War Poetry in the 21st Century: Legacy, Context, Relevance - and the Poetry

By Corn, Ken | The International Schools Journal, November 2014 | Go to article overview

War Poetry in the 21st Century: Legacy, Context, Relevance - and the Poetry


Corn, Ken, The International Schools Journal


The indefinite title of this article is an opening gambit towards interrogating the elusive significance and the possible approaches international educators might adopt when addressing the literature, and specifically the poetry, of the First World War, particularly during these centenary years of that conflagration.

For a start, even the term War Poetry has a very precise and perhaps limited significance within the particular cultural context(s) where this phrase most resonates. For the nations of the United Kingdom, and including some of the Commonwealth countries, the manifestations of certain cultural, perhaps even 'tribal' values and national narratives are deeply embedded in the teaching and the discourse surrounding war poetry - always and unequivocally the poems that came out of young soldiers' experiences during World War One. Even more precisely, especially at secondary school level, these poetic renditions might be boiled down to the works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with occasional inclusions from a small handful of others.

Within this cultural context there is certainly no misconstruing the terminology of war poetry to include Keith Douglas' Second World War poems, or the works of writers from other nations or conflicts. The seminal works surrounding WW1 for the United States are more likely to be found (and taught) through novels. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms would be a key text which highlights the somewhat detached ex-pat experience within a conflict that seemed (and was) oceans away.

In Ireland, W B Yeats was writing in Easter 1916 about an altogether different (though not unrelated) clash involving the fractious nature of the contemporary structures of the United Kingdom and shaping a different sort of national mythology. Whilst Yeats' An Irish Airman Foresees His Death also speaks to the complex relationship between Britain and Ireland during the First World War, its voice is mystical and de-politicised; the experience of warfare and the broader experience of WW1 seem almost incidental, if not wholly absent.

For the Unionist community in the north of Ireland, WW1 is perceived in terms of a blood sacrifice and as a justification for the maintenance of Northern Ireland within that continually re-configuring union/kingdom of nations. And of course, there is the experience of other WW1 combatants as exemplified through prose within Erich Maria Remarque's novel of German soldiers' experience of that war, All Quiet on The Western Front.

All of these works, amongst many others, speak to the experience of those war years, yet War Poetry retains its own particular niche. Within many international schools, as well as those of the United Kingdom, there often remains a special slot reserved for War Poetry and with it a certain British literary poetic exceptionalism. Clearly, this is at least partially due to the educational origins and traditions of international schools, along with the curricula these schools follow. In other ways, this specificity is attributable to the confluence of immense tragedy, the re-shaping of national identities during the past century and the considerable talent of that generation of British poets who captured in verse the horror, absurdity, camaraderie, pathos and loss of their moment amidst the maelstrom.

The works of Owen, Sassoon and the less-taught others of that historical vortex remain a shorthand in many ways for what it means to be British during the past 100 years and how The Great War so thoroughly shaped (and continues to shape) the destiny of that nation. You only need to read today's UK newspapers or watch the plethora of current television and other media representations of the First World War to see that the contestation for shaping the on-going narrative of national identity remains a potent and live political/ cultural discourse, especially during these anniversary years. The 'battle' to shape the legacy of WW1 continues to be fought through the less bloody, but hardly bloodless, battleground of culture with War Poetry conscripted to the frontline. …

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