World War One poetry

Dr Santanu Das gives an introduction to the poetry of the First World War, providing fascinating commentary on a range of topics, supported by literary manuscripts and historical footage. How do we define the genre of First World War poetry and what makes it unique? Why is war poetry so powerful and so effective at describing traumatic experiences? What are the limits of language – can the experiences of war ever properly be communicated? Why do we still read the poetry of the First World War and how has this enduring legacy affected our overall understanding of World War One?

First World War Poetry was this extraordinary literary and cultural phenomenon, during which war poetry as a self-conscious, independent genre emerged. Poetry has always been interested in war, but what distinguished First World War poetry are two things. First, the extraordinary amount of poetry that’s been written at this time. There were more than 2,000 war poets from just England and Ireland and also their self-consciousness as war poets. First World War poetry cannot be limited to just the poetry of the trenches, though that remains a very important and very powerful part of First World War poetry.

First World War poetry includes poetry by combatants and non-combatants, men and women, Georgians and Modernists, so it’s a very expansive definition and I think that’s very important because we need to be alert to different histories, different traditions that flow and funnel into what we understand as First World War poetry. Often it has been restricted to just the poetry of a handful of so called “anti-war” First World War poets and I think we really need to go beyond that.

Today no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians, or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling or Charlotte Mew or Margaret Postgate Cole and we have to also move beyond Europe because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, in India, in Eastern Europe – so we cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multi-racial framework by investigating, recovering and translating First World War poetry that’s been written, often in non-European languages.

It is not military history, or fiction, or film but poetry which has come to form the terrain of First World War memory. Today, a hundred years after the First World War, I think First World War poetry has moved beyond cultural history, or literary memory, into almost a structure of feeling on our part. We don’t read First World War poetry – it is a question of re-reading, remembering, returning to a part of our former selves, because we have grown up with it.

One of the unique features of First World War poetry would be its emotional intensity. First World War poetry is often regarded as almost the direct transcript of trench experience but what we often forget is the role of poetic form, the role of language, rhythm, metre, rhyme. First World War poetry was neither the direct transcript of trench experience, nor just language whispering to itself about itself and I think it’s one of those primal moments when poetic form is asked to bear witness to historical trauma and that is where much of the power of this poetry lies.

The First World War brings men and women, and particularly writers, to the very limits of language, because we have an unprecedented level of violence – one that defies imagination – like people were getting blown up into bits. How can you express that in language? Isn’t it almost obscene even trying to capture something as extreme as that within linguistic form? For example, Theodor Adorno, in a different context, said no poetry after Auschwitz. But what we find in good poets, like Wilfred Owen, or for example, some of the poems by Isaac Rosenberg like ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, they bring us to that perilous zone. We can almost feel language trying to grope, to understand and seize the rawness of the experience. When we are reading the poem we almost sense that tremendous effort on the part of the poet to capture a reality that is almost, that cannot be captured. And it’s this striving for that experience, where language almost gets contorted, it is almost, I sometimes feel like language is getting beaten on an anvil, being hammered on an anvil, to reveal its kind of raw sounds and raw sense experience and in that groping towards the experience, often through an intense sensory register, particularly the sense of touch, that lies some of the brilliance of First World War Poetry.

Some historians often allege that First World War poetry has hijacked the whole history of the First World War and I’m not sure about it because the idea that First World War poetry has in some ways distorted our understanding of the war is itself a cliché and that too, a misleading one because when the poets are describing their experiences through poetry they’re not claiming that they are the only representative figures. We often turn them into representative figures but that does not discount the validity or the intensity of their experience. And also we need to ask why do we read Wilfred Owen a hundred years after the war, far more than that of military accounts? There must be a reason to it. It’s absolutely true that ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is not the only truth about the war at all. It’s a moment of extreme violence, extreme pain, and it’s just one among very many different experiences, which include experiences of women, of civilians, of non-combatants. So on one hand, we cannot narrow First World War experience to trench experience and in turn narrow down trench experience to ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ – that just won’t do, it’s not correct. On the other hand, we cannot also say that ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has led to misrepresentations of our understanding of the war because Owen is not claiming to be universal.

A hundred years after the conflict with more men and women getting killed daily in military action, I don’t think that these poems will suddenly help us to stop war. And we read these poems again and again, not because they satisfy some urgent kind of political need, or that suddenly they’ll turn the world into a pacifist one, but rather in their combination of protest, anger, moral complexity and linguistic pleasure, they make us realise how complex we are – at once, idealistic, thoughtful, mortal, guilty, and make us understand once more what it is to be human. And I think this is the lasting contribution of the poetry of the First World War – not to push a neat moral or political agenda, but rather to make us think and critically reflect, all through the sensuous spell of language.

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