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1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by Carol Ann Duffy

And so it begins, not just the “season” of Remembrancetide, a phrase coined by Professor Tim Kendall in reference to the weeks leading up to and including November 11th, but the Mother Of All Remembrancetides (MOART) has begun. The MOART consists of the years leading up to and including the centenary of the Great War, technically beginning 4th August, 2014 for the UK, 5th August, 2014 for Canada. But hang on to your hats folks, MOART is well under way, and we’ve got a good 4-5 years of it coming our way as film units, book publishers, radio producers, and organizations of all hues crank up their war-centenary machines!

This morning I crinkled open Saturday’s The Guardian (weekdays I read The Daily Telegraph, weekends The Guardian just to balance things off) and on the front page of the Review section I found a 3/4 page colour photo of a dark pond scattered with British Legion poppies (curiously eyeless). Dark silhouettes of people stare into said pond, and a grey Novemberish sky and leafless trees are reflected in the pond. Pensive. Memorialization. In bold white, albeit tasteful font, the words 1914:revisited announce that UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, has released a new anthology, 1914: Poetry Remembers.

Duffy, author of The Christmas Truce (2011), who as Poet Laureate has actively commissioned contemporary war poetry, has turned her timely attention to commissioning selected poets ‘to respond to the poetry, letters and diary entries from the trenches and the home front’. Poets include the usual suspects: the late Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Simon Armitage, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann herself, and others.

The poets’ responses are varied-ish. In the small sample of poetry reprinted in today’s paper, they offer standard Great War tithes of blood, Homerica, stars, mud, madness, the sacrificial, albeit post-Christian Christ-soldier, blood-soaked fields, ‘scarlet blossoms’, and the soldier’s grasping ‘two fists-full of earth’ (Gillian Clarke).

Heaney, responding to Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’, presents in a first person narrative a soldier returning home after the war to ‘the fleshy earth’ and ‘breathing land’, inevitably evocative to us across a century of the tilled soil across the English Channel, that a century later still gives up the bones of men killed in the Great War. Heaney provides us with an image of the returned soldier in ‘buttoned khaki and buffed army boots/Bruising the turned up acres’…‘buffed’ – really? at the end of war any non-dress uniform boots I’ve seen are well worn with no buff left in them (and is it okay to question the newly dead poet I wonder as I write this?). Duffy, the editor and a contributor, seems to have to reminds us that it is ‘the dying time’ in her poem, ‘An Unseen’, a “freeze-frame” poem, and writes of ‘a continuing poetic bereavement each time I read [Wilfred Owen]’.

The Homeric, that long-toothed war tradition, presents in Longley’s ‘spear-point [that] pierces his tender neck’ , while Armitage channels Ivor Gurney in his poem ‘Avalon’, written in an oddly lucid format. Muldoon delivers the Gallipolian ‘stars they use to guide’, and Cassiopeia, though sadly, no ‘shells and hells’ (pacem Shaw Stewart) in his ‘Dromedaries and Dung Beetles’. Comfortingly tho, insects, dung beetles instead of the ever-present flea of the trenches, make their presence known (er, insects = soldiers??). Muldoon’s is a curious and at times, interesting piece, tho I have difficulty imagining ‘a Morrocan swallow’s last gasp’, and find his war into war into war (Napoleonic, Gallipoli, North African campaign of the Second World War) theme reductive.

Blake Morrison enters the Great War Remembrancetide-fest through a contemporary take on the old Christ-soldier sacrificial lamb. Morrison’s ‘Redacted’ uses a Coroner’s Court Report for the MOD, on the death of a young British soldier in Helmand, as his take-off point. He censors his page dramatically with blocks of black, the identifiers from the report, then offers ‘The poem’s sympathies’ to the dead soldier’s next-of-kin. Somehow one can’t imagine the NOK being all that receptive. Ironically, Morrison has his ‘poem’ claim to be unable ‘to judge whether [the soldier’s] deployment […] Was negligent to the point of criminality’ in a piece more polemic than poetic. Astonishingly, Blake, writing of ‘teenagers … being used as cannon fodder’, is ‘shocked at the tender age of some of the British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan’ and asks, ‘would armies exist if no one under 25 was allowed to fight?’ This latter question simply cannot be taken seriously.

