On poppies, symbolism, and art: Some post Memorial Day thoughts
Well we are now post Memorial Day. The year is flying by fast. I spent all of Memorial Day weekend trying to catch my breath, and I suppose I finally caught it. It was a pleasant productive weekend. I didn’t do anything particularly patriotic but I did think about the sadness of it all, and I drew and painted several pictures involving poppies. I have never had any set routine or tradition for how to spend a Memorial day. No shopping, no stockings, not even cards. It was many years before I even became aware of what Memorial Day was all about. My parents or my teachers never explained it. At some point I began to notice people selling cheesy bouquets with tawdry ribbons on the side of the road and when I asked Mom about them she said they to put on graves but I don’t remember us having much further discussion on the matter. We were lucky enough not to have a dead soldier in the family.
Only in my adult years, between having military friends and neighbors and the old men passing out nylon poppies at the grocery store, did I become fully cognizant that Memorial Day was not just a day off from work and maybe a cookout on the deck. Only last year did I even look into the significance of the poppy. That’s when I found John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field.” McCrae, a Canadian doctor, first served as Brigade Surgeon and Major and was wounded in 1915. He wrote the famous poem during his recovery.
Sad as it is, the poem was perceived as pro-war, glorifying the honor and valor of it all. The more I find out about the first world war the less I can get my head around it.The thing that is most stunning and most disturbing to me, it how, even after they saw the unthinkable carnage and waste of their fellows falling dead by the thousands, these young men continued to march to their own likely deaths. It is not rational behavior. It is like those herds of animals that jump off cliffs or moths that fly into the burning lights. McCrae himself died of pneumonia in 1918 while serving in a war hospital.
“In Flanders Field” is a potent poem that made the poppy the symbol of remembrance for war dead. McCrae was a true poet because he was able to pull the perfect symbol from the collective muse, one that is both simple and deep, easily called to mind. It is red, like blood. It is a wildflower that spreads and is able to cover whole meadows, like battles. Since it renews itself every year, it symbolizes hope. This particular flower is also associated with sleep. Think of Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz…. And although neither John McCrae or the grocery store veterans probably thought of it this way, the poppy is the source of a drug that takes over your mind and gives you beautiful hallucinations, like the fantasy that war is glorious.
I always marvel at the interplay between nature and symbolism, how the imaginative human can never look at a flower as just a flower or a bird as just a bird. We humans are incorrigible about attaching meaning to everything. That is why we do poems and art. Poetry and art are the nature of being human.
Over Memorial Day weekend I cleaned house. We are moving things around so everyone can use our little bit of real estate for what is really important to each of us. For me this means transforming the living room to a creative studio. It is the room with the most light. My oldest son is getting ready to move out on his own and one of our dogs has recently passed away, so the whole house has a feeling of transition. The living room has a long way to go before it qualifies as my dream studio, but I got out some of my art supplies and tested it out anyway.
I wanted to experiment some mental approaches to art that I read about it this great book called The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I am on my second reading of this wonderful book. It is about concentrating on the present and not the goal. I know. It’s an old concept – ancient. But Sterner actually offers some techniques for doing it that I find inspiring and useful. You don’t worry about how good it’s going to be. You just put all your thought onto what you are doing at the moment. And I read this other very short book recently called Do the Work by Steven Pressfield and also The War of Art by the same author. These books helped me see some of the pitfalls, like getting distracted by research. The most important thing is to work at your work. After you put in your time, then and only then, do you have permission to research, revise, and edit.
All of these books are equally relevant to my writing and doing art. I was becoming distracted and lost in my creative life, and I guess I needed some creative intervention. So I started reading these books and they seem to have given me the push and the lift I needed. At least I have started working on creative things again. In addition to the watercolor above, here are a couple more of this weekend’s poppy-themed efforts.
Posted on May 26, 2015, in Reading Life and tagged John McCrae in Flanders Field, memorial day, poppy art, poppy illustration, poppy symbolism, steven pressfield, thomas m sterner the Practicing Mind, world war I poetry. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.