The War Poets - review
Reviews of TO THE WAR POETS:
Over the Top, Again
“The year 2014 is going to provide plenty of interest (if the current media debates are early indicators), concerning how we propose to celebrate or commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The whole question of if or whether celebration is appropriate, how this should be managed, who should participate in it - all these topics have already taken up many column-inches and the books about 1914 and the world before the war are already piling up in bookstores. The agreed narrative of wholesale slaughter and consequent vast social change is already blinking in the daylight. We can expect BBC documentaries, 'souvenir' newspapers, grand public events and all the residual media glare surrounding An Important Event to follow.
For readers of poetry, there is also the temptation to subscribe to a grand narrative. Roughly speaking it goes like this: Georgian poetry died in the trenches, Eliot and Pound hijacked the main poetic highway and thereafter 'English' writers wandered in a wilderness. After slight deviations down culs-de-sac such as New Apocalypse Close and Confessional Street, writers as diverse as Ted Hughes, Roy Fisher and Geoffrey Hill came up for air, only to find that the poetic landscape had fragmented into many small bypaths. Thereafter, writers of poetic histories cast back and found the persistence of some kind of English line in the writings of Edward Thomas, MacNeice's consumerism and the Mersey scruffs, among other places. And now, like it or not, you're going to read an awful lot about Owen and Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas over the next few months. John Greening's book is not a bad place to start.
In poems dedicated to most of the important WWI poets, Greening revisits and celebrates, occasionally at key places such as Essex Farm, linked here to John McCrae, the author of 'In Flanders Fields'. He also adds to them Expressionist writers such as Georg Trakl and Ernst Stadler. Closer to today, he name-checks Julian Grenfell and links him with Oh, What a Lovely War! as an example of unintended consequences, and analyses the potency of Rupert Brooke's anthology piece thus:
we reach for still, your
'The Soldier'. Even Blair,
despite Iraq. We like
the thought of that field
within our power.'
Those familiar with the writings of Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas and Robert Graves will enjoy finding hidden references but Greening does not shy away from cold evaluation: in the case of the last-named, for instance, his 'corpus' is pictured as being eroded by time and his poetry bayoneted by 'Sassoon and Blunden…shouting TRUTH.'
This is not just a mere nostalgic exercise: Aldermaston, Sutton Hoo burials, Elgar's music, Kenneth Clark, Stanley Kubrick - all contribute to a sense of continuity in conflict throughout the last hundred years. Greening exhumes carefully, suggesting that there will be a recurring harvest of these mythemes, like the annual metal harvest in Flanders, and over the next few months this will undoubtedly continue.
Ultimately, in a book so explicitly titled, the names of Owen and Sassoon will always reappear in the reader's mind. In the case of Sassoon, Greening posits a response to Palestine and Iraq which might have brought forth his characteristic mixture of irony and disgust. As for Owen, there is a strange silence, beyond the use of part of 'The Send-Off' as an epigraph. Perhaps there is nothing left to say about Owen? What possible response can there be to poems such as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', even now?”
M.C. Caseley, Stride Magazine, 2014
“In a documentary on Belgium’s quirks and mores, the TV presenter Jonathan Meades considered the enduring draw of Europe’s killing fields as a phenomenon he termed ‘death tourism’. If the urge to visit such fields is death tourism, is the urge to bring to life dead war poets through the imagination and epistolary verses between dead and living poets a form of ‘death poetry’? It seems that John Greening’s timely and substantial collection, To the War Poets, is doing much more than offering the reader a cheap and thanatic thrill of re-living death and bloodshed in the trenches and exclaiming the horror. In poems such as ‘To Edmund Blunden’ the speaker considers the horror the legacy of the war has become as a money-spinning tourist attraction:
A far cry from the throng back in the Flanders Fields Museum.
The tin helmet over the litter bin swings in the breeze
beside my metal bench. There are cyclists. And a lady’s
terrier snaps and growls at someone’s knapsack. It is all
… I cough and cough. But not because there’s gas.
I was initially worried that Greening would act in this collection as a necromancer ventriloquist of various famous War poets. The first few poems seem to do this, to mimic the style of poets such as Rosenburg, Stramm and Trakl. Trakl is particularly well captured:
The winter storm’s mad organ playing
is like the Volk’s dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
[‘On the Eastern Front’]
After these initial scene and tone setting poems, the collection deepens into the larger theme of lessons not learned and the looming presence of conflict in society up to the present day. With such grave life and death subject matter it is not surprising that Greening’s tone occasionally slips into didacticism, for instance in ‘Reading John Clare on New Year’s Eve’ the speaker muses upon what will last a cruel and fleeting culture of celebrities:
When we had heard that distant New Year bell,
we would be carrying his black truths by heart
across our thresholds, not thumbing a remote.
Perhaps an intentional intertextual effect of the collection, I felt a number of times I had been in the same place before. In the poem ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’ we see how the television is an electronic juxtaposition of scenes of war which can be instantly changed to brain anaesthetising frivolities like dancing girls and music halls. It is the image of the TV in the corner of the hotel room which reminded me strongly of Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’ where the “Vietnam war drags on/ in one corner of our living room” and where smoke only comes from cigarette puffing heads.
Greening is to be praised for remembering that the poetry of World War One in the English language should not be considered in a purely Anglo-centric light, so it is good to see a poem for Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although this poem reminds the reader of the conflicted Scottishness of the poet, it also celebrates the uniqueness of his contribution to the canon of War poetry:
…on that autumn
night in Loos
when you found a spook
song – Süsser Friede – bursting
from your vanished mouth.
[‘To Charles Sorley’]
Certainly, this is a collection haunted by echoes and revenants, even Robert Graves who is only too painfully aware that according to military papers, he was officially dead in action. Greening is to be praised for marshalling together out of the vortex such a range of voices to come up with a collection that muses on what has changed, if anything, in the centenary century. What is striking about this collection is the sheer vitality and multiplicity of voice – how words and poetry can endure – in the midst of mass graves and war torn lands:
or beneath the hundred thousand crosses
left by men who could never spell
themselves, imagine it grinning from their skulls
or groaning in the pelvic bones of women
who bore it, a surge from this serpent bend
of the river into every green corner.
Richie McCaffery, Elsewhere: a review of contemporary poetry