Dulce Et Decorum Est -- A Dramatist's Point of View
by Troy M. Hughes"Dulce Et Decorum Est"
A poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
As a writer of some good, some bad, and mostly mediocre poetry, I have often wondered what it is that makes a great poem great. I found myself disillusioned and mystified by the whole business. I could never compare to Yeats, whose words I once spray-painted on a wall because I loved them so. Nor would I be a Shakespeare; a creator of works in a definitive form, the sonnet.
And there I was, stuck. I had no patience for formula and rigidity, as I saw it. I knew what expression was, and I would be damned if some academician (i.e. my esteemed colleague), would tell me my work was invalid because I did not follow formal rhythmic rules and proper meter. "Leave technicalities to the musicians", I cried. Which showed just how much I knew about poetry.
Now I still believe that we need not be hampered by form. The talented poet writing opposite me once exposed me to the wonderful world of sestina. I have yet to compose a worthwhile example, but the challenge of creating in that strict of a format is rewarding. And very frustrating.
Which brings us to "Dulce Et Decorum Est"1, by Wilfred Owen. I cannot truly speak to the form and style Owen uses. I do not know. What I can speak to is what makes the poem work from a dramatic standpoint. What is so beautiful about this poem is its ability to move the reader. The poem is an example of writing graphically and from the gut, while adhering to a prevailing, or accepted form. Poetry does not have to be pretty, however some poets do not seem to realize this fact. The language chosen in many poems about grisly subjects flows beautifully and elegantly from the page, leaving one feeling less pain about the subject matter of the poem than one really should.
Owen, on the other hand, hurls the pain into the readers face. The first line gives one of the best metaphors for being tired that I have ever read. Picturing "old beggars under sacks", tell us these men are battle weary, but also gives us a hint that they are scared of what is ahead for them. Using graphic terms such as "blood-shod", Owen is not merely telling us of the hell of war, he is showing us. As a poet, this is the task. Certainly Owen is relaying a specific event to us, but the context of that event is important.
It is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the universality of the work. I have never seen war of any kind. Most will not have seen the war of Owen's experience. But through his vivid words, his gruesome portrayal, I think we all can know that we do not want to see war.
But how does this apply to us, the poets of today's cities, today's decadence and today's love of violence. How do we of the Faces of Death generations, strike a chord with people?
Do what Owen did. The pain of this piece of writing is its truth. This is something we believe the poet saw and actually experienced. Your experiences can be just as vital. Go ahead, proclaim your love for Mary Sue (or for Mary and Sue), but strive to find a defining moment in that love. What were the circumstances? What was the context? Was the moonlight cascading to earth and drowning in its image on Lake Michigan? Was a gentle summer breeze blowing the beach grass gently, whistling words of encouragement? Was there sand in your underwear? These things matter. It puts us in your shoes.
And then go further. Wrap those metaphors into your context. Weave a quilt of unity which will tie into the reason for your writing.
The reason for your writing does not have to be to convey a moral lesson, as we see in Owen's poem. The poem has a message to convey; war is an ugly, brutal and nightmarish business. Consider the poem without the final 12 lines. It changes the direction and context certainly, but we are still left with a truthful and disturbing image. Many poetry connoisseurs enjoy this kind of non-judgment. Your readers are smart and sensitive people and they will understand your image if it is honest.
As a dramatist, I love to use poems so I can hear myself talk. Reading poetry aloud is as much an art as writing it is, in my mind. Read the Owen poem out loud while you are alone. Feel every word, every pause, every breath. This is the beauty of poetry for many people. Think of this as you decide where to break a verse or add punctuation. This guides the reader and lends much to the texture of your work.
I have spent time with this particular Owen piece in Reader's Theatre groups. It is a wonderful example of a poem that just begs to be spoken. At the top of the second stanza notice the first two words: "Gas! GAS!..." Owen did not write those words simply for the visual impact on the page. His purpose was to tell us that maybe the first cry was the instant, almost lazy reaction to something he'd seen a hundred times. But that second one is a bellow, a true warning. He did not mean for these to be read in the same way.
A great example of using punctuation for texture are the ellipses in line 12 (5th line, 3rd stanza). Owen tells us that this image trails off, and that by extension gives a sense of the rhythm and the mood of the speaker at that point. It is not a proclamation, it is an eerie realization.
I truly believe that reading your work aloud to yourself will make you a better poet. I cannot think a poem I love and cherish that is not made more enjoyable by a good old fireside recital of it.
Although poetry is probably the most free form of writing there is, there are still certain elements to which the poet must pay attention. The rhythm, the texture, the images are all important and they separate good poetry from journal entries. Honesty is the key. A novel can lie and survive, but a poem relies on its truth as its heartbeat. Write your moments as vividly and as passionately as you lived them. Don't cheat me, because I want to feel what you felt. I want to laugh, cry, sigh, scream, fight, fly, drive, sit, and ponder as you did.
Remember, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". Or that Jethro Tull song with the line about a guy with a runny nose.
Poetry. It's all in the image.
1 It is sweet and meet to die for one's country.
**Troy M. Hughes is a theatrical director and critic residing in the Detroit metropolitan area. His credits include: A Chorus Line, Broadway Bound, The Fantastiks, Ain't Misbehavin, Lend Me a Tenor, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and Eleemosynary. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.