Sunday, 27 May 2012

Where Are the War Poets? (1)

Early on during the Second World War, a rash of articles appeared in publications such as the TLS, Horizon and the Listener, bemoaning the comparative absence of war poetry in relation to the First World War.  Of course, as has become abundantly clear in the years since WW2 ended, such worries were unfounded, and whilst the work of Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, Randall Jarrell and others has not found the same kind of readership associated with Owen, Sassoon and company, neither the quality nor the quantity of war poetry emanating from the 1940s is in any doubt.  The various 'Where Are the War Poets?' Jeremiads are testament not so much to poetry's absence from the public discourse of WW2, as to the grip that poetry of the Great War still held over the critical imagination.  In his preface to a relatively recent anthology of First World War poetry, Andrew Motion called the poetry of the Great War a kind of secular sacred text, and this explains at least partly why so many commentators during the forties were moved to find their own generation's war poetry either lacking or entirely absent: this new poetry simply did not - could not - live up to the position of cultural eminence that the preceding conflict's poetry had achieved.  

Robert Graves, a poet of WW1 who spent much of his subsequent literary career excising his war poetry from collected editions of his work, was among the lit crit Jeremiahs who felt compelled to tackle the perceived absence of war poetry from the scene, in an article originally published in the Listener, but reprinted in Graves' essay collection of 1949, The Common Asphodel.  Graves' take on the subject is noteworthy, though falls foul of certain omissions and generalisations.  He's astute in recognising that war poetry as a concept, or at least as it is understood now - for good or ill, as a poetry of protest originating from the front lines - was born in the trenches of the Great War, and that as such any discussion of war poetry as a subject or discipline cannot extricate itself from this association - indeed, that the very terms 'war poet' and 'war poetry' are peculiar to that conflict, and (potentially) their relevance is circumscribed by it.  I don't happen to agree with Graves, but it's an interesting argument and provides a telling context for his discussion of the subject.  

Graves' take on war poetry is explained at least in part by his ambiguous relationship to his early poetry of conflict.  I've already mentioned that Graves spent a lot of time excising his war poetry from his canonical published works, but here's Graves on the same matter: 'Yes: my publishers fastened the war-poet label on me in 1916 when Over the Brazier, my first book of verse, appeared; but when twenty years later I published my Collected Poems, I found that I could not conscientiously reprint any of my 'war poems' - they were too obviously written in the war poetry boom.'  This is a fantastically loaded passage that warrants some close reading.  Firstly, Graves managed to create an opposition between verse and poetry through some choice turns of phrase: Over the Brazier, where a great proportion of his war poetry appeared, is dismissed as 'verse'; only 'poetry' makes it into his Collected, meanwhile.  This division between early 'verse' and mature 'poetry' is compounded by the tension between passivity and activity implied in the passage.  Early Graves is 'published' - which is to say, he and his poetry are in the passive position - but later Graves is active, and has become the publisher, his actual publishers having been quietly erased through a piece of linguistic sleight of hand.  On top of this, Graves seems to be implying that war poetry as a concept is chiefly a matter of commerce: the label 'war poet' is foisted on him in the first instance, and in the latter he finds he cannot abide his earlier work precisely because it is too reminiscent of the 'war poetry boom' - that is, it is a product of a period style and a publishing trend.

Graves then moves on to the practicalities, and they're astute, though less fascinating or personally revealing as his treatment of his own literary output.  Basically, to Graves' mind, WW2 has so far produced no poetry worth speaking of because of changes in conditions: the army's more regulated and professional in character; the soldier's status as an authoritative first hand witness to conflict has been somewhat undermined by the fact that the war has a huge impact upon civilian populations too (the soldier 'cannot even feel that his rendezvous with death is more certain than that of his Aunt Fanny, the fire watcher'); and 'the justice of the British cause' - the defeat of Fascism in Europe - removes the outrage and protest that gave such vitality to the poetry of the Great War.  All of which is reasonable.  Less reasonable is his assertion that 'It should be added that no war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force . . . the internal combustion engine does not seem to comport with poetry.'  Marinetti may have had a few words to say on that last matter; Daniel Swift, meanwhile, has taken up the case for the defence in Bomber County with aplomb.

Some of Graves' most astute remarks, however, are reserved for the postscript to the article, written after the end of hostilities, and when the literary dust of the war was beginning to settle.  Here, Graves suggests that war poetry in WW1 had such an impact because of its necessity - from a purely documentary point of view, there was no other record coming from the front lines, given the draconian restrictions inflicted on the press.  The Second World War, unlike the First, argues Graves, had some first rate print journalists - Alan Moorehead amongst them - who (along with the photojournalism best exemplified by Robert Capa) rendered war poetry as truth-telling marginalia to the obfuscations of official military history, essentially superfluous.  If Graves is too sweeping in his dismissal of the poetry of WW2 - only Alun Lewis escapes Bobby's blanket rejection - his examination of the reasons behind war poetry's removal to the cultural margins is spot on.  James Campbell wrote a new addition to the 'Where are the War Poets?' canon in 2007 for the Guardian, singling out Brian Turner as the only example of a contemporary war poet he could find.  But in hunting high and low for war poetry and finding little or none, Campbell missed the obvious issue: there was an important and vast body of work being produced by those on the front line of conflict, filling in the gaps left out by journalism and military reports, with great literary and documentary value.  Where were the war poets?  At their laptops, mainly, writing blogs.                 

A New Recruit

Hello there.  Simon Turner here, one half of the dynamic duo at Gists and Piths.  Welcome to my new blog, which I started out of consternation that my research interests in war literature were rather taking over G&P, and making something of a mockery of that blog's commitment to 'contemporary poetry', whatever that means.  As yet, I'm not sure what shape this blog will take (much as George and I didn't know what shape G&P would take until a few months in).  Mainly, I conceive of this blog as a sort of public archive of my reading and critical response to the literature (mostly poetry, but fiction, memoir, and literary criticsm will get a mention) of conflict, and, more importantly, it's a means of forcing myself to write - I've a terrible habit of reading and reading around a subject without making any substantial notes along the way, which makes writing up my ideas at a later date something of a hell on earth.  To loyal readers of G&P, don't worry: it's still a going concern; I just felt a committed war literature blog would be both of benefit to myself as a critic, and to Gists and Piths, too.  Watch this space.