Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

How did they bury them all?

August 4, 2014

Wild Poppies - photo by Liz Mathews

Wild poppies – photo by Liz Mathews

The centenary of the Great War’s outbreak is being marked in many ways; two projects have particularly moved me.

The first is Neil Astley’s new Bloodaxe anthology of war poems: The Hundred Years’ War, which includes this poem by Valentine Ackland, which I suggested for the collection.

How did they bury them all, who died in the war?

From near and far the tidy packed masses were neatly

Disposed, laid straight, boxed and buried; in a soil

Crowded already and crammed with the old wars’

Great litter of lives spilt. And they buried them all

As the gardener after the autumn fall

Digs in the apples to rot. So the summer’s spoil

Wastes down to mud and the sweetness goes rotten.

They buried them all, and the trees have already forgotten.

(Valentine Ackland, published in Journey from Winter: Selected Poems of Valentine Ackland, edited by Frances Bingham, Carcanet, 2008.)

I’m very pleased Neil chose to include the poem, which is such a powerful statement about the waste and mortal cost of all wars. I read the poem at the pre-launch of the book at Lauderdale House in Highgate, and felt its power to move the audience as I did so.

The reading brought out the breadth of the Bloodaxe anthology, and its global scope; among the highlights Stephen Watts read Isaac Rosenberg’s Louse Hunting brilliantly; Andrew Motion read some of his recent ‘found poems’ taken from soldiers’ own accounts of war; David Constantine read a very moving poem about his grandmother Soldiering On; and Imtiaz Dharker read her superb poem A Century Later, about the Taliban attempt on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai’s life, which concludes:

A murmur, a swarm. Behind her, one by one,

the schoolgirls are standing up

to take their places in the front line.

I also enjoyed hearing Dawood Azami read some of his poems in the original Pashto, as well as in translation, and it was a pleasure to hear Neil Astley read B.G.Bonallack’s The Retreat from Dunkirk, also in this wide-ranging anthology, which is one of the texts lettered on Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.

This is an enormous collection; it contains six hundred pages of poetry, some familiar and necessary (Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, from the First World War, Antonio Machado’s The crime was in Granada, about the killing of Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, Martin Niemöller’s chilling First they came for the Jews… from the Second World War), also much that’s less well known. There’s a striking amount of work in translation, so that war is seen from many perspectives – not just by Germans in the opposite trenches, but also contemporary Taliban fighters. There are many different voices – witnesses, combatants, conscientious objectors, civilians caught up in war, refugees and prisoners, nurses and children.

Women are well-represented, considering the inevitable surplus of soldier-poems in the era the book covers; Anna Akhmatova writing during the seige of Leningrad, Denise Levertov hearing the guns of Dunkirk, Muriel Rukeyser in Spain, Nelly Sachs remembering the Holocaust – they’re all here. I found particularly moving the Polish poet Anna Swir’s poem He Was Lucky (which Neil Astley also read):

The old man

leaves his house, carries books.

A German soldier snatches his books

flings them in the mud.


The old man picks them up,

the soldier hits him in the face.

The old man falls,

the soldier kicks him and walks away.


The old man

lies in mud and blood.

Under him he feels

the books.

So, this is an important anthology, and a tragically contemporary one. Although there’s a reason other than shock value for every poem to be there, many of them are horrific and disturbing. To me, those that are most successful are those – like Valentine Ackland’s – that lament or protest or bear witness or speak defiance imaginatively, rather then by direct reportage. But this book rightly represents every kind of poetry-writing on war.

Neil Astley’s introduction notes ‘individual voices bearing witness to our shared humanity’, but also a disastrous inability to learn the lessons of history. “As Germany’s Günter Kunert writes in his poem On Certain Survivors, in which a man is dragged out from the debris of his shelled house: ‘He shook himself/ And said/ Never again.// At least, not right away.’”



Tom postcard

World War I postcard, with a photograph of my great-uncle T.H. Duffin among the portraits of Heroes of York.

I’ve also been involved in the Imperial War Museum’s centenary project Lives of the First World War, which is to be a permanent digital memorial, recording the experiences of millions of people during the war.  Like the museum itself, the object is not to glorify war, but to acknowledge the contribution of the many people who were involved in the conflict.

