Arvon and “The Pity of War”

These are tough economic times, and arts organisations have to do hard thinking if they are to keep afloat. The Arvon Foundation, though, seems to have come up with a scorcher of an idea.
The Foundation, if you don’t know, exists mostly to run writing courses. I know someone who went on one, and she had a good time. She mentioned sympathetic tutors, a positive atmosphere and good conversation. So by and large, the Foundation is probably a Good Thing.
Arvon’s big money-spinner, apart from the fees from its courses, is an annual poetry competition with a big prize. There is a £7 per poem fee for entrants, and I’ve always been chary of this kind of competition. Too often what happens with the big national contests is that the innocent thousands send in unsophisticated verses (main literary influence Hallmark) and their entrance fees make up a prize that goes to one of the boys or one of the girls, some already-established poet who writes in a style that the judges approve. Isn’t there something a little dodgy about the fees of the no-hopers being garnered in this way, for a prize that they have no hope of winning?
Anyway, this year the Arvon are going the extra mile in their fund-raising efforts, because the designated subject is a cracker. It is “The Pity of War”.
What better subject for motivating the amateur poet to churn out bad verse by the yard, and to get those seven quid cheques winging their way to the Foundation’s bank account? And what a nice touch it is, the nod to Owen, and the implicit promise and pretence that the entrants will, in writing their (very sincere) stuff, be doing the same sort of thing as Saint Wilfred.
The great poetry of Owen was difficult to write. He had to shed all sorts of acquired habits of verse-writing, as well as received ideas about the War. He had to find the courage to say what he knew, not what he was supposed to know. Sassoon helped him, and so did the rather remarkable Dr. Brock at Craiglockhart, but he had to struggle to find a way to give his own moral sense its true voice (going through many not-quite-right poems on the way).
Now “The Pity of War” is even more of a received idea than “The Nobility of War” was among the patriotic classes of 1914. We all know War is horrible and kills people. The idea is uncontroversial, and would be accepted both by ardent pacifists and by the patriots lining the street in Wootton Bassett.
To ask for poems about “The Pity of War” from people who have never seen war is asking for second hand emotion warmed up over the fires of self-righteousness. It’s asking for writing as weepy as “Private Peaceful” or as wet-vicarish as the thing Andrew Motion wrote about poor old Harry Patch.
With the theme of “The Pity of War”, aspiring poets are told which emotion has to be pumped into their poems. They are not being asked to think for themselves. Owen does not need critics piously approving of him; he is important enough to need critics sorting out his best from his not-so-good. That great fierce man, Geoffrey Hill, was in Oxford recently, making discriminations.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

‘An atrocious couple of lines’, claimed Hill. ‘The last thing he needed was alliteration’. And as for Pity – ‘Pity,’he scowled, releases ‘an atmosphere in which it is recommended that one breathes’. He glared at his audience: ‘The poetry had better not be in the pity – or it will not survive.’
Good writing is usually writing that goes against the grain. I doubt if anything good will be written about our current unsatisfactory wars that goes heavy on the pity. The best book I have read by a recent soldier is The Junior Officer’s Reading Club, by Patrick Hennessey. Probably not a classic, but a great bracing read. Hennessey is gung-ho, an enthusiast for action. At times his book reminded me of Julian Grenfell’s limitless joy in battle, in 1914. His book is probably not the complete truth about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is his truth, and it’s a hell of a read.

There are, of course, many fine poems that distil the Pity of War, but by and large they distil them from the poet’s own experience. They don’t say what the poet feels he ought to say, but what he has to say.
Smokestack Press has just published Christmas in Auschwitz, a small book of Thomas Land’s translations of András Mezei, a Hungarian-Jewish poet who lived through the Holocaust.Here is a poem from the book:

Testimony

The people stripped off their garments.
They did not weep. They did not shout.
They did not beg for mercy.
A grey-haired woman standing by
the freshly dug hole in the ground
cuddled a baby in her arms – she
sang for it, tickled it, and the child
rejoiced in rings of laughter.

I’m willing to wager that the winners of the Arvon competition won’t be nearly as good, humane and truthful as that.

details of Christmas in Auschwitz can be found at http://www.smokestack-books.co.uk/books/mezei.html

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant! — especially on the subject of poetry competitions. But, to be fair to Arvon, the competition is open to poems on any theme. What you’ve noticed is that there is a separate prize for the best poem on ‘The Pity of War’, which has been donated by the Wenlock Poetry Festival. Housman will be spinning in his grave.

  2. Posted July 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    So Arvon rake it in from people writing about their girlfriends or dead budgies, as well as those glooming about war. They’ve really got this thing sorted.

  3. Posted August 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    A more interesting use of the phrase here from John Guest’s remarkable collection of wartime letters, Broken Images: he’s describing the quotodian existence of his anti-aircraft unit in Lancashire in the summer of 1941:

    “I seem to feel, behind all the jokes and the laughter and the efficient bustle, a pervading sadness. If we were abroad it would be better, but here, seeing the buses and the trains that could take them to their homes, the men are little better than prisoners. Every hour I am pestered with questions about leave that I cannot grant. How I hate their appeals. Do not think that they are on the point of mutiny – far from it. It is their acquiescence which undoes me. Possibly they don’t feel as strongly about it as I do, and I have even felt that it is perhaps a blessing that in their lives previously they have known so little real freedom that they now accept without question -at least, without pursuing the question – their present condition. Never since I have been in the Army have I felt so acutely what is broadly referred to as ‘the pity of war.’ I have always been inclined to think of it in terms of violence, loss of life, rather than this inconspicuous sadness.”

  4. Posted August 4, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Alan. I get the feeling that in the Second World War soldiers (poets and others) seem quite often to have used Owen as a reference for judging their own experience and, as with Guest, marking the differences between his war and theirs.

  5. rosie b
    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    You are right about the Arvon using all those £7.00 entry fees from people who would not have a chance. However, the subject The Pity of War is for the Wenlock Prize, an extra prize, not the theme for this year’s Arvon which can be on any subject.


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