Daljit Nagra’s ‘The Calling’ is a welcome flight into contemplation of the territory of the least commemorated of the Great War – the “brown” troops, in this case, of India. Millions of these soldiers fought and served alongside “white” troops, as well as other “brown” troops from Canada (1st Nations, Métis, Inuit), Australia (Aborigine), New Zealand (Maori), African troops etc. Nagra’s ‘The Calling’ gives us the real gift of this collection in today’s papers, and that is to introduce readers tangentially to Sarojini Naidu’s The Gift of India. Nagra’s effort takes a side road to the remit, tho his last, most sensual lines, come closest in all of the poems reproduced in today’s Guardian to the heightened “aliveness” of war: ‘the smell of open fires where the roti is crackling/and our roses are the roses of home’.

Jackie Kay presents the other more interesting poem of the paper’s collection. In her ‘Bantam’, we hear the Scots’ voice of her grandfather. Based on her grandfather’s two wars, the reader hears of the Bantam soldiers – in this case, ‘young boys suddenly aged into men’ once recruited and deployed. Somehow I wish Kay had ventured further into the history of the Bantams, a remarkable story of small-statured men who often fought “big”. Still, hers is a clever little piece, tho I wonder that shrapnel lodged in the arm from the Somme, exiting in the Second World War, would be perceived by the soldier as a ‘wee jewel’. But perhaps it would be… who am I to say?

Andrew Motion reprises the blood of the Great War, the first blood I reckon, in his poem, ‘A Moment of Reflection’. This time it is the blood of Franz Ferdinand’s ‘aide-de-camp splattered over the manuscript’ in the moments before the Archduke’s assassination. Motion enumerates the Archduke’s hunting tally, foreshadowing in the way one might easily a century after the fact, ‘a tally that he expects will increase/once the business of today has been accomplished’. I’m feeling particularly thick as I read this though poem and Motion’s invocation of Sassoon’s anti-war statement, unable to connect Motion’s ‘A Moment of Reflection’ to Sassoon’s 27 July, 1917 statement, baring the obvious.

Finally, in today’s collection we have Gillian Clarke remind us of the
‘sorrow in the wind, foretold/blood in the rain reddening the fields/under the shadow of crows’ at Paschendaele. The poignancy of the announcement of Hed Wyn’s appointment to the chair at Eisteddfod only days after his death in France, somehow lies a little flat, as do several in the collection and I am pondering how and why this is so, and question the venture itself.

Two things come to mind as I read these pieces. The first is that the poetic voice of these poems often comes across as self-conscious, and surprisingly un-immersed in the sensuality of, and the heightened and ironical liveliness of, the Great War. Nowhere in these fine words by these fine poets do I perceive a true conversation across the century. Absent is the touch, the sexuality, the heaving nexus (yikes, is a heaving nexus even possible or am I too excited by the subject of my dissertation?!) of humanity, animals, earth and technology. A second thought, is on form. For an event that challenged the constraints of poetic form, these contemporary poets have oddly restrained themselves from formal innovation in this instance. There seems to be no push, no pull at language and line, à la Isaac Rosenberg, or Mary Borden, or any of the Modernists who served at the Front or behind the lines and who struggled with their narrative.

I haven’t seen the contents of the collection so I can’t comment on the overall arc of 1914: Poetry Remembers. I certainly hope Borden, Rosenberg, and others are included in these “responses”. It’s an odd and difficult challenge inevitably, so laden are we with the Metanarrative of the Great War with trenches and “horror”. I certainly hope some of the poets entertain the millions of other facets of the war – concert parties for example, or that for some who came from abject poverty, the war meant a steady wage, boots, a bed, meals etc., or as it was for one of our family’s grandfathers, a ticket off the farm in rural Canada straight to the bright lights of London and Paris (he got lucky, by the way, and caught the Spanish flu before being transported to the Front).

Inevitably, the inclusion of photographs of the trenches, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Sassoon, and Brooke, amp up the emotional code for the readership of today’s Guardian, setting up a series of predetermined responses. But these, dare I say it for fear of being accused of blasphemy, are lazy images readily called up by anyone who has studied the 6th form English Literature’s Poetry of the First World War syllabus. If there is one thing we are learning about the Great War through the scholarship of the past few decades, it is that the First World War was so very much more complex and diverse than that as experienced by the handful known as the Great War “canon”.


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled 1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by Carol Ann Duffy. It was posted here on October 27, 2013.

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