Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Poems

Photo by Beverly & Pack.
As a way to better understand the meaning of Memorial Day, I looked into the history and the meaning intended by those who established the holiday.  It's all too easy to slide off the original purpose.

I could just take this as a day off work and make it a Saturday-on-a-Monday.  That's probably the most errant approach.

I could visit a cemetery and honor all dead, no matter their vocation or their manner of death. That's not such a bad way to spend the day. That's a great way to hold people in our memories, but it doesn't speak to the heart of the holiday.

I could honor living soldiers / veterans.  That's a lot closer to the purpose of the holiday, and I will probably call my veteran father today (retired navy, active duty stationed in Japan when I was born states side).

However, if I honored those who died while serving in the armed forces by decorating his or her grave, then I am in complete harmony with the purpose of this holiday. 

As a retired English teacher, I find poetry a great invitation to meditate about a particular topic.  Here are three poems focused on Memorial Day.

The first poem about Memorial Day (formerly called Decoration Day) was written as a tribute to the Civil War dead.

Here is the last stanza of "Decoration Day" (published in 1882 in the collection In the Harbor) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (b. 1807):

Your silent tents of green
  We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been.
  The memory shall be ours. 

The second poem about Memorial Day was written by a Canadian soldier fighting in the Great War (WW1) on the battlefield in Belgium.   "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae (b. 1872) is oft-quoted and the reason why red poppies have been affiliated with Memorial Day.

Legend has it that he wrote it in honor of one of his fallen friend in Spring of 1915.  McCrae himself died of pneumonia while at war.  The key lines of the poem charge the readers:

"To you from failing hands we throw / The torch be yours to hold it high!" 

The third poem was written more recently and published in 1994. "Memorial Day" by Michael Anania (b. 1939) is more subtle and complex.  The setting is a tree-lined cemetery, populated not just with gravestones but with visitors and flowers--under a brilliant sun. I enjoy his imagery of decay contrasted with new life:

"such fingers kneading the damp earth gently down / on new roots, black humus caught in grey hair"

I also enjoy the poem's mention of older adults telling stories and reciting family history to the young as a way to bind the generations together.

I hope the day affords you some time to reflect.  If you would like to share stories that honor soldiers (whether or not they died in battle), it would be wonderful to read about them in the comments.


Met a WW2 Veteran Today
The Oak: Poem
Life with Father; Ship Shaped


  1. What a lovely way to show tribute to soldiers and veterans. My students are studying WI and WII war poems. You may like to read my own blog commemorating Flanders Field

  2. Beautiful, Karen. Thanks for putting the day in perspective and reminding us of its true significance.

  3. For me it is a day to reflect on peace and how elusive it is.

  4. Karen, I really enjoyed this post. Your ability to weave together intent, ritual and poetry is so appreciated, thank you. And I love the way you finished too, reminding us that it is the sharing of stories that binds us.

  5. Lovely indeed. I lost my nephew to the war a few years ago so this day is especially important to us. It's so very important to continue commemorate our soldiers!