Poetry, War and more at the Oxford Literary Festival

‘Doing anything nice this afternoon, then?’ asked the chirpy waitress at Fire and Stone as she waited for her little machine to approve my credit card.
‘Yes, we’re going to the Oxford Literary Festival.’
‘The what?’
‘The Oxford Literary Festival.’
‘Well,’ she said sardonically, ‘expressing all the amusement that the young often feel for the odd amusements of their elders, ‘I wonder why I’ve never heard of that!’
Even in  Oxford, literature is something distant from the preoccupations of most citizens, but if you head down towards  Christchurch you will find a shanty-town of marquees where the literary can meet the like-minded. Marion and I have been to four of the multitude of events this year, and have enjoyed them all.
Most relevant to the concerns of this blog was the session yesterday where a panel of four poets tackled the big  theme of Poetry and War.
First to speak was Tim Kendall, well-known online as proprietor of the excellent War Poetry blog. He began by dissecting the phrase  ‘War poetry’, an oxymoron, the marriage of apparent opposites, destruction and creation. He made the interesting point that the phrase ‘war poetry’ only came into common usage in the twenties, but didn’t develop this. I’d like to know, was this a hiving off of an exception into a category judged by different standards? Was it a way of distinguishing war poetry from the real thing (a position Yeats sometimes came close to)? Was it a way of reasserting business as usual for poets after the four-year disturbance?
Tim Kendall argued against Plato, who banned the poets from his republic on the grounds that they are liars; on the contrary, said Kendall, the poets of the twentieth century have been the truth tellers, bearing witness to what the authorities don’t want us to see, and voicing the unspeakable. (Though since he couldn’t resist a dig at the ‘pointy-elbowed poets’ who compete each Remembrance Day to get their poignant pieces into the broadsheets, he left open the possibility that ‘truth-telling’ might sometimes be a profitable option, when your indignation is directed at the distant past.)
Jon Stallworthy came next, making a succinct plea that the poets of the Second World War were as worth study as those of the first. Since he backed this up with readings of Jarrell’s ‘Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner’ and Hecht’s ‘More Light, More Light’, he proved his case fairly conclusively. Apparently, the authorities at Westminster Abbey have declined to honour the British WWII poets in Poets’ Corner. Bastards.
Next was Elaine Feinstein, who talked not about poets at war, but about the victims of Stalin, in particular Mandelstam and Akhmatova. Well, she wasn’t strictly on the topic, and she apologised for going over time, but if next year’s Oxford Literary Festival cares to give Elaine Feinstein a whole hour to talk about the Russian poets under Stalin, I shall definitely buy a ticket. I liked the idea she raised of poetry being dangerous because it was memorable, and how it could spread like a virus.
These three previous speakers are all poets, but they spoke on historical themes rather than about their own work. David Harsent, the fourth, was there not because of his knowledge of other poets, but because he has written a highly-praised sequence called Legion, poems coming apparently from several voices in the context of an unnamed, imagined war. He explained that he he had heard a great deal about the wars in former Yugoslavia, but was mystified about exactly where these poems had come from. I think that this puzzle might have interested him more than it did his audience, but judging by the two samples given, the poems are probably worth reading.
David Harsent raised the question of why poets write war poetry, and suggested that there was so much poetry in the First and Second World War because these were conscript wars, and people who would have written poetry anyway wrote them about the war. I don’t think this quite accounts for WWI – where a vast amount of poetry was written by non-combatants too, at a time when verse seemed the proper form both for presenting high ideals, and for commenting ironically on such ideals. A questioner from the floor later implied that the First World War poets were disappointing because they had not absorbed the techniques of modernism.  I would argue that Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Owen and Gurney had useful predecessors in the Georgians, and in Thomas Hardy, whose formal verse, colloquial voice, and lucid realism provided the best of models for truth-telling poets (much better than the expressionist violence typical of modernism).
Question time was interesting. One questioner compared poetry to Viagra, in its power to arouse, and some of the questioners wanted poetry to be more arousing than the panellists had suggested. One questioned their emphasis on value-judgements about the quality of verse, and championed poetsagainstthewar.org more or less on the grounds of ‘Never mind the quality, feel the anger.’ The panel were clearly unwilling to follow her in this. Jon Stallworthy had already spoken about the embarrassment aroused by poets imagining themselves at war (Was this a dig at David Harsent’s fictional war pieces? If so, Professor Stallworthy is too much of a charming old gent to make it a pointed one.) Elaine Feinstein suggested there was rarely any merit in the poetry of righteous indignation. Tim Kendall expressed his disagreement with the questioner, but gave the impression that it was the sort of question he enjoyed arguing about.  Jon Stallworthy finished the session by drawing out from his papers a poem by Anthony Hecht from the Vietnam years, in which the poet expressed his impatience with sanctimonious and preachy poets of that time:

Here lies fierce Strephon, whose poetic rage
Lashed out on Vietnam from page and stage;
Whereby from basements of Bohemia he
Rose to the lofts of sweet celebrity,
Being, by Fortune, (our Eternal Whore)
One of the few to profit by that war,
A fate he shared – it bears much thinking on –
With certain persons at the Pentagon.

(I found the text of the poem in the archive of the blog Anecdotal Evidence, which also includes Hecht’s comment on it to an interviewer: “Thank you for exhuming those buried lines. They do indeed express my impatience of those years with indignant, sanctimonious poets. Even when a poem’s speaker is, by common consent, in the right, this is uninteresting because he is preaching to the converted, and because his poem lacks the drama of antithesis, or the antimonies that Yeats so rightly and shrewdly cherished.”)
After this very various and lively session it was nice to be able to say hello to Tim Kendall, with whom I have often corresponded by means of email and blog comments.
Before the Poetry and War session we had been to hear a talk by John Grey, the pessimist’s pessimist, rather pleased with himself and explaining how he had got things right back in the nineties when, a lone voice among the euphoria following the fall of Communism, he predicted that this would not be the dawn of a free democratic golden age; rather, normal history would resume after the Communist interruption, with territorial, economic and religious rivalries destabilising the world, and, as for unregulated free markets, they were bound to lead to a bubble that would eventually burst. Gray does not believe in laws of history, but believes that we can learn from past experience. What does this teach us about our present situation? That countries in debt eventually turn to inflation as a solution to their problems, and that hard economic times almost invariably lead to the scapegoating of minorities. Cold comfort.
This afternoon’s session was more cheerful – Ben Goldacre, of the Guardian’s Bad Science column extemporising on the theme of the alliance of parmaceutical companies, alternative medicine and the media in the project of medicalising our everyday lives. Brilliant.


  1. Posted March 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking us along to the festival! Harsent’s Legion sounds interesting. I’ll have to see if I scrounge up a copy.

    Coincidentally, I just posted an old lecture by Professor Stallworthy which sounds like it covered some of the same territory.

    • Posted March 28, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the Stallworthy link. Yes, very much the same argument – but one worth making more than once.

  2. Posted March 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    It was a pleasure to meet you, George.

  3. Posted March 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the report!

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