Monday, 7 April 2014

What is War Poetry?

I went to the Spring School at Oxford University's English Faculty believing that I had a fairly good idea of the answer to this question.  Despite a general awareness that there are many different interpretations of the term "war poetry", it was not something that seemed to call for a great deal of explanation.

Dr Mark Rawlinson's introductory lecture set the scene for further investigation of the topic remarkably well, and certainly raised some unexpected questions, as well as more familiar ones.  Can a woman or a non-combatant qualify as a war poet?  Is war poetry, as Robert Graves suggested, a form of "higher" journalism?  Can war poetry change anything, whether in the short or long term?  Does war poetry still exist?  Did it, in fact, ever exist?

Wilfred Owen, with his insistence on an essential "disjunction" between war and poetry, would have viewed the description of his work as "war poetry" in a negative light.  Keith Douglas, one of the two best-known poets of World War II, suggested that there was nothing new to be said, so influential had the post-World War I "war poetry boom" (Graves's phrase) been.  Stephen Spender, on the other hand, felt that the "environment" of the second war was so different from that of the first that it made imitation pointless; the conditions were so unprecedented that they were perhaps not conducive to writing poetry at all.

The questions raised at the beginning of the conference were both reinforced by, and partly answered in, the sessions that followed - particularly those on Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and David Jones.

Wilfred Owen saw it as the poet's task to "witness", but disputed whether it was possible for the poet to do more than "warn".  It is as though he not only believed (like Siegfried Sassoon) that poetry is a vocation, but that the poet has a God-given duty to write about war from first-hand experience.  Yet Sassoon's most-quoted poems about the war are, to my mind, essentially satirical.  He focused on particular aspects of war, those that concerned him most, and sought to highlight their absurdity.  He did make a practical attempt to oppose the war (or rather, its continuation), but he did not actively seek to do so through his poetry.  As Meg Crane pointed out in her talk, he continued to write "real" poetry alongside his more biting, virulent "anti-war" poems. An example Meg chose of the former type, "The Dragon and the Undying", is in a completely different style and shows another side to the Sassoon we have been tempted to think we know.

When it comes to realistic writing about the war, however, you cannot do much better than the work of Ivor Gurney, as Dr Philip Lancaster clearly demonstrated.  Where Rosenberg and David Jones brought an artist's eye to the war, Gurney brought a musician's; but his love of landscape (he had taken up walking to provide relief from his "neurasthenia") led him to see many parallels between his home county of Gloucestershire and parts of France.  Gurney's poems take in all aspects of the war, not just the horror of the shell bombardments, the squalor of the trenches and the psychological effects on the combatants.  He writes also of some of the war's more positive aspects, often with an unexpected humour.

This spectacularly good conference did not end with an answer to the question posed at the beginning, but it did explore so many facets of the English-language poetry of the First World War that I believe even the most learned of delegates will have taken away something fresh from the experience.  In September, we have another opportunity to hear speakers of a similar calibre at the British Poetry of the First World War Conference being run by the English Association.  Details here:

Don't miss out!

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