In the run-up to a planned review of Alice Oswald's new contraction of the Iliad, Memorial, in the next week or so, I thought I'd set down some thoughts I'd been having on the question of war poetry as a means of framing some of the more outrageous claims I'm likely to make about the poem. First of all, Philip Larkin (look at him there, with his face and his suit, all gussied up like a tax inspector on the first of April), who, in a 1963 review of Wilfred Owen's Collected Poems, made this fascinating commentary on the cultural status of the war poet: "A 'war' poet is not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate war but one who reacts against having a war thrust upon him: he is chained, that is, to a historical event, and an abnormal one at that. However well he does it, however much we agree that the war happened and ought to be written about, there is still a tendency for us to withhold our highest praise in the grounds that a poet's choice of subject should seem an action, not a recation." (The review in question appears in Required Writing.)
Given the almost religious character of war remembrance, and the seemingly high regard that Owen and Sassoon are held in, Larkin's reading of the field might seem to be wildly counter-intuitive. Aren't 'the war poets' (always the poets of the trenches, of course, never Douglas or Jarrell or their equivalents from other conflicts) taught with clockwork regularity throughout the school curriculum? Hasn't 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' taken on the status of a kind of alternative national hymn? Well, yes, that's true, but on closer inspection, Larkin has a point, and a troubling one. The speechmarks around 'war' in the opening sentence of the quotation I've chosen say it all: war poets are bracketed off from the mainspring of 20th century poetry, critically and culturally. Where they're taught, they're taught in terms of content, not form: a generalised fog of cliches envelopes the work of Owen and his fellow trench-poets, summed up by the catch-all term 'the horror of war'. There's comparably little room to consider, say, Owen's musical innovations (the half-rhyme), or the problematic place of the war poets within the bipartisan literary politics of the period. The very designation 'war poet' means that we don't have to trouble ourselves with these questions.
In a way, war poetry is beset by the same problem of any perceived deviation form or genre: it becomes ghettoised the moment it is clarified and named. (Or even earlier: consider how HG Wells' fictions were classified as 'scientific romances' before science fiction existed as a publishing category: rather than treating them as literature, pure and simple, works such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man were forced into the straightjacket of an existing literary mode.) And although the demarcations of genre help critics and readers to find a path through what might otherwise be an incomprehesibly complex field, they can also be incredibly limiting.