How to Write about the War

I’m sometimes taxed with always being negative about modern writers who take the Great War for a subject. I was bilious the other day about Andrew Motion’s pieties, and in the past I’ve aimed the occasional boot at Pat Barker, Michael Morpurgo, Helen Dunmore and others for the way their writings constrict participants in to war into the role of passive victim. Yes, the war was terrible, and people were damaged in all sorts of ways, but only to see the damage is to be as limiting as the patriotic wartime poets who could only see the glory. These writers look at the past from a viewpoint of modern superiority, and allow the reader to mix the thrill of horror with a complacency that we aren’t like that any more.

So can a modern writer write well about the Great War? Yesterday I bought Singing in the Dark, the new book of poems by Alison Brackenbury (and the best book of new poems that I’ve read in a long while). The title phrase comes from a poem which tells how she wrote to Edward Thomas’s daughter, to find out about the songs that Thomas sang:

Now winter prowls upon the hills
I write to her, her head so old
The war before the last war fills
Her mind. She lists her father’s songs.

We get a snapshot of the relationship between Myfanwy Thomas and her father:

They sang, she tells me, by the fire,
Wild army songs before he died.

and the poem ends with

The robin brushes me at dusk.
Our good bones fail. We leave no mark.
His voice, she writes, was clear and quiet.
I hear him singing in the dark.

This is not a writer patronising the past, but one reaching out, making a contact with someone who died. Above all, she is listening to him, and what she hears is precious.

There is another Great War poem in the collection, and this time it is an angry poem about victims. It’s called Provision and begins:

The horses of the First World War
Shipped out to Egypt with the drafts,
Sold, without oats or tack, were found
Starved, scabbed, in Cairo, between shafts.

But then the poem moves on to a later war, when more horses were shipped out, and ends:

That war too ended. There they stood,
Sixteen hands high, without a spot
On their smooth shoulders. Do not say
Soldiers learn nothing. They were shot.

This poem acknowledges the nastiness of the First World War, but tells us that historical distance does not confer superiority. Later generations have learnt, but what they have learned is to be more efficient, and to leave less in the way of embarrassing evidence.

Most of the poems in the book are not about war, or anything political. Many are about horses, cats, and everyday life. She’s a marvellous poet. I’m proud to have published her in Snakeskin.

There was a perceptive¬† review of the book in yesterday’s Guardian.

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