A duff one from Duffy

Every now and then, the writer of this blog gets emails from schoolchildren whose teachers have asked them to write war poems. What on earth can they write? they ask.
It’s a pretty duff homework assignment, because the children are being asked to write from what they have been told, not from their experience. In other words, they are being asked to write clichés. I very much doubt whether any of the poems produced are very good.
But let’s imagine that a teacher was marking the homework and came across a poem about the 1914 Christmas truce containing the lines:

A young Berliner,
brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Any teacher without cloth ears would surely sigh. The student’s heart may be in the right place, but this is not very good. The awful inversion: “first from his ditch to climb”. The naff simile (Do rhymes run?) made naffer by the  rhyme at the end of the clunky straggling line. The phrase “ran at him” which suggests aggression, where “ran to him” would make more sense. The awkward intrusion of the set phrase “A Shropshire lad”, bringing in inappropriate echoes of Housman. Where had the child picked that up from?

But of course, this isn’t a poem by a struggling schoolchild; it is the work of the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, printed in the Guardian last weekend, and published by itself as a cutely illustrated  £5.99 Christmas gift book.
It’s the curse of the Laureateship, I suppose. Andrew Motion also felt obliged to write sentimental poems, saying the preachy things that people expected him to say. I don’t think any of his were quite as awful as this, though.

I’ve been re-reading Patrick MacGill’s The Great Push (1916), whose brutal frankness about war is set off by a vivid appreciation of individual soldiers in all their variety; perhaps it’s the contrast with MacGill that makes me especially aware of the paucity of Duffy’s reimagining of this event in terms of cliché. The imaginative country boy, the bawling Scotsman, the German with his Schnapps, that Shropshire lad. The characters are labelled, but are not imagined.  And it all just happens. They all just join in. There is no hint of any doubt, or of the soldiers feeling a conflict of emotions. She claims that “every man” joined in – but I believe that on the British side some at least refused to fraternise with the enemy.
The ending is particularly naff:

And all that marvellous, festive day and night,
they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file,
their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves …

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

The grammar of the first bit of that gets tangled. The first time I read it, I thought she was suggesting that the fallen comrades beneath the makeshift crosses somehow managed to come and go, like the officers and the rank and file.
“Shy stars” is a particularly odd bit of pathetic fallacy. What are they shy about? “Pinned moon” presumably refers back to the idea that it is like a medal, but this seems a superficial simile. If the moon is a medal, who or what has it been fighting for. If the drift of the poem is to say that nature and human nature want peace, why make the moon an emblem of military action?
And if the armies involved  always made sure afterwards that they deliberately fired high, how does Ms Duffy explain the rather high death toll on the Western Front over the following four years?
The message of the whole thing is on the level of an infant teacher’s “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice!” A lovely sentiment, but not one that gets you far in the real world.
But I guess that lots of well-meaning folk will love the poem. It’s undemanding, sentimental and obvious. The only objections, probably, will come from those who don’t think that History is a yawn.

15 Comments

  1. Mary
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The last line is potentially quite biting, though, isn’t it, if you chose to read it so? Of course they knew that they weren’t only aiming at the sky, and so should we. It could be a comment on our penchant for this kind of sentimentality, but I think you’re right (in this critique and on the blog in general) that the general view of the war probably isn’t nuanced enough for that to be her meaning.

    • Posted December 22, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Much more poetic is a line from one of the letters quoted by Brown and Seaton in “Christmas Truce” about “shooting at the stars” – sorry can’t immediately find it to quote properly.

      • Posted December 22, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        Found it now – even more poetic than I recalled. From a German in the Saxon Corps – Vize-Feldwebel Lange told the story when on leave in Leipzig to an Australian who wrote to her sister:

        The difficulty began on the 26th when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, as they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, “We can’t – they are good fellows and we can’t.” Finally, the officers turned on the men with “Fire, or we do – and not at the enemy!” Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. “We spent that day and the next,” said Herr Lange “wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.”

        I think if the Poet Laureate had done even the basic research of reading two key chapters of this book her last line would have been considerably improved.

