Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Simon Turner - War Poetry Thoughts (1)

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.    


Alan Baker said...

I think Larkin is being very astute here. Someone (I wish I knew who) said that poets should avoid interesting subjects, and in a way, I think that's true. Perhaps it's because poetry is not about conveying information, but is communicating on a different level. BTW, I didn't know Alice Oswald had done a version of The Iliad. Must get my hands on that!

Roy Marshall said...

Hi Simon. I wanted to draw attention to David Jones 'In Parenthesis'. I recently found a lovely 1969 copy. I'd heard of this book, first published in 1937but had never seen a copy. It is an incredible work and it is seems that Jones invented or fused into being a whole new form in order to convey the deep complexity of what he describes in the preface as "the sudden violences and the long stillness,the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existance(in)..a place of enchantment."

There is confirmation of Larkin's veiw in the preface; "I did not intend this as a 'War Book'-it happens to be concerned with war."

The Editors said...

Alan, good to hear from you. The Oswald is very interesting, obviously part of a lineage that includes Logue's War Music, but it's a very different beast.

Roy: yes, David Jones is fantastic, though a comparably marginal figure - slightly too late to ride the crest of the Modernist wave, whilst In Parenthesis' difficult status - is it a novel, or a prose poem, or a hybrid of the two? - means it's not as easy to anthologise as Owen or Sassoon's best works, so he's not been absorbed as part of the war poetry canon either. Faber have been republishing his major works, though, including The Anathamata, which is well worth a butcher's.

Simon, Gists and Piths

Alan Baker said...

Simon, nice to be talking to you again, and seeing some good stuff on G&P again. To you and Roy - thanks for reminding me about David Jones, a great poet who, as you say Simon, is unjustly neglected because he doesn't fit into neat categories. Will check out the Alice Oswald translation. Cheers, Alan

Alistair Noon said...

Pursuant to the discussion of the relationship between aesthetics and content in the military context, may one draw readers' attention to one's humble translations of the German war poet August Stramm, who couldn't be less Owenish, in spite of being (metaphorically speaking) just the other side of no man's land...


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