Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Why write poetry?

As students come to a fuller understanding of the complexity and power of poetry and the amount of work that clearly goes in to creating poems it is not uncommon to hear a heartfelt query: why does anyone do this? Why write poetry?

To be honest, when studying some poetry it can be difficult to come up with a convincing answer. The idea of a professional poet is virtually incomprehensible ("but that would mean other people paying to read the poems") and the answer that "poets wanted to write in order to explore their ideas and feelings or just to create beautiful verse" comes across as self-indulgent claptrap.

However when studying the war poets the question is very easy to answer indeed. Soldiers in the First World War wrote poems because they had to. Faced with the enormity of what they were experiencing and the utter inability of anyone who had not experienced it to comprehend any part of what they saw and felt they felt an irresistible compulsion to write and poetry was in many cases the only adequate way to express in writing what they wanted to say.

However it would be a mistake to assume that what they wanted to say was always the same. We are familiar with the anti-War messages of some of the great war poems. The final lines of Dulce et Decorum Est perhaps express this sentiment most powerfully
"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie Dulce et Decorum Est
Pro patria mori"

However soldiers express other sentiments equally powerfully. Some may seem anachronistic to us now, though they were felt with a passion at the time. They include a sense of duty to a cause and loyalty to one's fellow soldiers, dead or alive. John McCrae's In Flanders Fields ends with a stanza that may be less welcome to the ears of modern readers but clearly arose from a genuine sense of duty and care for those who had died
"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this sentiment is Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen. Surely anyone, whatever their level of disgust with the whole concept of war sees the beauty in the lines
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

The poems that have the greatest hold on me though are the ones which explore the other facets of the experience of war. Unsurprisingly perhaps soldiers did not confine their thoughts and feelings to the issue of whether they were pro- or anti-War. Lost in such an alien and incomprehensible world one emotion that clearly came across at times was a bitter and intense anger with those at home who did not and could not understand.

Siegfried Sassoon, who seems to have felt this emotion more than most, expresses it powerfully in the final stanza of Suicide in the Trenches
"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”
and Owen puts it more softly, but with equal passion, in Apologia pro Poemate Meo
"You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth your tears.
You are not worth their merriment."

However soldiers harboured darker and less noble feelings too. It is unsettling to come across disgust towards those who were wounded or dying, but it is there. In Owen's great Dulce et Decorum Est the face of the dying soldier is like "a devil's sick of sin" and the sound of the blood in his lungs is "obscene as cancer." His description of the shell-shocked soldiers in Mental Cases is even more disturbing: "Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,/Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,/Baring teeth that leer like skulls' tongues wicked?" Owen is the most compassionate of poets, and stated that "my subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity", yet here what we see is closer to disgust and anger.

Sassoon expresses this anger and disgust too, in the Hero. In the voice of the officer giving the news of a soldier's death to his mother he describes how "'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,/Had panicked down the trench that night the mine/Went up at Wicked Corner." In this poem, Sassoon's disgust spreads to the mother, whose "weak eyes/Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,/ Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy." and to himself, who had "told the poor old dear some gallant lies/That she would nourish all her days, no doubt."

Although these attitudes to dead and wounded comrades are difficult and painful to read, perhaps the most disturbing emotion, though rarely fully explored, is that which lies behind the most shocking passage in Owen's Apologia pro Poemate Meo
"Merry it was to laugh there —
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder."

Whilst some of this is about self-loathing it also recognises the seductive pleasure of the adrenaline rush that accompanied battle. Julian Grenfell, not the most sensitive of men (he continued his hunting book into his time in the trenches, to record the "huns" he had "bagged") described it as the moment when "Joy of Battle only takes/Him by the throat, and makes him blind".

However Owen is that rare creature an anti-War poet who recognises and explores the exhilaration that going over the top can bring, along with the disgust and self-loathing it provokes afterwards. Spring Offensive is a powerful evocation of battle but ends by considering "the few who rushed in the body to enter Hell" and survived. He takes the familiar metaphor of War as Hell and questions it: if War is Hell, what does that make the soldiers? With searing honesty he forces himself and his readers to live through the emotions of one who has survived a battle in which he has fought both courageously and murderously.

Owen returned to the War in 1918, having already written all of his great poems. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for an action when "He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy." Reading the last stanza of Spring Offensive, I can't help wondering how he thought afterwards of that action:
"But what say such as from existence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames —
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder —
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?"

Spring Offensive

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