October 19th, 2011 / 4:17 am

Laura Kasischke v. John McCrae

The rondeau is a fifteen-line poem appropriated from a French form dating to the 13th century. Here is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the most famous rondeau in English:

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.

Note the straitjacket of the form — the AABBA AAB(refrain) AABBA(refrain) structure, and the refrain itself lifted from the first half of the first line.

Here is Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” from the April 2011 issue of Poetry:

Small and panting mass
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
This glistening tumor, terrible frog
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
My small and panting mass

Kasischke’s “Rondeau” retains some of the elements the form required before she un-fixed it. We get the repetition of the two dominant rhymes (-og and -ass), the repetition of an entire line (in this case two entire lines, more or less, instead of a refrain that moves across strophes), you can dance to it (the original French rondeau, like the ballade and the virelai, was set to music), and the meaning of the refrain (in this case, I guess, the first and final line does this work) is changed when it reappears on account of the new context the intervening lines have offered.

The two poems invite very different approaches from the reader. “In Flanders Fields” holds the reader’s hand as it rings its changes. It is in many ways a didactic poem. It’s no mistake that the point of view is revealed in the quatrain as We the dead, who just died a few days ago in battle. Their lesson? If you don’t take up the battle that cost us our lives, we die in vain. Their charge: “Take up our quarrel with the foe! / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high!” And they follow it with a guilt-inducing threat: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” The poem is, in a sense, a forerunner of the contemporary country song that romanticizes war and the troops, as practiced by the likes of Toby Keith:


Perhaps this is one reason why the poem is so broadly popular. It is a well-crafted, ostensibly lyrical, and verifiably beautiful verse that simply tells its readers the thing that the readers have already been conditioned to hear. It is a call to death that appeals to the desire of young men to be courageous, to honor the other members of their (for lack of a less problematic term) tribe, and to avenge what has been wronged by violence by the infliction of a superior violence sufficient to end further violence. As such, in its call to bravery, it is not brave. Perhaps it is a useful articulation of the bravery required of a soldier. But the bravery required of an artist is to wade into complications, to show them, to problematize. “In Flanders Fields,” instead, reduces. It is not art. It is propaganda that is artful in its appropriation of the conventions of the highest craft associated with the art of poetry, and because of its beauty, it is propaganda sufficient to incite an emotional response even from a reader as jaded as this reader.

Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau” does not give up its secrets so easily. Neither the title nor poem’s first line (“Small and panting mass”) does anything to orient us in the questions of who speaks, when and where we are in space or time, or what the dramatic situation might be. It lacks, in other words, the markers we ordinarily associate with narrative or the narrative-heavy lyric (the kinds of moves we might expect from a poet such as James Wright, say, or Andrew Hudgins.) We have to wait, then, until the second line, to learn what it is a small and panting mass of –“moonlight and dampness on a log” — and the third line further clarifies: “This glistening tumor, terrible frog”

. . . and here the reader has trouble finishing the sentence, because “Rondeau” has no punctuation of the sort that ends sentences. No periods, no question marks, no exclamation points, no interrobangs. If the sentence ends at the end of the third line, then everything that preceded modified the noun “frog,” which means we have a literal frog on a log at nighttime who glistens like a tumor and reflects the moonlight. And — fair enough — that is what we have as we read forward through time, line one to line three.

But the sentence potentially extends itself in the fourth line, with a further prepositional phrase — “Of moonlight and dampness on a log” — which means that we must now entertain another possible reading. What we’ve been reading about, in this version, is the terrible frog of moonlight and dampness. Now: Is there a frog, or is the moonlight and dampness manifest on the log being likened to a frog?

The poem’s primary liberty with a form the poem has already undone and reconstructed arrives in the fifth line, where, instead of the simple repetition of “Small and panting mass,” we get “My small and panting mass.” Here, more readings present themselves. Has everything preceding this moment in the poem simply existed as an opportunity to speak to the question of “My small and panting mass,” as modifiers, or as likening agents? Has the encounter with either the frog-on-log or the frog of moonlight (or both) caused this reckoning with the speaker’s own small and panting mass? Or is the speaker the literal small and panting thing on the log?

(Or does the stress fall on the poem’s middle, the word tumor, which invites a different kind of reading, in which we think differently about the malignancy of the small and panting mass, that terrible frog which is foreign to my body and is yet mine?)

These are all first- and second- level readings, and they aren’t the only ones. Certainly the reader very quickly is interrogating the poem in all sorts of ways. Are we talking about the body here? Are we talking about sex? Is this poem about cancer, and if it is, are the metaphors about the speaker’s cancer, or is the speaker’s cancer meant to open up a discussion of extracancerous things, or both? Do we have a metaphor about the relativity of the positions of things large and small? What about this tumor talk? It’s nighttime, right? The frog is vulnerable. Death is a possibility here, the end of a thing among things that will continue despite its ending. Why is the tumor and/or frog and/or frog of moonlight and dampness glistening? (I suppose it’s because of the moonlight upon the dampness.) Is the my of the last line identified with, in ownership of, or set apart from the subject of the poem? Can a poem have a subject without a verb? Given the circular nature of the form, does the poem have a beginning or end? Is its true structure a loop? Must the ending return us to the beginning, or is the ending an end? If it is, how does that change the way the reader enters into the poem?

