The first poem I can recall, aside from nursery rhymes, was a rondeau written by a Canadian artillery officer (and medical doctor), John McCrae, in 1915. It’s also the first poem I ever memorized. I can still remember the words written on the blackboard. This was a different world. We still sang God Save the Queen before classes started and recited the Lord’s Prayer, and there was always a Union Jack and a picture of the Queen prominently displayed. And every November there would be men or women in blue blazers and berets at the bank door in Waterford with trays of poppies. I remember being very proud of myself for memorizing the poem. And on Remembrance Day, we were all (brothers & parents) going to town for the ceremony at the cenotaph. We stopped to pick up an elderly neighbour who lived alone in a little house at the edge of our farm. He was a retired teacher and classicist, living quietly with his books. I was sitting in the backseat with my father and brothers and cheerfully began to rattle off the poem in a boyish singsong. My father gave my arm a squeeze and shushed me and whispered: “Not now. His son died in the war.” I shut up, confused, suddenly aware, acutely aware, that literature isn’t just words on a page but somehow rooted in our personal lives, in our deepest feelings about love, loss and death. I think it hadn’t occurred to me before that people actually died in the war. I didn’t, of course, know the poem was a rondeau, but the form itself has sunk deep into my brain. McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario, a university town about 50 miles from where I grew up. He had fought with the Canadian artillery in the Boer War but spent his civilian years as a pathologist in Montreal. When the First World War broke out, he went back into the artillery. He was still with the guns when he wrote the poem (the story goes that he wrote it sitting in an ambulance after watching a friend die). But soon after he was called to hospital duty where he subsequently died of pneumonia at the age of 45.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.