  2. Posted November 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    She is the Poet Laureate, George, a job after all and stuff like that keeps her salary. Readings,appearances, tutorials – as you well know – pay pence and nothing less. I suspect that privately she cringes herself at the kinds of things she has to write for the sake of money but then such close scrutiny of the things she does produce ‘on demand’ like yours and maybe other discerning critics lends that aspect of her work an importance she both deserves and does not deserve.

    It’s like an idle comparison between Ed Sheeran and Zimmerman!! The two do not, with any stretch of the imagination, equate.

    Read ‘Rapture’ and then remind me that Keats was not boring or insensitive (wry grin!!).

    J

  3. Posted November 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian’s ‘Corrections and Clarifications’ column is usually very good at admitting to errors. I therefore sent an email to the paper’s readers’ editor, pointing out the howler in this poem’s illustrations, which gave 1914 soldiers steel helmets (not introduced until 1916).
    So far no correction or admission of error has appeared.

  4. Posted December 22, 2014 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Just come across the poem for the first time – read in a carol service – very nice, but… Might be petty, but I’ve read a little bit about the Truce as my grandfather was involved. No mention of moonlight – so “moon like a medal” didn’t quite sound right. Courtesy of a search engine (what did we do before the last decade) discover that 24 December 1914 – only half a disc – the first quarter. Also a “Berliner”? Just looking at Appendix C of the definitive book about the event (Brown and Seaton) shows you that the Germans involved were Saxon, Wesphalian and Bavarian regiments. Indeed my grandfather was told by the Saxons opposite him to keep his rifle fire for the Prussians who were due to come up next into that sector.

    • Posted December 22, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Tamsin –
      Thanks very much for your recent comments. The first-hand reports of the truce are always vivid and touching. Modern sentimental renderings, whether by Duffy or Sainsbury’s, are crass in comparison.

      • Posted December 22, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        That is very kind of you. Often wonder about joining in a conversation so long after it has started.

        So agree about the real words of those who were there – why Oh What a Lovely War is so excellent – based on a radio programme made while the producers were able to speak to those who had gone through the war and recalled the songs and parodies genuinely sung.

        And what an abysmal piece of homework to set – to write your own war “poem” – at the risk of sounding like “Angry, of Tunbridge Wells” – the children would have been better directed to learn by heart a selection of the real thing, but that is presumably not “creative” enough.

        Can I refer you to my sister’s blog – in a monumental piece of work she is having posted on-line, as they were written, the 650 or so letters my grandfather and his brothers sent home. Check out familyletters and Berryman and you should get there.

    • Tamsin
      Posted February 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Found the reference to being told to keep one’s fire for the Prussians. Not at the Christmas Truce but a couple of months later.

      http://www.familyletters.co.uk/16-february-1915-ted-to-jane/

  5. Posted December 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the reference to your sister’s blog.
    As an antidote to the current sentimentalised versions of the truce, see this article about a German sniper who picked off a couple of British soldiers during the truce. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11307513/Christmas-truce-of-1914-was-broken-when-German-snipers-killed-two-British-soldiers.html

    • Posted December 22, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Indeed it was by no means universal – and I think it must be in the just published book by Pehr Thermaenius about the Christmas Match, even where the truce did happen some of the British used it to check out the position of a particularly effective German sniper in order to get him picked off later.

      • Bill
        Posted December 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        The bit about checking out the German sniper is in the recently released letter, I think. But we have to remember this was a truce largely between regular forces, rather than volunteers or conscripts. There was much less concept of “hating the enemy” at this stage. What the sentimentalists will do for the next four years, I don’t know. Maybe we should concentrate on the Waterloo bicentenary instead. After all the centenary was a bit awkward, since enemies and allies had swapped around.

  6. Posted December 24, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    The sentimentalists are getting in training for the Somme…

    • Bill
      Posted December 29, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      I suppose next year is mostly left clear for the Australians, then.

      • Posted December 29, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Though I bet that Loos will be commemorated with a repeat of ‘My Boy Jack’, a film that totally fails to understand Kipling.


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