Jon Stallworthy: Some of them never come home to fanfares

New World War 1 British Cemetery, Flanders Fields

New World War 1 British Cemetery, Flanders Fields - Credit: Archant

If poetry is feeling, then war is its perfect subject. No other human experience generates more powerful emotion than killing an enemy or the death of a friend: the hatred, the anguish of loss, the fear, the heroism, says Oxford professor Jon Stallworthy. Katie Jarvis spoke to him about The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, re-edited to include a whole new battalion of poets.

Jon Stallworthy

Jon Stallworthy - Credit: No fee

The cover of The New Oxford Book of War Poetry is beautiful and arresting. A louringly dark sky, brutal with gusting cloud, menaces a field of corn and delicate cow-parsley, upright and unmoving – as if waiting. The only colour in this photograph, stark in black and white, is the drippingly-blood-scarlet of poppies striking through that stillness. Beautiful, arresting. And somehow awful. It’s easy to take that photograph as a metaphor; but it’s also a reality. The reality of a scene soldiers of the First World War would have gazed upon before their boots and their tanks churned the cornfields to murderous mud, and their spilt hearts ruddied white flowers to an indistinguishable poppy-red.

War – it begins with the Bible (in this book, at least), when Moses and the children of Israel sing unto the Lord, the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea; and continues through the furies of Homer’s Iliad, as mighty Achilles erases Hector’s fiercely fine form, leaving but a pale outline for the Underworld:

At this he pulled his spearhead from the body,

Laying it aside, and stripped

The bloodstained shield and cuirass from his shoulders.

And so on, through interminable ages, so it seems, as man learns rhyme but little reason.

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It’s 30 years since Jon Stallworthy, a retired professor of literature at Wolfson College, Oxford, edited the first Oxford Book of War Poetry. Back in 1984, Saddam Hussein was the right side of the border with his oil-rich neighbour, the Twin Towers were still bustling, and no one had marched through London, carrying ‘Not in our name’ banners.

Soldiers go 'over the top' at the Western Front

Soldiers go 'over the top' at the Western Front - Credit: Archant

But Jon Stallworthy’s outstanding reworking of this important anthology has not simply been a matter of adding poems from more recent conflicts. It has also been a re-examination. “Since I edited the early edition, I’ve been learning more about wars I thought I knew a lot about,” he explains. “Also, of course, lots of younger poets have been writing about those old wars. Michael Longley, for example, has written poems about his father at the Battle of the Somme.”

Here are two pictures from my father’s head –

I have kept them like secrets until now:

First, the Ulster Division at the Somme

Going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’

‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,

Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankill!’

But perhaps the major addition to the anthology involves poems about the Second World War – and particularly those by American poets. “People in England, by and large, know little about American poetry; and Americans know little about British poetry, by and large. It took Larkin years to get published in America, and years for Robert Lowell to get published in England,” Professor Stallworthy says. “Indeed, one of the things I’ve been for years trying to correct is the woeful imbalance in our national culture in the view of First and Second World War poems. Everyone thinks the First World War poems were absolutely fantastic and marvellous - and some of them were; many of them were not. There’s widespread ignorance of Second World War poems, which are - many of them - as good.

The war poet, Wilfred Owen

The war poet, Wilfred Owen - Credit: No fee

“And some, many of them American, are brilliant.”

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

- Randall Jarrell

“A great many are about the war in the air, about which British poets have very little to say. We all know John Pudney’s poem For Johnny. But Randall Jarrell wrote better poems. Then there’s James Dickey, who wrote a long, rather grand, poem [The Firebombing] about dropping bombs on Japan and how he - a veteran of 100 missions - goes back to his suburban home; as he passes his Japanese neighbours in the street, he wonders about those whose ears were burnt off by the phosphorous bombs he dropped. And he thinks about the children he killed.

“The poem is indirectly indebted to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who has to go on telling the people he meets about his wicked act in shooting the albatross.”

Post-traumatic stress in verse-form?

“It’s more confession, I think.”

Certainly, whether the poetry is therapeutic for the poet or not, much of it speaks of almost-untellable anguish, inevitably reminiscent of more familiar literature - Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five most obviously springing to mind. Take Anthony Hecht, as another example. An American-Jewish GI, his division helped liberate the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where inmates had been dying at a rate of 500 a day from typhus. An able linguist, he was given the job of interpreter, taking the testimony of victims, and interrogating guards. “He had to hear the most terrible things from one side and the denials from the other, which gave him PTSD. He was screaming in his bed at night for years afterwards and it changed the course of his poems. Arguably one of the very best poems of the Second World War is ‘More Light! More Light!’, which is included. It’s a well-known poem in America but not very well known here.”

Composed in the Tower before his execution

These moving verses, and being brought at that time

Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:

‘I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.’

What is particularly interesting about this anthology is its lack of ‘trendiness’, to coin a term. The selection is not made with one eye on sales (though sell it will); nor is it aiming to please political factions (with either upper- or lower-case ‘p’). Jon Stallworthy is, he says, ‘an old-fashioned, hard-nosed Oxford creature’, by which he means that he only chooses that which is good. He despairs, he says, of Sunday-supplement poems focusing on Iraq or Afghanistan. “Most of those seem to me of no quality whatsoever because they’re written by professional soldiers, who are very different from professional poets. In a way, it’s obvious. The best poets from the First and Second World Wars were none of them professional soldiers; they were all writers, pressed into uniform rather untidily and, in some cases, rather against their wishes.”

He quotes Julian Grenfell’s poem, Into Battle, as an example of the professional brutality that defines so many of those fighters whose skill lay with sword, not pen.

“Grenfell was a very brave, very courageous man; but he was a Homeric thug. He loved war; he was a sniper who said sniping was much more fun than going to a picnic – one loves one’s fellow man much more when one is intent on killing him.”

And there’s no irony there?

“Not at all. When he was at Balliol, he went around with a stockwhip, whipping the elite intellectuals. But he was a very brave man. Even when he was mortally wounded, his last letter - I’m going to paraphrase it – said, ‘Dear mother, our charge against the Hun was absolutely brilliant and everyone went hell-for-leather: a glorious day for the regiment.’ Second paragraph, ‘Unfortunately, I got hit on the head with a Jack Johnson’, which is one of the biggest shells known.

“In fact, his skull was cracked and he died a few days later.”

The glory of war, of course, is nothing new. Homer and the Beowulf poet would have recognised Grenfell easily; Owen and Sassoon would have been bitter strangers to all three.

One of the few professional soldiers who bucks the trend and earns himself a place in the anthology is Cotswold Life’s own Peter Wyton, whose Unmentioned in Dispatches is a brilliantly and deliberately humdrum take on life after war.

Some of them never come home to fanfares,

they dump their kitbags down at the door,

kiss their wives and let their children

wrestle them down to the kitchen floor

So here we have it – a new anthology with a roll-call of more than 150 writers. If people were going to read just one poem to their children or grandchildren, which one should it be?

Goodness, Jon Stallworthy says; that’s difficult. But Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, with its inexorable generational grief, stands out.

Which leads me to ask: what would Wilfred Owen think, shot on the canal banks seven days before the war ended, about our continued state of bellicosity? In fact, why – after all we’ve read and seen – have we still the opportunity to write about war?

“Because countries, like individuals, are driven by money and ambition and power; and, when push comes to shove, they’re not too fussy about how they achieve it. If Owen and Sassoon had had time to look back over human history, they’d have seen the same. It happened in Troy and in The Peninsular: it was power and ambition and money. It’s always been that way.”

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This article by Katie Jarvis is from the September 2014 issue of Cotswold Life. For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis