Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A disturbing poem

As I clean up old emails, I come across certain correspondences that I think are worthy of publication. This is one . . . about a poem written in 1931 by e.e. cummings called "i sing of Olaf glad and big." The entire correspondence took place between October 26th and 30th, 2004.

Sonlight had assigned cummings' poem as part of its American literature program--at the time, notionally in 8th grade though the program was designed and advertised for use by any student in high school.

The problem that elicited the correspondence: cummings included the "f" word and the "s" word, parents were not warned of their appearance, . . . and, perhaps more than anything else, readers had too little understanding of what the poem is really all about--what is a conscientious objector (and what is the history of that particular designation); what is a trig westpointer (graduate of the Army's West Point Academy); what is a "silver bird" (a colonel); what are "noncoms . . . [and] kindred intellects"; and so forth:
i sing of Olaf glad and big


i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelov'd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your f***ing flag"

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some sh*t I will not eat"

our president, being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon, where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf, too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.
Talk about a powerful poem!

I had not read it till I read the following letter and realized I had better find out what the customer was talking about:
Dear Sonlight,

I have been a "sonlighter" for going on 6 years. I adore the Sonlight curriculum and have never looked back! However, I was stunned today when my daughter informed me that the f word and s word were in this poem. I perused the instructor's guide for some sort of warning but found none! Did I miss it somewhere? Usually you are great about forewarning us and we can decide, but this time, it came out of the blue! Maybe next year's instructors guide can have a little warning next to that assignment and have the parent preread. I do not have time to read every word that she is going to read. I have read all of the readers but not the poetry.

Debbie K
Once I read the poem, I felt acute embarrassment and shame . . . not because the two obscenities happen to appear. But because I realized I/we had truly failed the parent and the student.

I replied:
Dear Debbie:

Thank you for writing about your concern.

There are reasons--probably not "good enough"--why you and your daughter had the experience you had with the "i sing of Olaf glad and strong" poem. Indeed, my "Word" in today's edition of [the Sonlight bi-weekly newsletter] A BEAM OF SONLIGHT will address some of that. [In that "Word," I confessed that, in the midst of our ongoing transitional attempt to create a real business that could stand on its own without input from Sarita and me, neither Sarita nor I had read either the poem or the book in which it appeared. We had entrusted the creation of that particular literature course to an employee whom we thought had enough understanding of our purpose, goals, customers, sensitivities, and so forth. --Obviously, we were wrong.]

More importantly, however: please be assured that we have taken your concern and feedback to heart. Indeed, I have acted upon your concern in several different ways. Among them:
  • I have asked our editorial review committee to consider again whether this poem should be included in next year's schedule. If it is included, I have requested that they seriously consider including a "forewarning" in our study guide. The "forewarning" should reference not only the LANGUAGE, but the shocking CONTENT of the poem.
  • Further, I have requested that, if it is included, the forewarning be
    included in the notes for the DAY BEFORE--so that, supposing a person is using our IG, s/he won't accidentally read the poem AND THEN read the "forewarning" AFTERWARD.
  • Finally, I have been working on some notes about the MEANING of this particular poem that I hope to include in future years' IGs. If the poem is included in future years' schedules, I hope the additional notes will help students work through the issues involved, not merely with the language you noted, but the content of the entire poem. I believe "i sing of Olaf" is a shocking and disturbing work
    for far more than cummings' choice of language!
Again, I want to thank you for writing.


John Holzmann
Debbie wrote:
Hi John,
I couldn't really address the shocking content, as I really did not get what was going on. I could tell that it was unpleasant . . . but maybe I am too naïve? I don't know. So, I am really hoping that all Hannah (my student) got out of it was not the shocking content, but the shocking language! I'm not sure that I *want* to understand the shocking content. I felt violated when reading it, it disturbed me, I didn't want to delve too deeply into exactly what he was talking about.

Is this subject something worthy to feel violated about?

Does it cause us to examine history in order not to repeat it?

I don't know. As I said, I didn't understand what exactly was happening in the poem.

Debbie K
I so appreciated Debbie's forthright honesty!

I replied as follows:
Dear Debbie:

Thank you for writing back. What you have told me helps me realize I need to write more or very different notes than I have already.

