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A Modern Constuction of War Poetry

2. Write a suite of poems concerned with war (historical or contemporary). In your critical appendix discuss how your reading of war poetry has informed your practice. 

So is war
So, it begins,
Hearts marching within our throats.
Lungs choking upon harsh dust.
That salty tang flooding our mouths.
We’re all at sea, while on the ground.

So, everything goes quiet,
Everything goes still.
A frozen frame of motion.
Mixed bloody with devotion.

So, red flows across the plains,
Brown seeps through all tears.
Black and white, meet grey -
A fractured mortal morality.

So, colour is all meaningless, 
So, everything is colourless.
So, there are no single words,
So, it begins, so it ends.

A soldier’s elegy
How can a man pledge his soul,
Fighting the world to lose it all?
When can a man be forgiven,
In stealing hope from the living?
Why, can a man never forget,
The travesties he did commit.

Who can see the pain of men,
Standing, broken, bitter wrecks?
Are, there any words to leave,
Upon a grave, to cover grief?
Or - is all lost and gone
In the shattered peace of war?

The war of Time
Yesterday, you were my friend
Today, you are my enemy
Tomorrow, the creeping void -
Eternal sorrow of emptiness.
Old friends have come and gone,
Unique wounds still remain,
Scourged and bloody,
Open again to your eventful mauling.
Time, alone you are my enemy!

Critical Appendix
Jon Stallworthy notes that the poets of previous wars “saw it as their task to bombard their readers with the sights, sounds, smells that assaulted the senses of those in front lines many at home could not imagine.” (Poetry of the First World War, E. Hudson, J. Stallworthy, p.9, 1988) War poets seem to attempt, therefore, to create a beating rhythm within their poetry, like the echoing of drums or the rolling recoil of canons. At the same time, the poet aims to bombard the reader of the war-centred poetry with visually or emotionally charged language.

It appears that context, is crucial to an understanding of the underpinnings of war poetry. William Hovey indicates that, “War Poetry itself achieves a much greater relevance and can be more clearly understood when it is seen in both its socio-historical context and in its place as part of the wider literary response to the War.” (Wilfred Owen: War poems and others, D. Hibberd, W. Hovey, W. Owen, p. 10, 1987). 

The question is, therefore: what does this mean for a modern westernised world, where fewer individuals are touched personally by the great anarchy and chaos of war? I would propose that most experiences of contemporary poets regarding war are through such media outlets as news-reports, documentaries or historical documents. In creating poems reflecting upon war, I, as a poet, am aiming to mimic the ideas and methods of those who truly have experienced the harsh nature of battle. In this form of contemporary war poetry, war becomes a symbol for the harshness and pathos connected to everyday reality. 

Famous war poems such as For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon (1914, printed in Poetry of the First World War) utilise specifically charged language to convey a particular sense of the war. In For the Fallen there is the aim to convey a mythicised sense of the war, the sense that, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,” where those soldiers who fell in battle have become part of something almost legendary. There is a mythology surrounding soldiers who fall in battle – a mythology somewhat akin to the ancient Norse idea of Valhalla, whereby all noble warriors shall live eternally – yet there is also a great sense of sorrow colouring the entire poem. This is highly notable through lines such as, “They mingle not with their laughing comrades again.”

The entirety of So is war aims to provoke this sense of sorrow seen in other war poetry through the use of the visceral, artillery language mentioned by Stallworth. The initial line spacing is deliberately designed to give a sense of fragmentation to the poem. This fragmentation then exists to create the sense that the opening of the poem exists in conjunction with the opening scenes of a battle where soldiers become nervous and tensions rise. The line, “That salty tang flooding our mouths/We’re all at sea, while on the ground,” plays on the idiomatic expression of being ‘all at sea’, connecting the expression to the context of soldiers sweating in fear and anxiety. 

The second poem, A soldier’s elegy, likewise aims to connect to the sorrowful aspects of war. It connects the idea of war poetry to the second idea that perhaps war poetry is a new method of elegy, by which the poet can speak their grievances. This poem, with its use of different questioning styles (How, What, Why), could be seen as being written from the perspective of a soldier, considering how men could so easily rush to war.

At the same time, the poem belongs to another perspective, that of the outsider looking in at war and questioning, “How can a man pledge his soul/Fighting the world to lose it all?” The eternal questions are asked through poetry; as such, the poem here becomes a metaphysical window to the thoughts of the poet speaker. The aim is to reflect upon war (as is the tendency of war poetry) and to then delve deeper, to look beyond and question why humanity as a group has been driven to countless wars. Is war, as poetry questions, “the necessary platform” through which heroes are made? (L. Goldensohn, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2012, p. 1530) Or, is war an act stemming from natural human aggression, repression and desire? The poem, with its mournful questions, does not provide answers; a summary is instead revealed through the final lines: “Or - is all lost and gone/In the shattered peace of war?”

The final poem, The war of time, is the most abstract of the three war poems and serves a different purpose as a vehicle of war poetry. Where a poem such as Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet: On seeing a piece of our heavy artillery brought into action (1917, printed in Wilfred Owen: War Poems and Others) literally focuses on the idea of heavy artillery in action; The war of time serves to reflect upon war as an idea. It both serves as a kind of war elegy, as with the previous poems, and as an analysis of the concept of time. 

The repetition of words connected to time (Today, Yesterday, Eternal) in collaboration with the theme of time and war, provide the sense that The war of time could be the soulful cry of an aged war veteran reflecting on the past. Yet at the same time, the poem is a poem about man as a subject of time’s whim and fancy. To this extent, the poem reveals how the greatest war is between man’s will to live and time’s unconscious will to destroy.

The major issue connected to the poetry I have created here is the notion that they have been created externally of any true experience of war. As a result, regardless of how true the sentiments or notions contained within these individual poems they lack a degree of true battle authenticity that cannot be reproduced artificially. It is much the same as how an elegy cannot be created without a degree of understanding regarding grief and loss, because essentially the poet must create from experience. To that end, these poems stand as reflections upon war as a more distant notion, adopting the themes and conventions of other war poets, yet they are more relevant to an observation of the conflicts surrounding inhabitants of westernised society than of any true relationship to war. 

A.S. Goldensohn, ‘War Poetry’, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edn, ed. Roland Greene & Stephen Cushman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2012, pp. 1530-33.
D. Hibberd, W. Hovey, W. Owen, Wilfred Owen: War Poems and Others, 3rd edn, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1987.
E. Hudson, J. Stallworthy, Poetry of the First World War, Wayland Publishers Ltd., East Sussex , 1988.