Saturday, 14 May 2011

Simon Turner - Bergonzi on war poetry

This is not so much an article, more a signpost to an interesting online resource that might otherwise be overlooked: earlier today I read the text of Bernard Bergonzi's 1990 Byron Foundation Lecture, which is available here.  The lecture, entitled 'The Problem of War Poetry' (a markedly similar title to a paper I gave at BAAS last year, which might suggest an unacknowledged influence, but I can honestly claim, hand on heart, that I wasn't aware of Bergonzi's lecture until today), has as its main argumentative thrust the thesis that the poetry of the Great War has, in spite of its strengths, a problematic effect upon subsequent poetry of conflict.  In effect, when we collectively speak of 'war poets', it's Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg that we invoke with the term, reducing poets of comparable calibre (Douglas and Lewis spring readily to mind) to the status of a footnote to their achievements.  In addition, Bergonzi - pre-empting, in embryonic form, the underlying arguments in Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth - asserts, correctly, that a problematic mis-reading of the poetry of the trenches as being chiefly anti-war in character has created the impression that all war poetry in the 20th century must therefore be pacifist in order to be of literary value, with moral and aesthetic 'good' becoming problematically conflated.  That's a summary, at least, and I have probably done Bergonzi's ideas a disservice through over-simplification: hence the link above.  Well worth reading: it's though-provoking and compellingly argued.             

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