Over the Top, Again

To the War Poets, John Greening (86pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

The year 2014 is going to provide plenty of interest (if the current media debates are early indicators), concerning how we propose to celebrate or commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The whole question of if or whether celebration is appropriate, how this should be managed, who should participate in it - all these topics have already taken up  many column-inches and the books about 1914 and the world before the war are already piling up in bookstores. The agreed narrative of wholesale slaughter and consequent vast social change is already blinking in the daylight. We can expect BBC documentaries, 'souvenir' newspapers, grand public events and all the residual media glare surrounding An Important Event to follow.

For readers of poetry, there is also the temptation to subscribe to a grand narrative. Roughly speaking it goes like this: Georgian poetry died in the trenches, Eliot and Pound hijacked the main poetic highway and thereafter 'English' writers wandered in a wilderness. After slight deviations down culs-de-sac such as New Apocalypse Close and Confessional Street, writers as diverse as Ted Hughes, Roy Fisher and Geoffrey Hill came up for air, only to find that the poetic landscape had fragmented into many small bypaths. Thereafter, writers of poetic histories cast back and found the persistence of some kind of English line in the writings of Edward Thomas, MacNeice's consumerism and the Mersey scruffs, among other places. And now, like it or not, you're going to read an awful lot about Owen and Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas over the next few months. John Greening's book is not a bad place to start.

In poems dedicated to most of the important WWI poets, Greening revisits and celebrates, occasionally at key places such as Essex Farm, linked here to John McCrae, the author of 'In Flanders Fields'. He also adds to them Expressionist writers such as Georg Trakl and Ernst Stadler. Closer to today, he name-checks Julian Grenfell and links him with
Oh, What a Lovely War! as an example of unintended consequences, and analyses the potency of Rupert Brooke's anthology piece thus:
   Éthe one
   we reach for still, your
   'The Soldier'. Even Blair,
   despite Iraq. We like
   the thought of that field
   within our power.'  

Those familiar with the writings of Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas and Robert Graves will enjoy finding hidden references but Greening does not shy away from cold evaluation: in the case of the last-named, for instance, his 'corpus' is pictured as being eroded by time and his poetry bayoneted by 'Sassoon and BlundenÉshouting TRUTH.'

This is not just a mere nostalgic exercise: Aldermaston, Sutton Hoo burials, Elgar's music, Kenneth Clark, Stanley Kubrick - all contribute to a sense of continuity in conflict throughout the last hundred years. Greening exhumes carefully, suggesting that there will be a recurring harvest of these mythemes, like the annual metal harvest in Flanders, and over the next few months this will undoubtedly continue.

Ultimately, in a book so explicitly titled, the names of Owen and Sassoon will always reappear in the reader's mind. In the case of Sassoon, Greening posits a response to Palestine and Iraq which might have brought forth his characteristic mixture of irony and disgust. As for Owen, there is a strange silence, beyond the use of part of 'The Send-Off' as an epigraph. Perhaps there is nothing left to say about Owen? What possible response can there be to poems such as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', even now?

     © M.C. Caseley 2014