Conversations with the Dead: John Greening on War Poetry

Saturday 9 November 2013

 On the Eve of Remembrance Day 2013, and as the UK prepares to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of WW1 in 2014, John Greening talks to StAnza about how he has engaged with war poetry in his new book To the War Poets.

1.  Tell us about the inspiration for To the War Poets

I was with some students on a battlefields trip and from the moment we set off I found myself scribbling poems (luckily I wasn’t in charge of the trip!): they turned out to be verse letters to the war poets. Not all of these ‘epistles’ have ended up in the book —the one I wrote to Owen wasn’t good enough, the one to Gurney was too unwieldy to find a place. In the collection as it appears, the verse letters are set beside other relevant poems. So, Kipling is next to an elegy for an old colonialist, and Edward Thomas beside a group of Welsh pieces. There is some peace as well as war.

 2. There is a kind of time travelling element to your book, with ‘dispatches sent across the decades’.  To what extent do you think poetry has a role to play in helping us to interpret the past.

All poetry is a conversation with the dead anyway. The moment you write the word ‘moon’ in a poem, you cannot but be aware of Sidney, Coleridge, Yeats, Larkin, Shuttle. So, not time travel so much as the anxiety of influence. But there is no better barometer of an age than its poetry and I do believe that there is a prophetic strand to the art, that lets us tune in to what is really happening. I don’t know about my fellow practitioners, but a few too many times I have found myself writing about something before it has happened. In the case of WW1, the poets were also whistle-blowers. So, yes, it helps us interpret the past, but more importantly it’s a guide to the present.

3. Why is poetry written during WW1 of relevance to us today?

Above and beyond the fact that it’s taught at school and so we become familiar with it at an impressionable age, that it is ‘about’ something, that it has ‘human interest’, the period 1914-18 was a stylistic turning point. You see it in the work of someone like Blunden, who wants to be a conventional pastoralist, but whose style is almost torn apart under the pressure of events (his ‘Third Ypres’ for instance); or Rosenberg, and Gurney, their fractured bell-notes. Tectonic plates were shifting across the world. The war poetry was an eruption, part of the Modernist earthquake. Owen is untypical, really, which is perhaps why he’s the most popular.

John Greening

4. Your work also includes elements of translated poetry.  How important is it in modern times that we remember war poetry from other countries?  Has this changed the way you have viewed past wars? 

The translations emerged after the sequence of verse letters. The dedicatee of the collection is my old German exchange partner – now a psychoanalyst, with the wonderful name Sandmann —and I remember attending a lesson at his Mainz school in which the Georg Heym poem, ‘Der Krieg’ was discussed. It’s the German ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, very well known, and astonishingly prescient, since it was composed in 1911. My friend’s father died shortly after our exchange as a result of a wound from the 1939-45 war, which my own father had fought in (my mother endured the London Blitz, which also features in the book). There were other German-speaking poets I wanted to include too, so we have Trakl, Stadler, Stramm. The four are somehow represented by that memorial statue in the German cemetery at Langemark, which I have a poem about. Quite a few of the British WW1 writers were drawn to German culture (Sorley, in particular, and his exact contemporary, Graves), as am I. It was also a way of subverting expectations in readers. We have put the translations first in To the War Poets.

5. Should modern war poetry be taught in schools alongside traditional war poetry?

I don’t know about ‘should be taught’, but I hope young people will discover it. Part of me wants to forbid young people to read any poetry so that they’ll go out and read it. War poetry did not stop appearing after 1918; it’s just that the kind of wars being fought didn’t correspond so uncannily to what was happening in poetry. That trench-warfare took place in rural locations, that those who fought were of a generation who believed in poetry, who had probably been taught it together in the same school, who might have carried a Housman or a Kipling with them – these were conditions that didn’t exist in WW2 or beyond. Indeed, nowadays, war is likely to afflict civilians even more than soldiers. So, yes, read the work of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Randall Jarrell, Anthony Hecht, John Gurney, Brian Turner. But also the non-combatants, who write about war from home – Jo Shapcott’s Phrase Book, Michael Symmons Roberts’ Burning Babylon, or David Harsent’s Legion.

 John Greening was born in 1954 and studied at the universities of Swansea, Mannheim and Exeter. He reviews for the TLS and has won several major honours including an Arvon Prize, the Bridport Prize, a Cholmondeley Award, a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Scottish Arts Council Award. He has written twelve poetry collections, studies of British and Irish poets, and the recent Poetry Masterclass (2011).

Find out more at www.johngreening.co.uk or www.carcanet.co.uk

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