I’ve been adding details to the life-story of one Thomas Howard Duffin, my grandmother’s older brother, who died in the Dardanelles campaign. Since he was killed when he was only 18, when my grandmother was still a little girl, half a century before I was born, I’ve never really thought of him as a great-uncle, only as her favourite brother Tom.

Duffin, Thomas Howard - Version 2

Tom Duffin’s photograph from The King’s Book, York Minster          (Reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of York)

Because he was a casualty of war, it’s easier to find out what happened to Tom than to trace the war experiences of his older brother Reggie, who survived. Poor Tom joined up as soon as volunteers were asked for, in August 1914, when he must have been under age, and trained with a battalion (9th, West Yorkshire Regiment) of Kitchener’s New Army. He and his comrades inhabit their historical moment, eagerly enrolling to defend (as the official message of sympathy had it) ‘the noblest of causes’, with all the naive arrogance and enthusiasm of youth, only to find themselves fighting an unknown enemy on foreign ground, for a theoretical tactical advantage which even at the time was considered by many to be a mirage.

This was Gallipoli, the Turkish peninsula not so far from Troy, which the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force attempted to capture. There, they faced extreme problems of missing equipment, bad supplies, no water, inefficient reconnaisance, chaotic planning and a bizarre over-optimism. Muddling through was one of the Empire’s specialities, however, and these new soldiers fought ‘with great pluck and grit’. Tom’s battalion received a special mention in the commander’s despatch on the landing at Suvla Bay, which remarks that they ‘deserve great credit for the way [the assault] was delivered in the inky darkness of the night’. (Sir Ian Hamilton’s Third Gallipoli Despatch)

After going through three months of intense trench warfare in extreme weather conditions, under almost constant bombardment, Tom fell ill of dysentery – which killed more troops than the actual fighting. Ambulance trains took some of the sick and wounded to hospital in Cairo, and it seems Tom was one of these lucky ones. (Many others died on the hospital ships, and were buried at sea, or died on the battlefield without ever reaching hospital.)

Sister Margaret B. Weatherup, of the Giza Red Cross Hospital in Cairo, wrote home: ‘I don’t know how many cases are in now – wards, balconies and corridors are full. The Dardanelles fighting has been very much worse than in France, at least the men say so. When one batch of stretcher cases came in we were not expecting them. A great many of the elite of Cairo, who were dining at their clubs when the news spread that an ambulance train with very serious cases had arrived, just came out to the hospital as they were, and carried the stretchers in. It looked strange to see four men in evening dress carrying the stretchers. Lord Edward Cecil was one of the helpers. It is not long since he lost his only son.’ (British Journal of Nursing, September 18, 1915.)

A VAD ambulance driver, Alice Christabel Remington, in an IWM interview, recalled: ‘The men that had dysentery, poor things, that was really terrible because they couldn’t be looked after and they were in a shocking state. I used to feel so sorry – they were so ashamed of themselves, they couldn’t help it, but sometimes the smell was simply frightful… The ones that had trench fever and the ones that had dysentery were the most depressed.’ (quoted in The Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War, Malcolm Brown.)

Tom died on 29th November, 1915, and is buried in the Cairo war memorial cemetery. Numbered among the disastrous casualties of the Dardanelles campaign – abandoned a few weeks after Tom died, when the army evacuated the peninsula – these horrible trench-illness deaths seem singularly futile. Like ‘friendly fire’ losses (then called ‘misdirected fire’) it’s hard to envisage such accidental deaths as ‘sacrifices for… Freedom and Justice’, or to make them seem heroic. It seems so wasteful and pointless for Tom to have not had a life, when his death didn’t serve any possible purpose.

Although I’d always vaguely known that he died at Gallipoli, now that I know what happened to Tom in a little more detail I feel – belatedly – as well as a distant sadness, the anger.

A message from Shelley

February 24, 2011

River of chains – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Vessels of heavenly medicine’ and ‘balloons of knowledge’ are a poet’s prescription for a nation in need of enlightenment, and a description of the eccentric means by which Shelley sent out his Declaration of Rights two hundred years ago. The ‘vessels’ were messages in bottles, or boats made out of waxed boxes, floated out into the sea or along a river. The ‘balloons’ were miniature Montgolfiers, hot air balloons to fly the revolutionary tracts inland.

