Poems of war…

There was an interesting discussion on the radio a few days ago about war poetry, during which the question was asked again about why the voices of the Sasoon, Brooke and Owen are so powerful and evocative even so many years (and so many wars) later.

They capture for us the humanity and inhumanity of war in language so vivid and immediate that it resonates still.

But what of the war poets since? Can you name one? What poems told the story of the second world war, or the countless ones since? How many names can you bring to mind?

I read some poetry, but I can name none.

Perhaps this is because the voices of the world war poets bring something to us of a different time, when gentlemen went to war and discovered that there was nothing gentlemanly about industrial slaughter. A time when poetry was at the centre of literature and the arts, and when other forms of media were limited and closely managed.

Wars since then have increasingly been media events. Propaganda became as important as bullets, and image is all.

I wonder, in our mad information overloaded world, if the modern day equivalent of the poetry of Owen and Sasoon is the website Wikileaks.

But I am a poet (if that does not sound too pompous!)

So as we approach another remembrance day, here is a poem about war, and a poem hoping for peace-

A time for war

There is a time for all things under heaven

.

A time to dig trenches and put up barbed wire

Then run to our deaths into withering fire

A time for mass graves, for mums to wear black

Time to kill and to maim- a time to attack

.

A time to dehumanise, a time to breed hate

A time to decide the whole nations fate

A time when all truth is wrapped up in lies

For secret policemen and neighbourhood spies

.

A time to manipulate the news and the media

A time of unassailable powerful leaders

A time of expedient centralised power

Cometh the man in this our dark hour

.

A time for Guantanamo, a time for Auschwitz

A time of gas chambers and motherless kids

A time to throw rocks and let loose the rockets

A time for dead eyes fixed in dead sockets

.

A time for insurgents, a time to suppress

To disappear dissidents, and people oppress

Of brave freedom fighters and terrorist cells

A time for Robin Hoods and William Tells

.

In some foreign field or in our back yard

In red sucking mud or ground frozen hard

Lie the bones of our children who answered the call

Now glorious dead with their names on a wall

.

A time to break up and time to destroy

A time to make men of every small boy

Over by Christmas or just a bit more

Now is the time for us to make war

A time for peace

There is a time for all things under heaven.

.

There must come a time when canons will fall silent

And men start again to look beyond the battlements

Into the scarred and empty fields

Seeded still with land mines

.

There is a time to strike the white flags of surrender

And put away the banners of victory

A time when triumphalism

No longer seems to honour

The broken bodies

And the freshly dug graves

.

There must also come a time when displaced people

Dare to step beyond the bounds of the refugee camp

And walk the long road home

.

Surely too the day will come when guns will be melted into garden forks

And tanks will pull the plough

A time for doves instead of hawks

And lions to learn care for the cows

.

A time will come too when borders are open

And bitterness and hate are eroded by the resilience of a new generation

Who begin to replace fear with hope

And the need for revenge recedes

.

But for now the shadows cast will lie long

Across these broken houses

And the empty streets

In this brand new time of fragile peace.

Both poems from ‘Listing’, available from http://www.proost.com.)

A time for war…

I started a new poetry thing the other day as part of a collection called ‘lists’. A result of chewing on passages in the Bible- the beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit etc. The list I am working on at the moment is Ecclesiastes chapter 3-

There is a time for everything- and a season for all things under heaven…

stalingrad

A time for war

There is a time for all things under heaven

A time to dig trenches and put up barbed wire
Then run to our deaths into withering fire
A time for mass graves, for mothers to wear black
Time to kill and to maim, a time to attack

A time to dehumanise, a time to breed hate
A time to decide the whole nations fate
A time when all truth is wrapped up in lies
For secret policemen and neighbourhood spies

A time to manipulate the news and the media
A time of unassailable powerful leaders
A time of expedient centralised power
Cometh the man in this our dark hour

A time for Guantanamo, a time for Auschwitz
A time of gas chambers and motherless kids
A time to throw rocks and let loose the rockets
A time for dead eyes fixed in dead sockets

A time for insurgents, a time to suppress
To disappear dissidents, and people oppress
Of brave freedom fighters and terrorist cells
A time for Robin Hoods and William Tells

In some foreign field or in our back yard
In red sucking mud or ground frozen hard
Lie the bones of our children who answered the call
Now glorious dead with their names on a wall

A time to break up and time to destroy
A time to make men of every small boy
Over by Christmas or just a bit more
Now is the time for us to make war

The Sentry- Wilfred Owen

Following on from my last post, here’s a bit more of Owen’s poetry.

I have just watched a programme on Channel 4 about the excavation of a dug out near Ypres in Belgium dug in 1917. It has been clogged with the mud and bones of some of the hundreds of thousands who died there for 90 years, but was found in remarkably good order (check out here for more details.)

It made me think of this poem.

Preserved like the shadow of Owen, who died aged 25, fighting a war that he did not believe in.

For people like me, Owen speaks clearly and immediately of things unimaginable to us- but where to him everyday normality.

Our fascination for stories of war is not healthy, or at least I do not think so. For every John Wayne or Bruce Willis, or docudrama about the Third Reich- there should be 100 Wilfred Owen’s.


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Remembrance day and war poetry

cenotaph_london

Michaela and I have just sat and listened to the Remembrance day ceremony from the Cenotaph in London. This ceremony is held every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, to honour first the dead of the ‘great war to end all wars’ (1914-1918) and then the subsequent second world war, along with all the post-empire skirmishes and border confrontations that our soldiers have died in ever since.

We were silent first through the emotional beauty of laments played by brass bands, then for the official minutes silence

I have had a mixed relationship with the ceremony. At worst, it seems to glorify and exalt the business of war. For a while, I refused to wear a red poppy, finding instead the white ones with an overtly pacifist stance to be more appropriate. It seemed to me the only response that followers of Jesus could take.

I spent some time working as a therapist in GP surgeries, and met several ex-soldiers struggling with post traumatic symptoms years after conflicts in Cypress, the Falklands or the wars in the Gulf. I heard their matter-of-fact stories of broken bodies and a culture of brotherhood, booze and easy violence that was both intensely supportive and ultimately destructive to the rest of their lives. I now wear red poppies with respect and humility.

But still, this balance between remembering those who suffered and died, whilst wanting to de-glamourise war and pursue peace- this is a hard thing to find at times.

This was highlighted too by my reaction to the front page of our local paper- the Dunoon Observer. In a creative response to Remembrance day, they printed a famous poem from the Great war on the front page. It is this one;

greatwar

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt Col John McRae


This poem was written in 1915, after a terrible battle, but still in an early part of the war, when glory still beckoned, at least for some. McRae was a staff officer, and the second verse always seemed to me to fit uneasily alongside the first. Some have called it ‘recruiting office rhetoric’- handing on the torch to others to have revenge…

But I applaud the Observer for printing poetry. I just would have preferred them to print another famous war poem- the one below.

I remember reading the first world war poets at school- Seigfreid Sassoon, and most of all, Wilfred Owen,

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

who was killed by a snipers bullet at just about the very end of the war. It was these men who first showed me that poetry can be something powerful. It can be healing, challenging, therapeutic, revolutionary, beautiful and harrowing- all at the same time.

This poem captures the whole thing of war for me. Here it is (with some notes pinched from here.)

DULCE ET DECORUM EST1

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares
2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest
3 began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
4
Of tired, outstripped
5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.

Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets
8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime
9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes
10 and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,
11 choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
12
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
13
To children ardent
14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
15

8 October 1917 – March, 1918

1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country

2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)

3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle

6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7 poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8 the early name for gas masks
9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
14 keen
15 see note 1

owens-grave