wars between territorial states or alliances of states»,

instantly making 187 000 000 a hideous, terrible number. This is all the more so because, as Eduardo Galeano’s first poetic prose piece suggests, war is not inevitable.

This year’s Remembrance Day poetic offerings will thus focus on the 20th century, in the hopes that lessons have been learned and will not soon be forgotten.

In the second excerpt from his last book, Galeano reminds us that war is iniquitous and trangresses every border (see also EDUARDO GALEANO’S CHILDREN OF THE DAYS).

In Vietnamese scholar Ngo Vinh Long’s acute, brief poem, the endgame of the Vietnam war is made clear.

The following two poems bring us directly onto the battlefields of Europe, followed by William Stafford’s stark reminder that we still live in a nuclear world.

And then there is the hopefulness of Wendell Berry’s moving poem, which evokes the natural world’s ability to heal itself and to heal us, and which reminds us that we are all, in fact, one on this beautiful planet.


“December 1


Costa Rica’s president Don Pepe Figueres once said: “Here, the only wrong thing is everything.“ 

And in the year 1948 he disbanded his armed forces.

Many were those who decried it as the end of the world, or at least the end of Costa Rica.

But the world kept on turning, and Costa Rica was kept safe from wars and coups d’état.“

Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days


“March 21


In the entire history of human butchery, World War II was the war that killed the most people. But the accounting came up short.

Many soldiers from the colonies never appeared on the lists of the dead. They were Australian aborigines, Birmanians, Filipinos, Algerians, Senegalese, Vietnamese, and so many other black, brown and yellow people obliged to die for the flags of their masters.

When they are alive, people are ranked first, second, third or fourth class. When they are dead too.“

Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days


UNTITLED –Ngo Vinh Long

On this landviet26

Where each blade of grass is human hair   

Each foot of soil is human flesh

Where it rains blood

Hails bones

Life must flower

From: The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, 

longley, michael (1)

MUD TURF–by Michael Longley,  The Stairwell

He remembered at Passchendaele

Where men and horses drowned in the mud,

His bog apprenticeship, mud turf,

Shovelling mud up out of the drain

Onto the bank where it was dried:

Mud turf kept the home fires burning.


ANONYMOUS (Stanzas found on a leaf of an International Brigader’s notebook)–mid-1930s

Bill Kennedy’s WWII poetry book and letters from Reg Wingate source: http://www.armymuseum.co.nz/collections/recent-acquisitions/

Eyes of men running, falling, screaming  

Eyes of men shouting, sweating, bleeding

The eyes of the fearful, those of the sad

The eyes of exhaustion, and those of the mad.

Eyes of men thinking, hoping, waiting

Eyes of men loving, cursing, hating

The eyes of the wounded sodden in red

The eyes of the dying and those of the dead.

FromThe New Oxford Book of War Poetry, 


AT THE BOMB TESTING SITE–William Stafford (1960)

At noon in the desert a panting lizard

waited for history, its elbows tense,

watching the curve of a particular roadaa6e440720f9ab086770f45cbe0da3c1

as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off

than people could see, an important scene

acted in stone for little selves

at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it

under a sky that never cared less.

Ready for a change, the elbows waited.

The hands gripped hard on the desert.



When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.

Click  here to listen to Wendell Berry read his poem.

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