When I was young, my grandparents made me a deal: Five bucks for every poem I could memorize and recite from a book of poetry they gave me that Christmas. It was an astonishing amount of money at the time, equivalent to a new baseball mitt.
My grandfather, Brian Patrick O’Brian, urged me to start with Rudyard Kipling’s “If –” (If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;) but it was four whole stanzas long, each one eight lines of iambic pentameter. A quick scan of the book revealed a much shorter one, “In Flanders Fields,” written by a Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, in 1915 at the Battle of Ypres in World War I. As an added bonus it was illustrated with guns and airplanes.
I cannot recall how I used the five bucks half a century ago, but I can still recite the poem from memory today. It always comes to mind as we approach Memorial Day.
“In Flanders fields the poppies grow
between the crosses, row on row …”
But wait! In an otherwise beautiful essay in The New York Times today, the poem is written thusly:
“In Flanders field, the poppies blow.
Between the crosses row on row …”
How could such gaffes get past the editors? (Besides “blow,” and the punctuation, note also the singular “field.”) I consulted the now-ancient poetry book:
Grow, not blow. Seeking a second source, I consulted Mr. Wikipedia and found a facsimile of the poem handwritten by the poet himself. Aha! But then another:
It turns out that the editors at Punch magazine, which published the poem after it was rejected elsewhere, did not fancy the original’s repetition of “grow” in the beginning and ending verses. So, they asked Dr. McCrae if he wouldn’t mind changing the first “grow” to “blow.” Fine. When one has just spent months trying to piece together the bodies of young men blown to smitherines in the madness of war, one’s willingness to argue with a copy editor is probably diminished. Dr. McCrae was fine with it either way.
In my mind, it will always be “grow.”