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The Astonishment of Insight

Gerard Smyth

The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems, ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 608 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1780371009

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
(“On Being Asked for a War Poem”, W B Yeats)

Yeats’s injunction to poets has not been much heeded by them, nor indeed was it by Yeats himself. War has served poetry well. Not only the First World War with its now familiar roll call of soldier poets (all back in currency in these WWI commemorative years ) but subsequent wars, revolutions and conflicts, up to the present era of terrorist threat, mass destruction and more nebulous battlegrounds, have provided poets with the never-ending scenarios and themes of war poetry.

When in 1916 Isaac Rosenberg stated that the “Homer for this war has yet to be found”, he could not have known that his own poem “Dead Man’s Dump” would come to be regarded by many readers and critics as the among the war’s greatest poems, nor that more than a significant number of poets would join him in that 1914-1918 roll call: Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Giuseppe Ungaretti – all of them and a host of others represented here. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice as casualties of war.

That exemplary anthologist Neil Astley, who had to hand an all too bountiful abundance in assembling this wide-ranging and diverse compendium, chose to confine it to the wars of the last hundred years. The restriction was a wise one: had he gone back century by century to the Trojan wars, it could have amounted to a multi-volume series.

Well-titled, The Hundred Years’ War is chronological in its narrative flow, allowing a clear picture of the ever-changing aesthetics of succeeding generations of poets and their renewals of language in dealing with one of poetry’s “big” subjects, a renewal sometimes governed not only by poetical trends but by the political or social credos of individual poets. There are many familiar names but the unfamiliar ones are often the surprises.

In all sections the most authentic note, if not always the best poetics, is frequently to be found in the poems of direct experience and witness. This is most notably striking among the poets of the Great War, which had the greatest number of poet combatants, and who deliver the most vivid responses to the “pity of war”, edgier and more powerfully emotive because they have confronted the shock of experience and with a stringency that is absent from the more reflective, observational poets who considered war from a distance.

Among the unfamiliar names (at least to me) of the WWI poets, there are several who are compellingly distinctive in their way of looking: the French poet Albert-Paul Granier (“The guns have fallen silent gagged with fog, / in the winter night that cancels space); May Wedderburn Cannan, a nurse whose “Rouen” powerfully conveys the utter desolation of war; and another French poet Henry-Jacques.

It is good to see the Irish poet Winifred M Letts there but there is no Francis Ledwidge, perpetuating past prejudice against the Irish soldier-poet by non-Irish anthologists. Another oversight – from the Irish viewpoint – is the non-inclusion of Thomas MacGreevy, a poet whose war experience (he served at Ypres and the Somme and was wounded twice) fuels the empathy in his poems “Nocturne” and “De Civitate Hominum”, a powerful evocation of the lonely death of an airman in the midst of battle.

My sergeant says very low “Holy God!
“Tis a fearful death.”

Holy God makes no reply
Yet.

There are other absences – no sign of Georg Trakl’s “On the Eastern Front” or his final moving poem written after the battle of Grodek.

The section ends with two contemporary poets, whose view of the war is seen through the lens of time: England’s former poet laureate Andrew Motion, who has movingly memorialised the war, and David Constantine, whose exquisite poem of remembrance honours not just his own grandmother but all women on the home front who “made ends meet” while the men were away in battle:

But no one seems to have thought of standing her
In all the parishes in bronze or stone
With bags, with heavy bags, with bags of spuds
And flour and tins of peas and clinging kids
Lending the bags their bit of extra weight.
(from “Soldiering On”)

Michael Longley is of course the modern Irish poet who has made the subject one of his calling cards and has done so with his own stamp and tautness, having written stunningly concise lyrics in homage to his father, who served in both world wars. Longley’s “The Horses” stands as one of the anthology’s prologue poems, a recall of the horses in Homer, with their

Hot tears spilling from their eyelids onto the ground
Because they are still in mourning for Patroclus
Their charioteer, their shiny manes bedraggled
Under the yoke pads on either side of the yoke.

He is also in the Spanish Civil War section with his poem in memory of Charles Donnelly, who is one of three Irish poets from the period – Louis MacNeice and  Cecil Day Lewis are the others – in this section. The great promise of Donnelly’s gifts as a poet – brought to an end with the poet’s death at the age of twenty-three in Spain – is evident in “The Tolerance of Crows”, with its rigour and gravity of tone. The solidarity of poets with the anti-fascist cause was a phenomenon of this war which led to the deaths of Lorca and Hernandez, as well as Donnelly: a war that was a cruel thief in the house of poetry.

Those politically engaged poets Auden and MacNeice – sometimes similar in tone and manner – are the towering figures in the substantial 1939-45 section, both of them prophetic voices in the wilderness through which the forewarning winds of war were blowing in the 1930s. In their collaborative Letters from Iceland (1937) the jokey line of MacNeice’s “No great happenings at all …” is soon overshadowed by darker clouds.

Here again it is one of the poets active on the frontline, Keith Douglas, who sets the standard with several well-gauged poems. In “Vergissmeinnicht”, he eloquently reminds us of the common fate and humanity of the soldier, whichever uniform he is wearing:

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

The WWII poems introduce a widening of the circle of voices, with many East European poets coming to the fore with their more precocious imagery. Poets who seem outside of ordinary time in poetry: the Poles Herbert and Różewicz, Serbian Ivan Lalic, Paul Celan, whose parents died in the Nazi death camps, Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, the German poets Nelly Sachs, Johannes Bobrowski and Peter Huchel, and the Hungarian Miklos Radnoti, who was shot dead on a forced march that was the inspiration for some of his greatest poems. 

