To the War Poets, by John Greening

To the War Poets To the War Poets, by John Greening. (Carcanet Press, 2013)

The First World War is being widely debated in the United Kingdom at present as we move towards the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the war in August 1914. How best to remember these events is a controversial issue with a row started by the Secretary of State for education pontificating about how the war has been approached in popular culture, with a side swipe at the work of well known war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

So the timing of the publication of John Greening’s collection To the War Poets is particularly apt. The cover is called Wreath, a detail taken from Richard Walker’s World War One memorial and in keeping with the spirit of the book it includes part of a German newspaper and what looks to me like a German postcard.

Greening nails his colours to the mast with the opening poems which are addressed to German poets, Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernest Stadler and August Stamm. The explanation for this comes in the sixth poem, The Train in which we learn a little about the poet

we advance along
my green and narrow
sixteenth year

towards a dark
platform where the Sandmann
family reach out

The book is dedicated to Jürgen Sandmann. So the reader can deduce that Greening studied German which is why he gives German voices their rightful place. I liked  the challenge to my casual assumption that a war poets book was going to be about the usual suspects, Sassoon, Graves, Brooke at al. They are in the book of course, together with Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Gibson, John McCrae, Robert Nichols, Edmund Blunden, Laurence Binyon, Rudyard Kipling, Julian Grenfell, Edward Thomas, Vera Britain, and Robert Graves. Greening also includes the Welsh; Waldo Williams and Edward Thomas, the Scots Charles Hamilton Sorley and there are past and present Irish poets.

I greatly enjoyed Greenwood’s version of Heym’s War

He’s risen now, who slept so long,
He’s risen from deep vaults, among
The day’s remains. Huge and unknown
He stands. His black hands crush the moon.

Into the cities’ evening crack
A shadow-frost falls, alien dark
It makes the downtown bustle freeze.
Go quiet. Glance round. No one sees.

It’s far more compelling that the one I’d previously read in my Penguin book of First World War poetry, invaluable though that anthology is, in its coverage of the war poets.

The other feature of the collection that I particularly appreciated was that although it is clearly informed by a good deal of knowledge about the poet’s lives, together with visits to the battlefields, Greening wears his learning lightly. There are hints and observations. These are not poems as history lessons. They work as invitations to the reader to find out more about these ghost voices echoing down to us over nearly a  century.

You do not need to have prior knowledge of their lives and histories to enjoy the poems. I did know Robert Graves fell out with Sassoon and Blunden over the publication of his memoir Goodbye to All that and could therefore enjoy all the more the fact that they bellow at him in the poem To Robert Graves

If your lifetime’s work
were so many words in stone

and not the kind of swinging
dummy stuff your pals

Sassoon and Blunden will
bayonet shouting TRUTH

There is something powerful about poems as epistles, directly addressing the dead poets. I venture that having read all of the poem above and many of the others you will accept the implicit invitation that there is more to learn. I cannot think of a better book as an introduction.

You can appreciate, as I did, the poem addressed to Julian Grenfell without knowing much about him or about Joan Lttlewood’s play ‘Oh What a lovely war’.

Your view of Ypres as ‘one big picnic’
shapes our view of it as a slaughter.

We have seen munitions laid out
for hungry youngsters. They smell the mud-

caked offerings of how many
thousands who are human jam. ‘Dig in!’

you laugh, now the earth is warm with spring
and girls in white are on the downs

Wilfed Owen is absent from this collection in the sense that there isn’t a poem specifically addressed to him and yet he is there as a presiding spirit and in the dedication taken from his poem, The Send off

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?

I puzzled over why Greening would leave Owen out until I discovered from an on-line interview on the Stanza blog that he’d decided ‘the one I wrote to Owen wasn’t good enough’.

These are not all war poems; threaded through the collection are personal poems about growing up in Middlesex

Whatever I’ve grown into, all took root
in Thames alluvium, old orchard lands

and Kentish

I have stood here before
and still do in a home
movie stored somewhere
up in our bedroom.

This brings me to my final suggestion of this review which is that having bought yourself a copy of this book, that you settle down and read the poems in the order in which they are set out rather than picking poems at random. It does have a cumulative effect if you read it this way.