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Heroism and Nothingness: On William Stafford’s “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border”

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border (from poetry180)
William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Comment:

The line that matters for our purposes is “the only heroic thing is the sky.” How is the sky “heroic?” It allows birds to spread their wings without a care – there’s no sound because there’s no struggle.

The ground is not heroic; it is the “Un-National Monument” that marks heroism. It is neglected by both man and sky, as sky can’t even bother to assault it to mark it in some way. It is frequently forgotten. It is most likely not heroic because it is not completely self-negating: no monument stands there, but the ground is a monument. It stands in contrast to other “fields,” where the “unknown soldier” did die, and the grass did not join hands.

It looks like ground is a monument to the sky, which allows the grass to “join hands” here. Man is emphatically not the issue all throughout the poem: that other fields are marked with blood is not the ground or sky’s fault. But that the grass can’t “join hands” – that birds would be able to spread their wings without any resistance – that’s all a matter of the sky.

So what’s happening? The complete self-negation of the sky brings into the question the reality of heroism (i.e. man’s willing self-negation). Heroism, though, knows itself to be a contradictory thing: one strives both hoping one will be remembered, and if not, knowing that one can live with oneself having done what one wanted regardless. Even the most selfish is compelled to self-sacrifice for the sake of action – I think the Navy runs submarine drills where if a sailor is in a flooding compartment and has no chance of survival, but has to get something done so the whole ship doesn’t sink, it gets done.

To bring forward the notion of complete self-negation is to attempt to make heroism logically sound: this allows for a sphere of total freedom, the self-negation is marked merely by what lies around it. It also implies the end of both nations and heroism: without nations, there can be no heroes, “only” one heroic thing.

But that brings us to “hallowed” ground (cf. the Gettysburg Address). Sure, we’ve traded heroism for a complete peace, but is this the realm of man? Birds unfold their wings across the open, but we don’t fly. More importantly, we join hands: grass doesn’t. That slight opening – “hey wait, how do you know no one was killed at the area you stand?” – makes me wonder whether this is a real peace or not. After all, even our speaker recognizes the “monument” here. In Hesiod, the age of Kronos is when the golden age occurred; all was peaceful and there was no war. But one had to be ruled by Kronos, who dealt with the problems of freedom and change by swallowing his children.

9 Comments

  1. thank you so much!
    this really helped me understand this poem, and helped me with my poetry analysis!

  2. @ Alyssa – no problem: please do cite this or spread the word about this site. I don’t get anything for writing all this stuff, and that has to change; it’s been 3 years of writing consistently now.

  3. I was assigned to read this poem in class and write thoroughly about wat it represents.
    Your comments have given me a new perspective about the poem and an utlimate writing theme.
    Thanks

  4. @ Michelle – thank you so much! If it’s possible, please do cite this entry somehow, especially if you disagree with it. I think there’s a more straightforward reading of this poem: I was concerned, quite obviously, with a particular topic.

    If you’re interested in Hesiod, mentioned at the end of the entry, the “Theogony” is where to look (it’s a 1000 line poem), and there’s an essay on it by Seth Benardete entitled “The First Crisis in First Philosophy” which I highly recommend. None of that has anything to do with Stafford’s poem directly, to be sure.

  5. Felix de Villiers

    June 22, 2010 at 4:44 am

    What a subtly annalytical mind you have, Ashok! I have just copied the poem and your comment so I can think about them.

  6. Felix de Villiers

    June 23, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Ashok, for me it’s a question of interpreting both the poem and your
    comment. For the moment I’m confused and give up. I’ll just point out some things I noticed.

    Remember your words, “…an absence is not nothing.” They apply very much to this poem. It is a war poem and treats the absence of war, battlefields, shots, bombs, mangled bodies that separate the grass, monuments to the dead, heros and nationailty.

    ‘ONLY the sky is heroic’ seems like a negative statement. Here the sky is simply a void. There is no heroism. We can’t hear the birds because they are flying so high; otherwise we certainly do hear them and would hear vultures descending on a field of dead bodies.

    Heroism and Nationalism (see Hitler) are questionable concepts. Samuel Beckett is unable to put heroes into his plays as the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare still did.

    You say grass cannot hold hands, denying the poet his imagery. “This is the field where grass joined hands” is one of the most moving lines in the poem.

    If people forget the name of the place, they must once have known it: may be, if they succeded in remembering it, it would become the place of piece and unheroic blue skies which the poem seeks to deny.

  7. Ashok,

    Your analysis is thought-provoking. I bring an anti-heroism bias to the table but, as you pointed out, the comment restricts itself to the assertion that the hero is the sky.

    Out of curiosity, what do you make of the last line of Stafford’s poem? It sounds sarcastic, to me.

    I’ve stumbled this page, good work!

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  8. @ Mitch – I can definitely accept that there’s sarcasm. Exactly what that would mean, I’m not sure. I approached the poem with the idea that the speaker wanted to make a statement about peace and had a certain sincerity. But it’s possible to tease multiple speakers out of the poem, I’m sure.

  9. Since you are an admirer of Bill Stafford, check out my new film, “Every War Has Two Losers”, based on Bill’s journals and centered on his poems and thoughts connected to his life as a conscientious objector. And the poem “At the Un-National Monument” is included and put song by the terrific John Gorka. http://www.everywar.com The dvd also includes my first film, the 1994 “William Stafford & Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship”. I’d appreciate help in spreading the word. Thanks! Haydn Reiss

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