In Lawrence Weschler’s meditation on Vermeer and the Bosnian War Crimes tribunals, he wrote: “It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear—and, indeed, that they invite—a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory.”

In Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” we have the superplenitude and the contradictory readings in five lines. I don’t know what good it does, a month after publication, to even have a discussion about a poem’s greatness. There is a sense in which John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” has already made its claim to greatness. It is probably the greatest rondeau ever written in English. But one possible reading of Kasischke’s rondeau is that it is an interrogation of greatness by way of an examination of a small thing. Putting many possible readings side by side, greatness is being examined alongside darkness, the inevitability of death, the largeness of the log compared to the smallness of the frog but the smallness of the log compared to the largeness of the moon but the smallness of the moon compared to the largeness of the Earth. Soon night, too, will come to an end, and the Earth itself will be forced to confront the largeness of the sun.

I have no idea what the poet intended. It seems likely, given the openness of the poem’s construction, that Kasischke intended an an openness to multiple and contradictory readings. If she did not, then why would she destabilize the subject, and why would she avoid offering end-of-sentence punctuation, or a verb?

There is a modesty to the poem, but it is a deceptive and confident modesty, a rejoinder to bombast. And there is concurrently something very ambitious about the poem, seeking as it does to do the work of the rondeau in five lines, to double the difficulty of the requirements of the refrain by repeating two of the lines instead of a portion of one, and to ask the sentence to do something that the sentence was not made to do. I admire all of it.


  1. deadgod

      In Flanders Field is “artful” – an “artful” contrasting of what comes up through the earth – the loam of history, of memory, of “tribe” (not a bad word) – : ghosts versus “poppies”, persistence versus dreamless (?) “sleep”.

      – “propaganda”, if one means, by this toxic word, that one-sidedness is “propaganda”. To me, this poem gives voice to a perspective, to one side of a decision (revenge or whatever-it-takes-to-make-peace). It’s true that the ghosts in the poem don’t consider (or care to consider?) enemy ghosts, or who exploits war in the first (and every subsequent) place – who is exploiting their ghostlier sounds now. But this poem ventriloquizes at least some of the ghosts of Flanders accurately to me, regardless of whether I would and do quarrel with them.

      “[O]penness to multiple and contradictory readings” and ‘destabilization’ are, to me, too, values to be privileged above the claims of univocity, but monologue is a reasonable form in which to be “artful”.

      – though, just writing that, I suppose that univocal expressions are how “propaganda” works.

      Is complexity the Other of “propaganda” – it’s that simple? Maybe it is.

      (I do wonder, unkindly, if some of “the dead” got that way because they were holding that damn “torch” so “high”.)

  2. Kyle Minor

      Good thoughts, deadgod. I was thinking this morning about how I think it’s also a useful thing to inhabit a singular point of view and chase its logic from beginning to end. That’s what I often do in my fiction, and yet here I’m dogging McCrae for it. Maybe my reading of the poem is poisoned by the uses for which the poem has been deployed. And it’s difficult to read it now and not think of Vietnam, or of my bright-eyed students who go away to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, not knowing if they’ll come home with all their limbs, or people who go to boot camp to learn how to kill and come home not knowing how to be a person in the world where it’s not acceptable to be a killer after having been a person for whom the necessity of being capable of being a killer and for whom the foregrounding that idea of oneself as part of daily life is a necessary element for survival.

  3. Kyle Minor

      I thought about this more. Here is a distinction maybe worth thinking about. I don’t think that this poet is inhabiting the persona or point of view of the other. I think that this is an occasional poem meant to instruct. And I think that’s a key difference between this and, say, an unapologetic persona poem in the point of view of an axe murderer or pedophile. I don’t think it’s meant to illuminate the interior life of another or see what it’s like to walk in their shoes. I think it’s meant to spur others to do the thing that will put them in the ground.

  4. Kyle Minor

      The ghosts, in other words, haven’t been allowed to be full people, full of the hopes, dreams, aspirations, loves, peccadilloes, awfulnesses, and so on, that everyone carries around. Instead, they’re symbols — cardboard cutout ghosts who exist not in their fullness, but rather to forward a political agenda. Like the ideal of soldiers, they are simply pawns of the king. But real soldiers aren’t simply pawns of the king. They have their own agendas that exist side-by-side with the discipline they have learned to obey, and their own sense of self, and their own personal histories, and their own (in this case redacted) futures or ideas of the future. Perhaps they believe that if they win they will not have died in vain, that they are serving something larger than themselves that is worthwhile. But that is not the only thing they think, and if the dead really did become ghosts, as this poem assumes, then wouldn’t those ghosts have agency sufficient to think more than one thing about this matter, now that they have been freed from the bounds of their bodies, and now that they are no longer beholden to the military discipline? And, given all the time they now have on their hands, the end death is no longer being the issue is was when they were alive, won’t they continue to grow in thought and knowledge as they think about their lives and how their lives came to an end? Wouldn’t some of those soldiers, being individuals, come to different conclusions about these matters, which can’t be contained in the collective first person? Isn’t the we, then, not a construction of a singular collective voice, but rather a convenient (and false) construct for the use of the speaker, who has a definite agenda with regard to those who might soon join the ghosts he purports to inhabit?

