Monday, 13 July 2009
The Cambridge conference was hugely enjoyable. I've been to one or two conferences lately where the standard of papers was jaw-droppingly poor. What sort of service do scholars think they're providing when they read their talks, head down, in a mumbling monotone? Or at top speed to cram in as much as possible? To add insult to injury, the worst papers always overrun.
Although train timetables and parallel panels conspired against me, the sessions that I did manage to see in Cambridge were excellent. Subjects ranged from Great War childrearing attitudes, to discussion of musical activities at Ruhleben concentration camp. There were strong poetry talks from Pamela Coren (whose lively determination to dismiss the entire accentual-syllabic tradition at least had the virtue of promoting debate) and John Melillo (on the representation of sound and noise in Great War poetry).
My own talk featured general speculation about the term 'war poetry' and its rise to common usage after 1917, Lord Flashheart's opinions on the war (from 8:05 to 8:20 here), and eventually, a focus on Ivor Gurney's gradual self-designation as 'war poet'.
Above is an envelope from a letter Gurney sent in 1923, the year in which he first applies the phrase to himself. On the back, as you can see, he has written 'War poet'. (What looks like an 's' is in fact a full stop.) According to Philip Lancaster, with whom I'm editing a 3-volume Complete Gurney for Oxford English Texts, this seems to have been an unlikely ruse to get Royal Mail to deliver his unstamped post. It also acts as a seal, pledge and proof of his identity. The war poet is exiled from his republic not (as Plato has it) because he lies, but because he tells a truth which exposes the founding fictions of his society. The more that Gurney calls himself 'war poet', the more he explains the reasons why his nation has betrayed him. By 1925, he is 'First War Poet' -- the pioneer and the exemplar.
Postscript: At the conference the First World War Poetry Archive announced the launch of its Ivor Gurney Collection. This newly available material includes unpublished poems, correspondence, photographs, etc., from the period up to (about) 1921. Highly recommended.