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,
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.