  5. deadgod

      Well, the poem surely “forward[s] a political agenda”; I’d say it’s meant to persuade (as you suggest in the blogicle), not “to instruct”.

      But even if the whole of an interior life isn’t illuminated, a point of view – and not just of “the dead” who want, eh, compensation in this world for their blood-sacrifice – is made poetically vivid. It’s a thin – I think: specious – perspective, but, as you see in your students (and countrymen), it’s a powerfully attractive fall-back battlement for a “tribe” under pressure.

      I do think, as I’d said, that complexity is much to be preferred to ground-axe-misshapen, misleading simplicity or ‘simplicity’. I’m just saying that, as a militaristically rah-rah poem, In Flanders Field ‘makes something happen’.

  6. Kyle Minor

      I think that, as militaristically rah-rah poems of persuasion go, it’s about as good as they come. The next step up, I think, would be the stuff you get in Genesis and Beowulf and Shakespeare and the Greek and Icelandic epics and so on, but those benefit from (and mean differently because of) their placement in the broader context of a larger story.

  7. deadgod

      wouldn’t those ghosts have agency sufficient to think more than one thing

      As I say, I think “at least some” would not have complicated feelings/thoughts about their deaths, the cause(s) for which they died (explicit and implicit), or their otherwise-unrealized lives. There were some people in ’75, and there are a lot more now, who think that ‘we’ shouldn’t have left Vietnam at all without ‘winning’.

      (It’s a fair point that petulant Achilles learns something – or changes, anyway – in Hades, but it’s also fair to point out how narrow Hamlet’s father’s death makes his father’s ghost’s perspective.)

      But the “ghost” idea or motif is more interesting to me than that there are simple-minded ghosts as well as ones with the “agency” to sense and even embrace ambiguity and conflict within in human life.

      A ghost is what’s left behind with the “agency” – an actor to address the terms of that person’s death. That’s why ghost stories always seems to involve justice: the person’s spirit wants (or needs) to get some kind of scale-balancing before the spirit can do whatever spirits do when a death happens outside a frame of human misconstruction.

      (One could say, ‘well, hell, most lives are truncated unjustly one way or another’, but it’s not an argument against some particular ghost story that there should be billions of ghost stories. In this sense, whenever someone tries to right a lethal wrong in some way, there’s a ‘ghost’ in the machine of the story of their efforts.)

      The ghosts in In Flanders Fields who come up with the “poppies” and want their blood redeemed in kind sound, to me, to have been accurately voiced, even though I think the imperative they’re voicing is hugely mistaken.

      – that the poet might have wanted those ghosts to have succeeded in persuading more readers than, today, they do – well, congratulations to us or ‘us’.

  8. deadgod

      Has Osama left a ghost? will President Rove and Tricky Trigger Cheney??

  9. deadgod

      Hah – you mention Shakespeare as I was writing (and doing laundry and listening to – eight years on – Mission Accomplished ha ha ha ha ha).

      Henry at Agincourt is as good militaristic-rah-rah poetry as I’ve seen, but that Stratford man makes everything complicated. Henry V is, to me, a bottom-quartile Shakespeare thingy, but look at how Henry woos the French princess (or whatever her station), and how he “banish[es] all the world”.

  10. Amber

      You’re absolutely right here, Kyle. mcCrae meant for the poem to get men to sign up and ship off. He was proud of how it was used and said he intended it to be instructive. It’s not art, though it’s pretty and well-crafted. The ghosts, as you say, are being used. It’s propaganda because that was the intention in writing it–to get those young men off to war.

  11. deadgod

      Rondeau is an ‘admirable’ poem, a tighter, more clever (and humorous/sinister) rondeau or ‘rondeau’ than In Flanders Fields.

      I’d also meant to ask, Kyle, why you think the “frog” is “vulnerable”. – because it’s “small”?? It is strikingly called “terrible” – the hinge of the poem, to me – ; of course, terrible things can be vulnerable, too, but I wonder what you mean.

      I also can’t see the largeness of the Moon or the Earth in the poem. The “frog” is “small” “on a log”. Whether the “log” is a leg – or the whole – of “I”, or whether “I” is that “terrible frog” – as you tease out, these specificities are left ambiguous. But I don’t see the ‘smallness’ of the “frog” in terms of, eh, a planetoid, or even, directly, of life-and-death. It’s simply – and complicatedly (?) – dwarfed by “a log”.

  12. Anonymous