The poetry of war

The very fine wordsmith and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy approached several contemporary bards to write a piece of poetry inspired by some of the poems which came out of the Great War, to mark the impending centenary of the start of that awful carnage which has scarred the collective psyche for generations now. The poets in the Guardian piece include the late Seamus Heaney, his poem appearing for the first time, posthumously, and Duffy herself, whose lines, written in response to The Send Off by Wilfred Owen, I found especially moving, as I have always found Owen’s.

I think on Owen and his friend and fellow wartime poet Sassoon sometimes as I walk near my home, strolling along the Union Canal and seeing just a short walk further away the stone facade of Craiglockhart, now part of Napier University, but back then pressed into service as a place to treat shell-shocked officers (the regular ranks of ordinary men had somewhat rougher ‘treatment’ to deal with this new psychological injury caused by the intensity of prolonged mechanised warfare), where he and Sassoon were treated (a fictionalised account can be seen in Pat Barker’s novel – and the film adaptation of it – Regeneration)..

Remembering the fallen 02
(a night-time photograph of the Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens I shot last year, serried ranks of tiny crosses and poppies in the cold, dark, winter night, only a few feet from busy rush-hour Princes Street, a small, quiet spot to contemplate loss, sacrifice and not to forget hard-learned lessons)

“An Unseen”, Carol Ann Duffy

I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
depart, return;
late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new.
Love was here; not; missing, love was there;
each look, first, last.

Down the quiet road, away, away, towards
the dying time,
love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;
walked to the edge of absence; all moments going,
gone; bells through rain

to fall on the carved names of the lost.
I saw love’s child uttered,
unborn, only by rain, then and now, all future
past, an unseen. Has forever been then? Yes,
forever has been.


BBC2 is showing an excellent series on the Romantic period of literature by Peter Ackroyd, a period which takes in the sublime interpretation of nature of Wordsworth through to the Byron’s take on the darker side of nature. It is also a period which, aside from shaping our modern attitudes to industry, science, nature and ourselves, gave birth to the literary forms of two of the most enduring mythic types: the human-created monster (which we still discuss today as we face the unravelling of the genome, reading the Book of Life – more dangerous than any Biblical apple – and cloning) and the vampire (still a potent and flexible myth applies to everything from Captitalism to AIDS), from an infusion of science, nature and human nature via Polidori and Mary Shelley.

It is one of my favourite periods for rich poetry, with this weekend’s programme focussing largely on one of my favourite rhymers, William Blake. In many ways Blake encompasses the different aspects of the Romantic period, with its attention to the awe and beauty of the natural world, the innocence of childhood (itself basically a metaphor by Romantics for the supposed ‘innocence’ of pre-industrial society) and a violent reaction to the brutal industrialisation of society and the harsh treatment of human beings. As Ackroyd points out, it is a period which informed much of the way we still view the world and our part in it today.

Most folk are quite dismissive of poetry, which is a shame. Even in the book trade the amount of colleagues I had who couldn’t care less about events like National Poetry Day was rather large and usually took the shape of the appallingly ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response. Which, as responses go, is up there with people who say “I don’t like jazz/classical music/ foreign movies/comics” delete as applicable. What that kind of reply indicates to me is not that the person doesn’t like that entire genre but that they are too damned lazy to think about it and have spent too much energy erecting little walls around themselves which cut them off from new experiences which could potentially alter their outlook on life.

Saying you don’t like poetry always struck me as especially foolish and lazy; you mean you don’t like any form of poetry whatsoever, be it the Iliad, a Shakespearean sonnet, a poem by Blake or Burns or even a song by the Beatles? I love prose, but even in long prose novels the best authors partake of some of the elements of poetry (often the writer is a poet as well as novelist), such as George MacKay Brown or the great Borges. Poetry is a way of directly addressing the emotions and experiences we all have in relation to almost everything, from the birth of a child to watching a sunset and as such is an essential part of our emotional and intellectual development and our ability to express those experiences and feelings; it partakes as much of our rational yet creative side as it does of a form of shamanistic magic (where words were ritually used to address the world). It also exercises the mind and emotions allowing us to more fully experience – and share – other events, visuals and arts, be it the reflection of light on a river or the kaleidoscope of colours which create an Impressionist painting (I’ve always thought Impressionism, like Jazz, is closely related to poetry) – the powers of imagination and erudition are muscles which need to be exercised just like any physical muscle. Try exercising it with some poetry and you’ll find your appreciation of so much else expanded, enhanced.

One of my favourite modern poets, the Scots-born Carol Ann Duffy, won the T S Eliot Prize for poetry the other week – if you haven’t read her then I heartily recommend her work, which is imaginative but very accessible, so if you’re the sort of person who thinks they would like to try more poetry some time but are a little afraid they won’t ‘get it‘ (worry not, you don‘t need an MA in English Lit to get poetry, that‘s part of the beauty of it), have no fear, she is perfect. Ladies, I especially commend The World’s Wife to you, where she has a series of poems all imagining events viewed from the perspective of the wives of famous historical figures (gentlemen, you too could learn from this too, if you open yourself, it is not just for the ladies).

The Beeb have created a site to go with the Romantics show on the main BBC site, including some audio sections where you can listen to some of the poems being read. Do yourself a favour and try reading a little poetry from time to time. For my part I think perhaps I have to – I have two famous poets as my kinsmen after all, Lord Byron (George Gordon) and Adam Lindsay Gordon (one of the first great poets in Australian literature) ; perhaps not blood relatives as such (it would be nice if they were!) but if we were all together at a big wedding we’d all be in the same tartan (and looking very rakish and sexy in our Clan Gordon kilts of course).