What Ted Hughes had to say about the one of the finest poets of this generation, the Hungarian Janos Pilinszky (several of whose poems deserve and should have been included here, “Passion of Ravensbruck”, “Harbach 1944”, “The French Prisoner”) could apply to many of the East Europeans: “a stillness and at the same time an ecstasy of affliction, a glare of inner exposure, a passivity of transfiguration”.

Again in this section, key Irish contributions to the canon are not to be found: “Denis Devil’s concentration camp”, Beckett’s terse depiction of the devastation he witnessed as a Red Cross worker in Saint-Lȏ, which in spite of, or perhaps because of, its brevity and what it leaves unsaid is a great cry of empathy. (In fairness to Astley he may have held the view that the superb anthology of Irish war poetry edited by Gerald Dawe, Earth Voices Whispering, had already well taken care of Irish poets who contributed to the genre, but still the universality of this anthology warrants more comprehensive inclusion.)

Two sections are devoted to the poetry of conflict in Ireland, and in each of them a Nobel laureate stands out: Yeats in the period 1916-1923 and Heaney for the years of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (the Irish habit of euphemism). In both instances, we have examples of the power and force of the poetry of witness; the grandeur of Yeatsian diction does not hinder the sense of repugnance in this response to the Black and Tan atrocities:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free ...

Astley neatly juxtaposes Yeats’s “The Stare’s Nest by My Window”, from “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, with Eavan Boland’s lucid response, “Yeats in Civil War”. This section serves to remind us how fine a poet John Hewitt was and why he became a father figure to the poets of the Northern renaissance that coincided with late twentieth century years of violent history and death-dealing.

But again the missing MacGreevy comes to mind and what Bernard O’Donoghue had to say about him as the most interesting of the Irish modernists of the 1930s, that “more than any other Irish poet MacGreevy brought the Irish experience – including the trauma of civil war – into a perspective that belongs to the same world as the Spanish Civil War”.

In his “Troubles” poems Longley addresses the bystander victims of those sectarian killings – the civil servant “preparing an Ulster fry for breakfast / When someone walked into the kitchen and shot him”, the greengrocer who died “serving even the death-dealers” and the ice-cream man rhyming off his flavours on the Lisburn Road. In the particularities of these poems he brings us closer to the quotidian with an acuity no news reportage could match.

If there is an unjust absence among the Northern Ireland poets it is Padraic Fiacc, a maverick and seasoned figure of some complexity in the poetry of the “Troubles”, whose work often resorts to the uneasy and elliptical, pared-down idiom; the poet having to say the unsayable in the face of the inward reach of the everyday atrocities going on around him.

Astley declares in his introduction that he “included very few ‘anti-war poems’ on the grounds that their effectiveness tends to be confined to the time when they were written in response to a particular conflict”. While Lowell’s “Women, Children, Babies, Cows, Cats”, about the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, is included, it is a pity not to see something by his fellow conscientious objector William Stafford, a poet who, according to Robert Hass, represented “ a powerful and difficult moment in the tangled history of conscience and military violence in America”.

Poets with what Astley calls “direct war experience” are not confined to the wars of the past. Two of the most impressive recent soldier poets, Kevin Powers and Brian Turner, veterans of the Iraq war, are represented by poems that show the impact of the soldiering life in the age of “shock and awe”, an age that also presents the challenge of writing in a time when the spectacle of war is global and directed at a mass audience as a nightly televised event. Against that challenge both poets deliver a freshness and authenticity in their powerfully direct poems. Powers strikes the exact note:

I tell her in a letter that will stink
when she opens it ...
how Pvt Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.

There is much else in this panoramic vista – the Cold War period when poets drew on the existential anxieties of the nuclear age, a period of history when “we have talked our extinction to death (Lowell), or as the German poet Ingeborg Bachmann describes it in her poem “Every Day”, “War is no longer declared, / bur rather continued ... The hero / is absent from the battle …”

Then the Vietnam War, identified with widespread public protest as well as the ideological resistance of poets such as Carolyn Forche and Denise Levertov, but also a group of soldier poets – Bruce Weigl notable among them – who were formed not just by their experiences in the stupor of that long war but also its landscape with an “endless sea of rice / The morning dew like pearls at the sides of the road”.

Is there an immediate discernible difference of sensibility between, say, the poets of WWI and those who witness and participate in our latter day wars of attrition? The evidence varies but throughout The Hundred Years’ War there are reminders that in the midst of  the death, pain and anguish, the poetry of war can still contain the “astonishment of insight” ( as William Meredith, another American poet who saw active service called it):

Silence said:
truth needs no eloquence.
After the death of the horseman,
the homeward-bound horse
says everything
without saying anything.
(from “Silence” by the Palestinian Mourid Barghouti)

All anthologists have blind spots, and a few quibbles aside, Astley’s anthology is a ground-breaking record of the poetry of war, well-balanced and, by virtue of its amplitude, heterogeneous; it includes great and mediocre poetry, major and minor voices, and charts the course of poetic responses to the brutal facts of war and the neverending folly of those who “took their orders and are dead”, as AD Hope wrote in his “Inscriptions for a War”.

In one of his lectures David Constantine reminds us that good poems “exceed the immediate occasion”, and the best of the poems here – from all the wars – are testimony to the truth of that observation.

1/3/2015

Gerard Smyth is a poet, critic and journalist. His poetry has appeared widely in publications in Ireland, Britain and the United States, since the late 1960s, as well as in translation. His....

 

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