(There were the inevitable practical problems to these unorthodox methods of political dissent; the home-made hot air balloons sometimes caught fire, the vessels were washed back in again, or sank.  However, it was all successful enough to cause some local alarm to the repressive Hanoverian regime.)

This imaginative, indeed poetic, approach to communication, conjures up irresistable images.  Imagine, if you were a milkmaid strolling along a dusky lane, or a shepherd sheltering under a tree, and a flaming beacon appeared in the sky, glowing orange like a Hallowe’en pumpkin, or a Chinese paper lantern hung in a garden tree.  As it comes closer, you realise it’s a hot air balloon, lit up by its own flame – but below the wick, where the basket should be, a scroll dangles instead.  As it slowly descends – the light dim now, spluttering – you chase it, catch it, pluck it out of a maybush or fish it from a cowpond.  The paper, this celestial greeting, roughly printed, all smudged and singed, is (so long as you could read) an invitation to think differently.

Of course, some of the declarations would have drifted down into the sea, or on empty land miles from anywhere, or in a place where no one was literate, and the meaning remained a mystery forever.  But others might have landed where someone would find them inspiring, a message from another world.  I like to think of the commonsense pleas for freedom and equality striking a chord among random readers; in a workhouse or debtors’ prison, a religious board-school, a gypsy encampment or a remote farmhouse.

No man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy… No law has a right to discourage the practice of truth… The present generation cannot bind their posterity. The few cannot promise for the many… No man has a right to do an evil thing that good may come.

One night earlier this year, dozens of lantern-balloons appeared in a royal blue sky, flying over London from the northern hills in a constellation of golden spheres, like physalis’ origami-paper blossoms.  The higher ones winked as distant beacons, the lowest drifted close by like floating footlights in a surreal flight; perhaps they crossed the river, reflected in its dark water, plunged down into parks or caught on chimneytops.  Everyone in the street stopped to stare up at the magical sight, and then someone exclaimed ‘Look, it’s a message from Shelley!’

A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

What so wild as words are?

July 16, 2010

Light, air, cloud – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘…it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one is separately too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means…. The meaning is just on the far side of language.’

On not knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf, (The Common Reader)

This description of reading – the rapid flight of mind, the dangerous leap through the air – seems to me the perfect definition of why great poetry works as it does, for the enthusiast. It’s also an evocation of what it describes; the exhilaration of that unsupported leap of faith, beyond meaning, to the place where the words in their companies gather together to give expression to the unsayable. This surrender to instinctive reading, far from being anathema to the writer, is a necessity for her as a poetry reader. It is the acknowledgement that in such writing there is an element beyond, something that can’t be analysed and given an academic gloss; a mystery that can be recognised but not explained.

The danger, of course, is that the leap may fail, that we will fall flat – and sometimes we do fall in flames. But it’s a risk worth taking; one that Woolf frequently asks of her readers. Even when a writer seems to have completely failed to write without individual words, to blast them into their companies, the attempt is exciting. Not even Shakespeare (nor Woolf) could always achieve it, but the wish to write that undecantable language is always evident, an ambition that demands much from the reader, but rewards us with flight, sometimes.

(At its simplest, it’s a willingness to glide which can work so well for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare. The unfamiliarity of some parts of the language – among passages which are known by heart to many – is rarely a problem in performance; the staging carries the audience beyond merely getting the gist of the sense, to the deeper apprehension of that instinctive understanding. This is a way to read the dramatic lyric, too, as the mind soars over the words.)

For writers who are not necessarily hoping to write ‘the highest poetry’, but do seek to use words sometimes in some of the ways Woolf describes, there is a paradox. So much can be learned from reading like this, from thinking deeply about the ways of language and the techniques of working with it. But then, there is that other, mysterious element; the thing that can’t be learnt at writing school, can’t be defined, coerced, bought, sold or even named – only hoped-for, awaited, recognised.

(‘What so wild as words are?’ Robert Browning, A Woman’s Last Word.)