Friday, 29 April 2011

Simon Turner - On Bomber County

Paul Nash, Bomber in the Corn (1940)

Some time last year, I wrote an article for Horizon Review which - though ostensibly a review of some new poetry collections - tried to make the case, however clumsily and repetitiously, for two recent books (Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Andrei Codrescu's The Poetry Lesson) as exemplary of the kind of hybrid lit. that David Shields was himself arguing in favour of in Reality Hunger.  I was, perhaps, unfairly perfunctory in my readings of the books actually under review, and my spaniel-like enthusiasm no doubt hampered the development of a cogent, and indeed recognisable, argument.  But I stand by my judgements of Baker and Codrescu, and by the broader suggestion that hybrid lit. was the wave of the future, and that non- or quasi-fiction was a far more vital force in literature than either thorough-bred fiction or poetry.  If a poetry blogger can't make ridiculous and vatic assertions without any kind of substantiating evidence to support them, then who can?

The reason I bring this up now - aside, of course, as a self-congratulatory salve for my bruised and delicate ego - is because, on the back of reading some recent studies of war poetry for another (forthcoming) review on this very site (you lucky, lucky bastards), I realised that I'd neglected to mention in the Horizon article a very interesting, albeit flawed, slice of hybrid gold which really deserved to be included: Daniel Swift's Bomber County: interesting for a number of reasons, flawed primarily for one.  Swift's book is, put simply, an investigation into the literature of aerial bombardment during World War Two, taking in the civilian literature of the Blitz (Virginia Woolf, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas all get a mention, as do others) and, perhaps more radically, because it's less well-known, the poetry of the conflict as seen from the air, focusing upon established poets (Randall Jarrell amongst them), along with amateur unknowns plucked from the archives.  Add into the mix a dollop of military history and a personal journey on the part of the author, aiming to discover what happened to his grandfather during his final bombing raid, and what results is a fascinating, erudite, but frustratingly incomplete work.

Why frustratingly incomplete?  Because in the process of building his argument, Swift repeats the old adage that WW2 produced no poetry (or at least no poetry to match up to the work of Sassoon, Owen, Graves and company).  This is, of course, dramatic license on Swift's part, as he then proceeds to discuss a number of very good poets (Jarrell included) who emerged from the war, and who undermine any easy generalisations about that conflict's supposed literary lack.  But there are still a number of shocking absences from Swift's survey, not least of which is Keith Douglas.  Douglas' stock, since his death in France in 1944, has been steadily rising, thanks to the championing of his work by Ted Hughes, the dedicated editorial and biographical efforts of Desmond Graham, and, more recently, some exemplary critical study of his poetry by Tim Kendall, who devotes two chapters to Douglas in his Modern English War Poetry (2006), a vital book for anyone with even a passing interest in war poetry (you can read a PDF of the chapter relating to Hughes and Douglas here).  Which, in short, is to say that Douglas is hardly a marginal figure, so his absence from Bomber County (at the very least he could have made a parenthetical appearance) is puzzling.  Of course, no work of literature can be exhaustively encyclopedic, but in making his case for the literature of bombing, Swift somewhat overplays his hand.  Had Douglas (and less celebrated names like Alun Lewis, Henry Reed, Sidney Keyes and Vernon Scannell) been allowed entry into Bomber County's critical purview, then, paradoxically, Swift's key thesis - that the literature of aerial bombardment represents the most authentic and vital imaginative response to the conflict - would be bolstered, providing the author with the opportunity to compare and contrast between disparate accounts of what was, let's remember, an unprecedentedly varied war, both geographically and experientially.  

Of course, I don't want my (comparatively minor) gripes to dissuade you from reading what is an excellent work of literary criticism on all other fronts, as well as being a more than necessary addition to the canon of critical studies of war literature.  Just remember to keep a copy of Douglas' Complete Poems or Alamein to Zem Zem to hand as reminders of just which pieces of the jigsaw are missing.

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