It has been a long, busy time since I last posted, so I shall resume with a few items which I hope will be of interest to others than myself.
Last Sunday, November 4, was the 100th anniversary of the death of Wilfred Owen, whom I regard as the greatest of the Great War poets, and one of the most important poets of the 20th century. I read back through his wartime works and was as moved as I have been since I discovered him in high school. As I have written here earlier, I consider his poem “Exposure” to be one of the best poems of the last century, and I continue to be in awe of its power and stunning originality. In my centennial rereading of Owen, I came across a poem which I had not really appreciated before. It is entitled “A Terre,” and it is, I think, almost on the level of “Exposure.” Once again Owen shows a mastery of slant rhyme that is unparalleled in English poetry. As in “Exposure,” the near-rhymes of “A Terre” are breathtaking; for example: brutes/brats, hitting/hurting, turn/tan, rut/rot. It is the mark of a true artist that he can get away with such brash irregularities, which would be considered ineptitude in a lesser talent. The message of the poem is jarring – the soldier/speaker has, through severe wounds, become a pathetic artifact of war, and longs only to live a marginal existence, or to become a part of Nature in his death.
Owen’s death, one week before the armistice, was an incalculable loss to poetry. Some romantics argue that it was the war that made him a great poet, and that he probably would not have created at such a lofty level in its aftermath. But I think, and “A Terre” makes clear, that this is nonsense. The wounded soldier himself declares that he would rather be his servant’s slave, or a blackened chimney sweep, or a rat, or a microbe, just to have a chance at life again. That being impossible, he then prays, referencing Shelley, that he may return to Nature as a flower or a plant.
I shall be better off with plants that share
More peaceably the meadow and the shower.
Soft rains will touch me, -- as they could touch once,
And nothing but the sun shall make me ware.
Your guns may crash around me. I’ll not hear;
Or, if I wince, I shall not know I wince.
I wish he had survived, so that we might have seen what sense he would have made of the post-war world, of its frantic festivity, its socialist mania, its shameful appeasement of evil, and its unbending arc towards an even greater war. It is painful to think what Owen would have written about the coming of that war, which made his own seem meager by comparison. I suppose he would have warned us, and, having failed, as Churchill failed, he would have eulogized the tens of millions in advance, and foreshadowed the Holocaust, and wondered in serrated rhymes what the hell his own war had been for.
In reading through my volume of Great War poetry, I was reminded of what a fine, dispassionate poet Isaac Rosenberg was, second only to Owen. His “Break of Day in the Trenches,” is, I think, his best work, and worthy to be put alongside that of his great peer. Siegfried Sassoon was a good poet, though not a great one. “The Redeemer” is, I think, his best poem, and his thinly fictionalized account of the trenches, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, is a very good book. It is one of the great ironies of the war that Wilfred Owen was put in a hospital bed next to Sassoon, who saw his talent and encouraged him to publish.
I find myself struggling with Laurence Binyon’s famous poem “For the Fallen,” which has become a sort of anthem to the dead. Apparently, school children in England are made to memorize its final verse, and it is recited with suitable solemnity on every Remembrance Day. I have two problems with it, however. First is the language. It contains some wonderful lines and images; for example:
There is music in the midst of our desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The final line never fails to move me:
To the end, to the end, they remain.
But even these stirring lines are very close to becoming maudlin, a fault which Binyon succumbs to at other places in the poem, as in “Solemn the drums thrill,” “They fell with their faces to the foe,” “They sleep beyond England’s foam,” and others. The poem is shot through with clichés, as when Binyon talks about England’s soldiers being “flesh of her flesh…spirit of her spirit,” and when he states that the dead “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.” This is the sort of commonplace sentiment of which Owen and Rosenberg would not have approved. In general, the poem’s diction is ordinary and, at one moment, downright incompetent: “As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness.”
One wonders why Binyon made this strange gesture. Could he not think of any other adjective? Surely Wilfred Owen would have done something breathlessly original at that moment. To say that stars are starry says nothing, it is redundant and pointless, and marks the poet out, I think, as rather an amateur than an artist.
The other problem I have with the poem is a larger, contextual one. The early poetry of World War I was as naïve and thoughtlessly patriotic as the young men who went to France in 1914, expecting a short, relatively bloodless war. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” with its famous and fatuous lines: “If I should fall think only this of me;/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England…” is emblematic of the fact that the men of his generation had no idea of the technological hell into which they were marching. To my mind, Binyon’s poem brings us full circle: it is a deeply romanticized view of the boys who were sent to the slaughter and never returned. Wilfred Owen would have responded to it that, far from being glorious and eternally young, they would much rather have been alive, and have grown old without eulogies and crutches.
As long as we are on the subject of writing, let me indulge myself in the perennial bugaboo of the screenwriter: the free rewrite. In the thirty-or-so years I have worked in Hollywood (or its environs), I have seen the producers’ appetite for free work increase dramatically. It used to be requested, then it was demanded, now it is simply expected. The practice is so pervasive these days, so much a part of the ethos of film making, that not the Writers Guild or even writers themselves challenge it anymore. This year I have done more free work than any in my career; and not just polishes – substantial rewrites and even entire drafts.
Why don’t you just refuse, you ask? The answer is that, more often than not, you have no choice. The four principal tactics the producers use to extort free work from you are: 1) they threaten to cancel the project if you do not agree, 2) they tell you they will not send the script to a director unless you “improve” it, 3) they threaten to fire you and find someone who will gladly do the work for scale or even on spec, 4) they promise to pay you if and when the film’s financing is in place. Of course, if you refuse to work for free, you will be labelled as “not a team player,” and you will not be considered for future jobs.
As I said, this attitude is such standard practice now that no one even bothers to question it, and the union appears to have simply given up trying to deal with it. At the last contract negotiation, for example, the issue of free rewrites was taken off the table at the very first meeting with producers. Yet not a single other employee on the film which you have written, and, in some cases have created, will be asked to work for free, let alone expected to. The Guild has shown itself time after time, year after year, contract after contract, to be incapable of preventing this practice - a practice that reinforces the age-old view of the writer as a necessary nuisance at best, and a sap at worst.
Yet the solution is simple: The Guild should keep a record of the number of writing steps in a member’s contract and compare it with the number of drafts turned in. Any draft submitted that is not compensated should constitute a violation of the Minimum Basic Agreement by which all screenwriters live and work, and timely payment should be demanded, or a penalty will be imposed. That, it seems to me, would solve the problem. If you do work, you get paid; if you do work and you don’t get paid, the employer is penalized. Period.