War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Notes from PhD Land: On truth

How is it a man dies
Before his natural death?
He dies from telling lies
To those who trusted him.
He dies from telling lies—
With closed ears and shut eyes.

~ Robert Graves, untitled (Cannelluñ)
(RG Complete Poems Vol. 3, 418)

Well, well, well, so up next we come to Robert Graves that fantastical storyteller, spinner of word and life webs, love poet, war poet, memoirist, warrior of curled hair and curled nose and curled lips.

How is it then that I choose in this quest for defining/understanding truth in the Great War narrative (and indeed all war narrative), to read “Dear Roberto” – as Sassoon addresses Graves in Letter to Robert Graves an epistolary poem from the American Red Cross Hospital in 1918? Graves was economical with the truth, and lavish with the fantastical.

Famously, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon combed Graves’s Goodbye To All That for factual errors and found plenty of whoppers embedded like land mines within the pages. Indeed Graves himself came to regret his hastily written memoir of the Great War, believing his stretched truth left scorched earth (it did).

Graves writes, that GTAT was “a reckless autobiography in which the war figured, but written with small consideration for anyone’s feelings.”
~Robert Graves on Goodbye To All That
(The Long Weekend, 216)

But as early as 1930, only months after publishing the memoir that would make him famous, Robert Graves comments on the semi-fictionalized memoir in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement:

Great latitude should therefore be allowed to a soldier who has since got his facts or dates mixed. I would even paradoxically say that the memoires of a man who went through some of the worst experiences are not truthful unless they contain a high proportion of falsities (TLS 1930)._

I remember sitting around the dinner table in the mess at Whistler during the Winter Olympics with the Commanding Officer of 3 VP. He asked me, “What’s the difference between a war story and a fairy tale?”

“A fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time…” and a war story begins, “Well there we were in the shit…”“. The snipers and the RSM at the table all started laughing and nodding their heads.

But I’m starting to think there are varieties of liars, and degrees of liars. The pathological, the mentally ill, or self-serving (beware, they are soft of voice, outwardly innocuous), or sociopaths, or survivalists, then there are the kind-hearted (willing/wishing to protect loved ones) liars, and of course, there are the greatest liars of all, the storytellers, the bards.

Graves was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme. Shot through the lung, he was left for dead. Later he claimed he had died. I believe him. After being left for dead in a casualty clearing station at Mametz Wood, saved by some miracle, Graves had the unique experience of reading of his own death in The Times as he recovered. Something happened to Graves as his life waned there in the human dumping grounds behind the lines at the Somme. A paradoxical thing. Somehow he was able to shed the “lies” of all sorts of truth, and was able to embrace the “truth” of all sorts of lies.

So how does one discern this truth from such a liar?

My first editor, the late and much beloved Rona Murray, generous, lovely, talented, kind poet, said to me when I handed her a sheaf of my first poems across her garden gate, “If the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I read something, I know there is something real and worthy in it.” Rona was the first to believe in me. She published me in Threshold: six women six poets. All six of us novice poets have gone on to publish and do wonderful things thanks to our words and to Rona’s belief in our truths.

There is another truth litmus test too I’m beginning to discern. And that is when others try and censor the writer. This happens when people read themselves into the writer’s work. Wrongly. They may think they recognize themselves, but they are wrong to believe it is themselves. Lazarus, the subject of a series of my poems, is an amalgam of many, many soldiers I’ve met, ditto Little Corner of England. These are “everyman” characters. All the characters in May Day are fictional, inspired by people I’ve met, but fictional as is the main character S – she simply is not me… I don’t dance flamenco that well for a start. Sassoon wrote three volumes of memoirs as novels for a reason and yet in passages one feels the truth within… ditto Graves, ditto Blunden, ditto Borden. Interestingly, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room leaves the little hairs flat on the nape of the neck.

Why, if I write about Afghanistan am I worrying at the worn blanket of Great War narrative anyway? Through Graves, Mary Borden and David Jones, I am discerning the ethics, the aesthetics of lying. Somehow I hope to understand how and why the little hairs rise on the back of one’s neck, and how the words from a full century ago may still bear some sort of truth.


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Notes from PhD Land: On truth. It was posted here on July 24, 2013.

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