Discovering Other People’s Lives

 

 

Prologue: This essay appears in “The Critical Eye”, my latest book, Ex Libris, 2010, a collection of articles and Op Eds that appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other national and regional publications. It features Adrian Mitchell, the British poet who wrote the famous anti-war poem, “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)” Today, the United States has military men and women stationed around the globe; DMA ( Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger and NATO.

The essay is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

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In the Obituaries of The New York Times and other leading papers, one can encounter fascinating people from all walks of life. Some of the names, of, course, are very familiar, but others are  new. That was what happened six years ago when I was intrigued by the poems of Adrian Mitchell, the British poet, playwright and novelist  who died  at age 76. I must admit that I knew neither his name nor his works. I learned that he was an important literary figure in Britain and among readers worldwide.

I was struck by the inclusion of the brief opening stanza of his most famous poem, “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)” The power and imagery of the first line , “ I was run over by the truth one day” had a stunning impact and kept repeating for hours through my head.  I wanted to read more and found the poem on Google. As well as the life story of Adrian Mitchell and his work.

Mitchell was described in the Times obituary as “a prolific British poet whose impassioned verse against social injustice, racism and violence was often declaimed at antiwar rallies and political demonstrations.”  I learned that, after completing his national service in the Royal Air Force (RAF), he said the experience “confirmed my natural pacifism.”  His first volume of poems were political, relying on simple straightforward language. Mitchell was widely quoted as saying, “Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”  He read “Tell me lies about Vietnam” for the first time to a crowd of thousands in Trafalgar Square in 1964, and updated the poem over the years to suit changing events.

 

Now, it is 2014 and a debate is taking place after President Barack Obama’s recent speech at West Point where he called for a United States world affairs policy that aimed at restraint and diplomacy rather than military force and deadly wars in dealing with crises in countries overseas. Obama is a Nobel Peace Laureate and it should have come as no surprise to his critics that he has viewed his role as Commander in Chief through a broad lens.  He  planned and ordered the pursuit and death of Osama bin Laden. Yet, he did not strike Assad in Syria with threatened missiles when negotiations with Russia accomplished the goal of monitored deportation of all poison gases from Syria, bound for destruction.

Here is Mitchell’s poem, “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam”) Today, it would be appropriate to substitute Iraq for Vietnam. I think Adrian Mitchell would approve.

I was run over by the truth one day,

            Ever since the accident  I walk this way.

           So stick my legs in plaster

            Tell me lies about Vietnam.

             Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain

            Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again

            So fill my ears with silver

            Stick my legs in plaster

            Tell me lies about Vietnam

             Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.

            Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names

            So coat my eyes with butter

            Fill my ears with silver

            Stick my legs in plaster

            Tell me lies about Vietnam.

             I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.

            They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy chains

            So stuff my nose with garlic

            Coat my eyes with butter

            Fill my ears with silver

            Stick my legs in plaster

            Tell me lies about Vietnam.

             Where were you at the time of the crime?

            Down by the cenotaph drinking slime

            So chain my tongue with whiskey

            Stuff my nose with garlic

            Coat my eyes with butter

            Fill  my ears with silver

            Stick my legs in plaster

            Tell me lies about Vietnam.

             The Cenotaph, Mitchell refers to, is in London in Whitehall. Like other cenotaphs around the world, it is a tomb erected in honor of a person or group whose remains are buried elsewhere. The word cenotaph comes from the Greek kenos  meaning empty and taphos, tomb.  The Cenotaph in London was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920. The only decorations are a wreath on each end and the words, “The Glorious Dead” chosen by Rudyard Kipling. The Cenotaph is the site of the annual remembrance held on 11:00 a.m. on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to November 11, World War I Armistice Day.

Some years ago, during a visit to London, my husband and I were part of the crowd gathered at Whitehall to witness the laying of wreaths at the base of the Cenotaph by Queen Elizabeth and officials from other members of the Commonwealth. This followed a parade of the remaining WWI veterans to the Cenotaph, most in wheel chairs, and veterans of WWII, all in full uniform. It was a very stirring and solemn ceremony. The British observe November 11 with reverence and respect.  Having witnessed the British ceremony that day at the Cenotaph, I can better understand the hatred of war that Adrian Mitchell felt when he wrote his famous poem.  It is as timely today in the 21st century as it was then.

 

………………………………………………………………………………Joyce S. Anderson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Discovering Other People’s Lives

  1. This poem is indeed relevant today, and as you say — we can certainly substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam” with the author’s approval. I, too, was struck by the opening., “I was run over by the truth one day…” This author’s work was unfamiliar to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading about him. Thank you for this excellent piece, Joyce.

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