Sunday, 7 July 2013

Issues for Discussion

While researching background information for the exhibitions, I came across a wondrous website - run by Matt Jacobsen.  There I found an account by American writer Frederick James Gregg, which suggested with regard to the First World War, only four writers ‘produced things which will last as literature after the tumult and the fighting are over…” These were:  Howard Copeland writing in the New York Times on 5th December 1914 – “Germany Suffering from a Morbid Complex”;  Mildred Aldrich’s letters printed in “The Atlantic” 1915 – “The Little House on the Marne”;  Cardinal Mercier, - “The Great Belgian Pastoral” and W.F. Bailey – papers on Croatia, Silicia and Poland, published “in English reviews and quarterlies”.

These works, and only these, in Gregg’s opinion, were “…a sincere, lasting and graphic literary achievement… All the rest, the thousand and one war books, the magazines full of war articles, may serve a useful purpose, argumentative or informing, but they will be forgotten and disappear, like the shells that litter the ground in Flanders, or like the oily bubbles of the German submarines.”  Gregg, Frederick James, “Good and Bad Writing about the War” in “Vanity Fair”, November 1915, p. 67 from, 09.04.2013.

Similarly critical of using war as a topic for writing verse was W.B. Yeats, who, when he chose poems for his “Oxford Book of Modern Verse, left out poems by Wilfred Owen, explaining the reasons for his decision “in a … letter to Lady Dorothy Wellesley:

“When I excluded Wilfred Owen, who I consider unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board man of the revolution and that somebody has put his worst and most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum – however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same.  He is all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber’s Anthology – he calls poets ‘bards’, a girl a ‘maid’ and talks about ‘Titanic wars’).”  Black, E.L., Ed. “1914-18 in Poetry:  An anthology selected & edited by E.L. Black.- (Hodder and Stoughton, Sevenoaks, Kent, 1982) pp. 14 – 15.

In the general introduction to his anthology of First World War poetry, Black goes on to describe the criticisms of Professor John H. Johnston of the Unviersity of West Virginia who wrote “The English Poetry of the First World War”.

However, Black feels these arguments are ‘unfair’ because of the terrible conditions in which many of the young soldier poets who were killed during the First World War wrote their poems – “all they could do was to scribble lyrics while cowering in shell-holes or enjoying their brief periods of leave.” (Black, p. 15).   It could therefore reasonably be argued that the most meaningful poetry written during any conflict needs to be written by those who had first hand experience of the situation.

Or does it?

This work seeks to show this is not necessarily the case through the poems of a few of the women who were alive at the time of the First World War, some of whom did indeed see the First World War from very close quarters as nurses, ambulance drivers, entertainers of the troops, etc.

It is proving quite difficult to find all of the women who wrote poetry at the time of the Great War.   At that time it was the fashion to ‘self publish’ through the medium of ‘pamphlets’, many of which will have inevitably been lost in the mists of time.   Can these writers be considered to be 'serious' poets?  George Bruce would surely have entered into this discussion - see Bruce's opinions in the review of one of his volumes of poetry written by Dr. Ian Olson in a previous blog.

In her truly excellent book, “The Nation’s Cause:  French, English and German Poetry of the First World War” (Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon., 2011), Elizabeth Marsland mentions Birmingham poet Elsie Mewis, who raised £120 (that would be equivalent to £24,000 in 2013) by selling just such a poem in aid of our troops and Belgian refugees (Marsland, p. 90), printing 20,000 copies and selling them for 1d (one penny – which would be worth approximately 84p in 2013) each.   What an achievement.

Would it be fair to leave these, self published poets out of my project simply because their poems as Marsland says are examples of ‘folk poetry’? (Marsland, pp 90 - 91). I don’t think so.  What do you think?

I look forward to hearing your comments.

1 comment:

  1. from Stephen Cribari, a Poet who is Professor of Law
    "The Yeats position is difficult, isn't it? You noted his being 'critical of using war as a topic for writing verse.' I'd've said he was critical of war as an appropriate subject for poetry. Frost might have said it was an inappropriate subject for a poet. Each has a slightly different shade of meaning. Yeats might consider war a fit subject for writing verse, but might not consider all verse to be poetry. (Using a 'poet's license,' he edited some of Reading Gaol in that collection for a similar reason.) Frost might think that a poet has no business fighting a war when his job was to try to stay alive and turn everyday life into poetry. They, of course, were creatures of their time. Yeats was very politically active; Frost read, toward the end of his life, at Kennedy's inauguration and was a politically interested Democrat all his life. To what extent was Yeats's antipathy to 'war poetry' more a political statement than an artistic statement?

    Regardless, from person choices or by dint of circumstances, poets find themselves in wars. What are they to do? Stop writing? I think not, and as we know some very great poetry came out of WWI, poetry which even if sent at The Front nonetheless transcends its place and time to be poetry about life not just 'war poetry.' To the extent poetry enobles war I side with Yeats; to the extent it transcends war I do not.

    Frost was focused on everyday life, as was Edward Thomas, and as war is not a normal part of what we call 'everyday life,' of course Frost would not be inclined to credit 'war poetry' as of any value. But in the war Thomas did wrote poetry about everyday life, an entirely different matter for Frost. Politics aside, Yeats was all about man's spiritual journey, man's possibilities perhaps more than his realities. An Anglo-Saxon proverb translates into current English more or less as 'man can do as he dreams but he only does as he is.' Yeats focused on the former and, had he found himself at The Front, might have said that it was not worth the effort to write about. It just was not important enough.

    But the work of some poets, such as Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Sorley, a few others, includes poetry which is less about the war and more about the men in the war which, to some degree, is also about men at anytime anywhere. Life and death happen not just in war. Their poetry is poetry that came out of the war but might not be strictly, or only, 'war poetry.' But that may be a notion it takes a hundred years to form. Yeats and WWI were contemporaries.

    The other day I saw 'Renoir,' which recently opened here in London. A lovely film, set during WWI. Renoir, an old and crippled man, is painting away in some sort of rural paradise. Two of his sons, including Jean (the filmmaker), enlist. Both are wounded but recover. Jean returns to the flying corps. During his home leave for recovery, he falls in love with a young model which Renoir is painting. In a real sense, they both fall in love with the same woman. (In real life, Jean did return to her, marry her, and divorce. She was in his early films.) Interestingly, Renoir takes the Yeats/Frost view with his son, whom he suspects might become a painter, when the son announces he cannot desert his comrades and is returning to the war.

    I suspect the Yeats/Frost/Renoir view is the view of someone who understands himself as an artist whose calling is art and who is so radically committed to art that nothing else matters. Rather like Mozart and music, for example.

    Other people are about many things, including writing poetry.

    8th July 2013