Last month I attended a symposium in Amsterdam on 'Poetry and the Unpoetic'. It was a wonderful event, despite its regular focus on poets I had never read or even heard of. My own talk on Robert Frost examined his ability to incorporate speech rhythms into blank verse.
At the conference I met Geert Buelens, who has edited a vast international anthology of First World War poetry. Het lijf in slijk geplant [The body planted in mud] runs to nearly 700 pages; it contains poems from 40 nations, in thirty different languages. All poems appear in the original and are translated into Dutch on the facing page. I cannot comment on the merits of the introduction because it, too, is in Dutch, and my language skills only extend to Latin and a little nervous French.
I came away with the feeling that Geert did not entirely approve of my project to edit an anthology of British First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics. Often, a polyglot's disdain is deserved, and the particular case for the prosecution against my anthology is also bolstered by another understandable reaction: hasn't it been done many times before? Yet there are powerful reasons why anthologies of war poetry should be sequestered along linguistic and even national lines.
Some of those reasons are to do with war, and some are to do with poetry. War, by its nature, obliges us urgently to think about nationhood, nation-building and nation-defending. This is even true of civil war, when a nation turns against itself to decide between competing arguments about national identity. All such arguments being rooted in perceptions of the past, war also encourages poets to engage with, resist, revise and enhance existing national traditions. To a foreign eye, those engagements may prove puzzling. This is not to deny the value of a comparative approach, by which a French poet at Verdun might share many of the cultural attitudes of the German poet whom he is trying to kill. (For that matter, think of Jules et Jim.) But although those cultural attitudes may inform his poetry, if he is a gifted writer they are never what is most valuable about his poetry. All of which brings me back to Robert Frost, and his dictum that 'Poetry is what gets lost in translation'.
Having made a hurried case for my own project, I must confess that Geert's book is extraordinarily impressive in its scope. Even so, if the anglophone poems are isolated, they comprise a curious canon. Geert has divided his book year-by-year, and the anglophone poems occur as follows:
1914: Rudyard Kipling, 'For All We Have and Are'; Lawrence [sic] Binyon, 'For the Fallen'; Rabindranath Tagore, 'The trumpet lies in the dust'; Jessie Pope, 'No!'; Rupert Brooke, 'Peace'.
1915: Charles Sorley, 'To Germany' and 'All the Hills and Vales' [sic]; John McCrae, 'In Flanders Fields'; Siegfried Sassoon, 'Absolution'; Charles Sorley, 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead'.
1916: Rustam B. Paymaster, 'Ancient and Modern Warfare'; Charles Wood, 'National Anthem'; Isaac Rosenberg, 'Break of Day in the Trenches'.
1917: Ivor Gurney, 'Servitude'; Francis Ledwidge, 'Soliloquy'; Wallace Stevens, 'Life contracts and death is expected'; Wilfred Owen, 'Dulce et Decorum Est'; Carl Sandburg, 'The Four Brothers'; Isaac Rosenberg, 'The Immortals'.
1918: W. B. Yeats, 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'; Siegfried Sassoon, 'Suicide in the Trenches'; Lucian B. Watkins, 'The Negro Soldiers of America: What We Are Fighting For'; Wilfred Owen, 'The Sentry'.
A short post-war sample includes fragments from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and The Waste Land.
The more inclusive a book attempts to be, the more conspicuous its omissions. Notable omissions are Owen's 'Strange Meeting' and 'Futility', Sassoon's 'Everyone Sang', Kipling's 'Epitaphs of the War', Mew's 'The Cenotaph', all of Hardy's war poetry, Frost again, Blunden, Graves, David Jones, Housman, Lawrence, and the entire Antipodean contribution to the war.
Het Lijf in slijk geplant is a brilliantly ambitious book, and I wish that there were an English equivalent. But it cannot supplant detailed selections from individual poets, groups of poets, and most importantly of all, nations of poets. We need both national and international anthologies if we are fully to appreciate the poetry of the First World War, and those anthologies must always be challenged and remade as each generation addresses the prejudices and blindnesses of the last.