Scattered Things and Changing Skies…… 1914 Remembered
Edited By Carol Ann Duffy.
………The First World War was arguably the most defining moment of the Twentieth Century though that’s debatable of course given the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the invention of the computer, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other iconic, defining moments. What I think is less debatable is the uniqueness of the way in which poets and writers were at the heart of providing the human perspective on that war. It was unique because while poets had of course written of previous wars, the legacy and impact on subsequent generations like mine seems much less.
I’ve read much about other wars, other cataclysmic events but in the main they’re either fiction or historical analysis. Poets would of course continue to write of what they saw and experienced in wars after 1914-1918, but it’s always seemed to me that by 1939, the visual recording of what happened was on such a scale that the moving image tends to overshadow the written word of those poets. So what makes the First World War poets and writers unique to me is their crucial role in describing the human experience in the midst of such monumental carnage, mayhem and slaughter.
For 1914 Poetry Remembers, Carol Ann Duffy has asked a number of contemporary poets to select the piece of First World War poetry or writing which has most affected them and to write their response to it. It’s a beautifully simple idea which in the wrong hands, might easily have been little more than an anthology of First World War verse chosen by the great and the good of modern poets. Instead it’s a riveting, absolutely un-put-down-able collection which at turns will move you, anger you and make you despair about the human race and what we do, or more often, what we allow others to do, supposedly in our name. The new poems are as powerful as those written at the time and the different interpretations, reactions and connections by the modern poets give the collection a deeply personal and intimate feel.
Duffy herself bookends the collection with two pieces, both responding to Wilfred Owen, looking first at those initial first days of enlisting, responding to Owen’s ‘ The Send Off’ and ends with her poem ‘The Last Post’ which responds in part to Owen’s ‘ Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and which almost tries to unravel and reverse every aspect of War back to those initial footsteps post- enlisting. As the poem says
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
There is so much that is good, even great in this collection. Whenever I read poetry I always mark those poems that affect me, influence me, make me think or react strongly. In a collection of this size I’d normally expect to have marked out perhaps six to 10 poems that are special for me in some way. In this collection I marked out 36. I found I was particularly moved by those where there was some form of personal connection between the poet, the war and the verse they’d chosen. Jackie Kay’s poem ‘Bantam’, in response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Survivors’ looks back through her words, to her father’s recollection of his fathers war experience.
It wisnae men they sent to war.
It wis boys like the Bantams
– wee men named efter
a small breed o’ chickens,
or later: a jeep, a bike, a camera.
Some of the work is incredibly moving and for different reasons. I read the wonderful Blake Morrison poem ‘Redacted’, written in response to Ewart MackIntosh’s equally powerful poem ‘Recruiting’ with such a sense of despair, anger and almost bewilderment. And for very different reasons I was moved to tears by the pieces from Edward and Helen Thomas. Edward Thomas tragic poem, ‘As The Team’s Head-Brass” is chosen by both Seamus Heaney and Julia Copus and it’s followed a few pages later by Helen’s account of Edward’s departure for the front in an excerpt from “World Without End”. I recently read Matthew Hollis’ brilliant “Now All Roads Lead To France”, his account of Edward Thomas’ last days, his life with Helen and with his best friend Robert Frost. So to read the Thomas poem, Helen’s account of his leaving and the modern responses to both pieces, all while I knew more of what lay ahead for Edward and Helen Thomas than either of them could have known when they wrote those words, was just desperately sad.
Throughout the collection, the selected pieces and the responses to them go from considering the almost incomprehensible scale of the loss of life to the equally incomprehensible degree of misery and suffering that soldiers and civilians experienced day to day. It of course makes you want scream and weep at the same time. But equally that’s perhaps the most powerful thing that the First World War poets and their modern counterparts do with this collection – because when poetry is as good as this, it makes you respond and react. I guess as a reader this is how we honour the sacrifice of those millions of young men and women who gave their lives. We remember them – and this collection does just that – beautifully.
“1914 Poetry Remembers” was edited by Carol Ann Duffy and published by Faber and Faber. I bought my copy.