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Carentan O Carentan -- Louis Simpson

       
(Poem #1013) Carentan O Carentan
 Trees in the old days used to stand
 And shape a shady lane
 Where lovers wandered hand in hand
 Who came from Carentan.

 This was the shining green canal
 Where we came two by two
 Walking at combat-interval.
 Such trees we never knew.

 The day was early June, the ground
 Was soft and bright with dew.
 Far away the guns did sound,
 But here the sky was blue.

 The sky was blue, but there a smoke
 Hung still above the sea
 Where the ships together spoke
 To towns we could not see.

 Could you have seen us through a glass
 You would have said a walk
 Of farmers out to turn the grass,
 Each with his own hay-fork.

 The watchers in their leopard suits
 Waited till it was time,
 And aimed between the belt and boot
 And let the barrel climb.

 I must lie down at once, there is
 A hammer at my knee.
 And call it death or cowardice,
 Don't count again on me.

 Everything's all right, Mother,
 Everyone gets the same
 At one time or another.
 It's all in the game.

 I never strolled, nor ever shall,
 Down such a leafy lane.
 I never drank in a canal,
 Nor ever shall again.

 There is a whistling in the leaves
 And it is not the wind,
 The twigs are falling from the knives
 That cut men to the ground.

 Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
 The way to turn and shoot.
 But the Sergeant's silent
 That taught me how to do it.

 O Captain, show us quickly
 Our place upon the map.
 But the Captain's sickly
 And taking a long nap.

 Lieutenant, what's my duty,
 My place in the platoon?
 He too's a sleeping beauty,
 Charmed by that strange tune.

 Carentan O Carentan
 Before we met with you
 We never yet had lost a man
 Or known what death could do.
-- Louis Simpson
This is a poem of contrasts. Some of these are made explicit, such as that
between lovers walking hand in hand and soldiers patrolling in pairs, or
that between the peace of the countryside and the fury of aerial bombardment
[1]. More subtle and powerful, though, are the contrasts left implicit, and
the most important of these is the contrast between the language of the poem
and its topic. The former is simple, almost naive; the syntax is childlike,
the words used elementary. The repetitive pattern of the last few verses,
the apostrophes to the narrator's mother and various commanding officers
(figures of (compassionate) authority all), the occasionally juvenile
prosody - all these contribute to a 'nursery-rhyme' kind of feeling. And
it's precisely this which gives the poem its power: by inverting the usual
relationship between form and content, the narrator invests the poem with a
peculiarly nightmarish quality. Here simplicity does not imply ease; here
innocence does not imply deliverance; here euphemism, far from degrading or
downplaying the enormity of the events being depicted, adds to their horror.

And oh, the horror. The last stanza easily ranks as one of the most poignant
pieces of verse I've ever read. Wilfred Owen once wrote, "The Poetry is in
the Pity"; today's poem testifies to the truth of that statement.

thomas.

[1] I thought this phrase was original to me, but a quick Google search
reveals that it's actually the title of a fairly celebrated poem by one
Richard Eberhart. I _thought_ it sounded familiar.

[Biography]

Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1923, the son of a lawyer
of Scottish descent and a Russian mother. He emigrated to the United States
at the age of seventeen, studied at Columbia University, then served in the
Second World War with the 101st Airborne Division on active duty in France,
Holland, Belgium, and Germany. After the war he continued his studies at
Columbia and at the University of Paris. While living in France he published
his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949). He worked as an editor in a
publishing house in New York, then earned a Ph.D. at Columbia and went on to
teach at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the State
University of New York at Stony Brook.

In 1975 the publication of Three on the Tower, a study of Ezra Pound, T. S.
Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, brought Simpson wide acclaim as a
literary critic. His other books of criticism include Ships Going Into the
Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (1994), The Character of the Poet (1986), A
Company of Poets (1981), and A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas,
Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (1978).

Louis Simpson has published seventeen books of original poetry, including
Nombres et poussière (Atelier La Feugraie, 1996); There You Are (Story Line,
1995); In the Room We Share (1990); Collected Poems (1988); People Live
Here: Selected Poems 1949-83 (1983); The Best Hour of the Night (1983);
Caviare at the Funeral (1980); Armidale (1979); Searching for the Ox (1976);
Adventures of the Letter I (1971); Selected Poems (1965); At the End of the
Open Road, Poems (1963), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; and A Dream of
Governors (1959). He is also the author of a memoir, The King My Father's
Wreck (Story Line, 1995), and published a volume entitled Selected Prose in
1989. His Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (Story Line Press)
won the Academy's 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Among his
many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim
Foundation, and the Columbia Medal for Excellence. Louis Simpson lives in
Setauket, New York.

