Friday, 12 June 2009

Anthologising the Great War

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed that under 'My Current Research' a new project has appeared. I have been commissioned by Oxford World's Classics to edit an anthology of Great War poetry from Britain and Ireland. I have two main ambitions for the book: to make a selection which is fresh without neglecting the inescapable poems ('Dulce et Decorum Est' has to be included, like it or not), and to have an editorial apparatus which adds value.

Looking back over my posts on this site, I've noticed how often I comment on anthologies: the two Penguin anthologies, Robert Nichols's self-indulgent selection, Gerald Dawe's Irish War Poetry, Lorrie Goldensohn's American counterpart, and Catherine Reilly's Scars upon my Heart. I'd better make sure that my own anthology doesn't contradict the various arguments I've made in relation to other editors.

I would be grateful for radical or unusual suggestions of poems which ought to be included.


  1. Are you restricted to poets in service, or will you be including civilian poets from the war years? If the latter, are you familiar with Mark Van Wienen's study, 'Partisans & Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War'? He draws from magazines & newspapers, and also from such groups as the Women's Peace Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, & the Vigilantes (a patriotic writer's syndicate). A gleaning from comparable British & Irish sources might yield some interesting results.

    Then there was the approach of Martin Stephen (Never Such Innocence), who drew on largely untapped stores of minor soldiers' verse, from which he derived some significant observations. (I've always been grateful for his maverick observations on the Georgians and Great War poetry).

  2. Thanks, BJ. I don't know Mark Van Wienen's study, but I'll look it up. My colleague Mark Whalan is currently working on American attitudes (mainly in short fiction) to WW1, and particularly the ways in which these were used to affect or prepare public opinion in relation to the possibility of entering the war. It's good that someone has done the same job for the poetry.

    I do know Martin Stephens's work. You may also like Vivien Noakes's Voices of Silence, which (according to its blurb) 'draws together the forgotten verse of the war to give a more immediate, less poetically self-conscious, insight into the minds of the fighting men.' It contains some good poets, principally Cannan, Frankau, Gibson, Harvey. I think I'd like to have some poets other than the usual suspects, but I'd also like to choose some of the less commonly anthologised poems by Owen et al. At the same time, readers rightly expect to find 'Futility', 'Strange Meeting', 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', etc.

  3. Lots more Gurney, Tim and there is the question of contemporaneous poems in other languages, including German, which is always, I imagine, a tricky one for anthologists. Where does one end?

  4. A tentative suggestion, based on having appreciated S4C's film Hedd Wyn some years ago and being amused to find that it had won an award for best foreign film, or some such thing... I don't recall having seen his work in anthologies, but then I am also unable to source (after 10 mins Googling) an English translation of Yr Arwr...

  5. Along with Sassoon and Owen and Blunden and Rosenberg, these are some of my favorites:

    --Edward Thomas, "Rain" even though "This is no case..." is probably more useful to the purpose
    --Aubrey Herbert, "To R- at Anzac"
    --Anna de Noailles, "Our Dead" (Edith Wharton translation)
    --Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, "Hit" or "In the Ambulance"
    --Ivor Gurney, "Strange Hells"
    --Charles Sorley, "All the Hills and Vales Along"
    --Edgell Rickword, "Trench Poets"
    --And what about Kipling's "Mesopotamia"?

  6. Plenty of Edgell Rickword, please.

  7. Are you definitely restricted to British and Irish work? The case of Hedd Wynn, whose work would have to be translated from the Welsh, makes a case for including other translations. There's probably other work in Welsh and Gaelic that would fit your initial brief, but especially with the 100th anniversary of the war coming up, it might be timely to include voices from all sides of the conflict. There's plenty of great French poetry from WWI - Apollinaire of course, but also André Breton, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre-Jean Jouve, and Charles Vildrac, among others. The Germans I'm not so familiar with, but Alfred Lichtenstein and August Stramm are two good ones. Even in the English language the British/Irish criterion might seem a bit limiting, as it excludes Australians (Leon Gellert for instance), Canadians (such as Frank Prewett), and Americans (Alan Seeger, John Allan Wyeth), In terms of the usual suspects, I would say that Kipling is generally under-represented in WWI anthologies, as of course are women's voices. Also, if you want radical suggestions, you could consider redefining "poetry" to include certain types of prose - I'm thinking in particular of John Masefield's extraordinarily powerful war letters. Also there's a whole category of poems about WWI by poets from later generations - Ted Hughes is an obvious example - that might make an interesting coda.