You note that the shock of the poem overwhelmed any real understanding of what it was about. And so, you ask, "Is this subject something worthy to feel violated about? Does it cause us to examine history in order not to repeat it? I don't know."

I am glad you wrote this to me, because I had assumed that the poem's subject was rather plain.

Please permit me to attempt a basic "explanation" of what the poem is about and then you tell me if you think it should cause us to examine history in order not to repeat it. (My sense: Yes, it should. And not only with respect to the primary subject of the poem, but with respect to other matters as well.) Is this poem worth "studying" (or, at least, reading so as to understand)? . . . I would very much appreciate hearing your perspective.


Supposing we were to continue to assign this poem, here's how I think I would like to "explain" it. I think I'd like to say something along these lines:

Olaf, the primary character in the poem, is a Conscientious Objector (CO) during World War I. As a CO, he has been placed in a military prison and is being violently, awfully abused for his beliefs. Indeed, he is abused unto death.

What is a CO? A person who refuses to fight because of sincerely held pacifistic beliefs.

Some questions to consider: Should a person who objects to all war--i.e., who believes that when Jesus said to "turn the other cheek," He meant it not only for an individual, but also for husbands when they see their wives being abused, and citizens of a country when their country is being attacked: should such a person be forced into battle or killed for refusing to participate? The United States came to the conclusion that it would not force such people into battle. That is why, for World War II, it created the CO status.

However, COs have traditionally been looked down upon and have often been charged with cowardice. (That's why, in the poem, Olaf is called a "yellowsonofabitch.") In World War I, COs were imprisoned . . . and often abused for what their attackers believed was their cowardice.

If you read the poem carefully, you realize Olaf's abusers attack him sodomistically "on his rectum." And it is in the midst of that sodomistic attack, in the midst of Olaf's death struggle (except Olaf refuses physically to attack those who are violently abusing him) . . . --It is in the midst of being attacked sodomistically, in the midst of Olaf's death struggle, that cummings places those offensive words in Olaf's mouth.

First, let me note that supposing Olaf objected to the war on religious grounds, I find it strangely odd to have Olaf utter such words. On the other hand, supposing Olaf objected on non-religious grounds, or supposing he truly was devout, but "simply" broke down and used those particular obscenities: I find it rather "interesting" (to put it mildly) that cummings has him use those two particular obscenities. From a poetic/artistic perspective, they seem strangely "appropriate" in the context of what the soldiers are doing to Olaf.

However we want to interpret those two obscenities, I am far more concerned about the "message" of the poem. And that comes in the last two lines where cummings suggests that, rather than being "yellow," "unless statistics lie [Olaf] was/more brave than me:more blond than you."

So this poem raises some deep questions, and at a visceral (deep, emotional) level: Was Olaf brave? Was it worthy of him to "stand up" for his beliefs at the cost of his life? What about at the cost of the abuse he suffered?

Pushing beyond Conscientious Objection and Conscientious Objectors: should people like Martin Luther King, Jr. have been willing to suffer abuse at the hands of the citizens and police of the towns his non-violent protests disturbed? Should Christian missionaries be willing to go to places where they may suffer physical harm or even death because authorities oppose the preaching of the gospel? Should American soldiers or private citizens go to places like Iraq where they may have to pay for their kind intentions with their own violent and/or painful death?


I had originally written some very different notes, but after reading your comments and questions, I wonder if these might be more helpful.

I would sincerely appreciate hearing your perspective on these things . . . including your sense of whether or not we should schedule this poem. [NOTE: When we add the new 7th Year program, we are planning to move the current "8th Year" program into high school. Would that make any difference to your perspective?]

Again, THANK YOU for "talking" with me about this!

Sincerely, In Christ,

John Holzmann
Debbie wrote back:
Dear John,

Bravo! Your explanation was succinct and highly articulate. I wish I would have had the value of that insight prior to reading the poem the first time. The whole CO history was fascinating. The questions raised are thought provoking. And you are right, that those words are strangely appropriate.

I am also gratified that next year this will be introduced in high school and not Junior High.

I hope that you do include those notes in the instructor guide.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very Respectfully Yours!!

Debbie K
blog comments powered by Disqus