Fitting and Proper

Apr 20, 2012

It’s been said that poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. We asked folks to tell us about their memories of how a poem had affected their life. Rodger Martin from Harrisville, New Hampshire remembered hearing a poem that helped him return to civilian life after a tour of duty in Vietnam.

RODGER: The state of the country was in a far different place in 1970.

I had just been discharged from the U.S. Army. I moved back to Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and enrolled in Millersville State College. I guess serendipitously, one of the first courses that I enrolled in was a survey of poetry course. I remember walking in and sitting down and thinking, “well, here we are, back at school.” And the professor came in wearing sandals, proceeded to sit on top of the teacher’s desk, and without a word began reading that poem.

It was so unexpected, because for a soldier – at least for this soldier – when I came back from Vietnam, I couldn’t talk about it unless it was with another soldier who was there. You didn’t want to think about it.

We probably all thought that we were alone in this. That moment told me I wasn’t alone; that other soldiers in other places had gone through the same thing. It goes right back to the Iliad, and you realize that it is a common thread, that human reactions and emotions haven’t changed in two-thousand years, just the weapons have changed.

That’s why I consider the poem a sort of lifesaver, because suddenly I had someplace I could go to begin to process my experience. I simply felt blessed to be in that classroom at that time.

The last two lines is the old roman expression, “it is fitting and proper to die for one’s country.” I would say it is very seldom fitting and it is very seldom proper.

 

Rodger Martin teaches journalism at Keene State College and edits the Granite State Poetry Series.  We found out about his story through our Public Insight Network, and you can tell us yours, too.

 

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen;

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.