        -- www.poets.org

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

+++ Abraham Thomas [08/03/02 03:55 +0900]:
> And oh, the horror. The last stanza easily ranks as one of the most poignant
> pieces of verse I've ever read. Wilfred Owen once wrote, "The Poetry is in
> the Pity"; today's poem testifies to the truth of that statement.

An excellent followup to this, if you haven't carried it before (which I
doubt, considering just about everything seems to have appeared in minstrels)
is Walt Whitman's 'O Captain, My Captain'.

There was something in this poem which made me want to go back and re-read
that .. and quite apt too, as it was written at the end of the civil war to
mourn Lincoln's assasination, if I'm not wrong.

--srs

Rajagopalan Ravi (Ravi) said...

Hi Guys

Another reference to Carentan can be found in the recent 'Band of Brothers'
by Stephen Ambrose. This is the history of the E Company, 506th PIR, 101st
Airborne Regiment of the US Army. An action was fought here by the E Company
just after D-Day with fearful loss of life in the 101st Airborne.

Regards

Ravi Rajagopalan
Lucent Technologies

Efax

BernardBryceland said...

Does the line, "It's all in the game" pre-date the song of that title?

Alan said...

For other historical sources on the Carentan battle, see Night Drop by S.L.A. Marshall, and Currahee! by Donald Burgett.

walt said...

Charles Derning read this poem while narrating a television program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy, June 6, 1944. It was quite moving to hear his rich baritone over the combat footage of the fighting along the Carentan Canal. The poet was a 21-year-old paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, which made legend when it attacked across the French coast in the pre-invasion darkness. German paratroopers who defended the Carentan Peninsula wore camouflage smocks in a spotted pattern, like leopards. Derning, a very successful actor in Hollywood and on Broadway, plays roly-poly characters, the personality of Falstaff. But on that terrible morning, he was with the first troops ashore at Omaha Beach, and like the lucky ones, was wounded before he could get off the sand. He made a very touching address on June 6, 1994, to the assembled veterans and international dignitaries at the anniversary celebration. All his comedic power turned somber. Powerful stuff.

Walt O'Connell

Galway, Ireland

Anonymous said...

charles derning my friend may have been lucky at omaha beach but he was very very lucky my friend to have survived the malmady massacre by the german ss ps bill oriely is a waste of human flesh

Anonymous said...

What is the significance of "Such trees we never knew."?

Is it a reference to species of trees unknown to the soldiers from the US, or could it be a reference to so called Rommel's asparagus, which were cut tree trunks placed as upright poles in the ground to cause damage to landing gliders?

Anonymous said...

I should have checked with my wife before posting about the significance of "Such trees . . .." She says it means the trees originally there were gone. Would that mean destroyed by war activities, say blown-down or cut down by the Germans?

How did the "shady lane" in the first stanza become "the shining green canal" in the second? Was this a reference to the intentional flooding of low areas by the Germans?

Billy Lake said...

Dear Annonymous,I take the meaning of "Such trees we never knew" as to be quite literal and the trees were beautiful especially when in the moment and adrenaline is flowing.The heighten reality of beauty before tragedy makes ones awareness more keen.Although the wife saying the trees were blown down correalates with the verse "The twigs are falling from the knives that cut men to the ground"

Billy Lake said...

Not only is this the most beautiful poem ever written Charles Durning read it masterfully.What is even more striking is the descriptive critique above by the signed "thomas" at the top of the page.The terse yet vivid lines such as "the sky was blue but there a smoke hung still above the sea." These lines and use of Louis Simpson's language gives the reader a vivid picture of time and place as he was known for.Where ships together spoke to towns we could not see."Since Mr. Durning is our most highest decorated soldier I decided to read this but never as good as he.Anyone who likes can hear it this at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKFOtPEeH24

Joe Kidd said...

Charles Durning, Rest In Peace.

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