Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Remembrance Day 2011: Podcasts, Publications, Poets Laureate

Over the past fortnight, discussions of war poetry have abounded.

The Guardian's excellent series of podcasts included an Armistice Day edition featuring Michael Morpurgo, Louisa Young and Andrew Motion. My usual complaint about Motion---a passionate advocate for war poetry--- is that he tends to reduce it to pity and waste. In Motion's hands, war poetry sounds strangely comforting; it is well behaved in saying what he wants to hear. Yet when he has the right subject, he is extremely eloquent, and he talks movingly and truthfully here about contemporary soldier-poets.

Michael Morpurgo is another whose absolute faith in the futility myth avoids inconvenient truths about the necessity of fighting in order to survive as a nation ('lest / We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed', as Edward Thomas put it). Morpurgo argues in the podcast that our only way of approaching the war now is through the experience of an individual (whether it be a human as in Private Peaceful, or the horse of War Horse). This runs counter to Geoffrey Hill's argument in The Triumph of Love, which grotesquely parodies the Spielberg approach to genocide: 'refocus that Jew---yes there, / that one.' Morpurgo and Hill share a starting point: we can make sense of one death, not of millions. Morpurgo implies that we can extrapolate. Hill insists that the act of making sense falsifies the magnitude of the suffering. Thinking that we understand, we only betray. Hill's is the most discomforting assault on the easy sentimentality underlying so many modern-day representations of war. I wish that the Guardian would bring together Morpurgo, Motion and Hill for unflinching discussion: the podcast would be superb.

An earlier Guardian podcast examined rhetoric in the Iliad, and featured Alice Oswald whose Memorial is based on Homer's epic. I look forward to reading Oswald's book, which is the subject of a positive review by Simon Turner here. I am less persuaded by Oswald's comments in an interview given previously to the Guardian: 'That [Homer's Iliad] turned into this public school poem, which I don't think it is. That glamorising of war, and white-limbed, flowing-haired Greek heroes–it's become a clichéd, British empire part of our culture.' So Oswald doesn't like public schools, glamorising war, or the British Empire: she is, after all, speaking to the Guardian. But does anyone really hold that 'public school' view about Homer? Because of Owen's influence, the misreading of Homer is likely to be in the other direction: that Homer is about nothing but the pity of war. I only wish that public schools did still teach Homer.

I must end with a few words about Carol Ann Duffy, accepting that the poet laureateship is an anachronistic public challenge which the incumbent can never win. Even so, when she remarks of a new anthology of soldier-poetry that it is 'humbling, allowing the voices of those whose lives have been changed by war to speak to us', I wonder at her use of 'allowing'. And when she serves up her annual slop of First World war clichés in the Guardian (which, on this occasion, really should know better), she would do well to remember that she is writing about something more significant than the latest royal engagement, or whether sherry tastes of the sea. This is Great-War-by-Numbers. Next year, expect to read about shell-shocked Tommies shot at dawn by General Haig.


  1. I don't understand all the sense, but reading your post is a challenge for me.

  2. The Carol Ann Duffy poem in The Guardian made me think of that Monty Python sketch about the "killer joke" which when released made the enemy expire in helpless laughter...

  3. really great post. and this post made me grab the dictionary lol thanks :D

  4. I note, btw, that the link to the CAD poem now leads to a page that says "This content has been removed as our copyright has expired.". This doesn't seem quite the thing to me; if as laureate you let a paper print a poem, which I assume they paid her for, I think it should stay up for good.

  5. Agreed! And I'm trying to find it--does anyone have the text to reprint?

  6. Hello Tim,

    You've mentioned 'the futility myth' in a number of posts and essays. I was wondering whether you could direct me towards a historian who convincingly subverts the idea that the first world war was a pointless conflict?


  7. Hi, anonymous. Sheffield? Todman? Holmes? Strachan? Barnett? Todman's Great War: Myth and Memory is a good place to start. It even has a chapter titled 'Futility'. These days, it's harder to think of a military historian who still subscribes to the futility myth.