‘Poetic expression alone…’

‘The poetic mood, whether in writer or reader, demands a high, a heightened state of tension and sensibility; by the emotions of the War, that high, that heightened state was created, not only in the soldier, but in every citizen, anxious, exalted, fearful both for the fate of his country and his fellow-men. The soldier and the ordinary man, in fact, were both temporarily living on the plane where poetic expression alone corresponds to the state of tension aroused.’

V. Sackville-West
‘War Poems’ Spectator 8 November, 1930.

Nicely put. But is it true?



  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Insofar as it means much at all, I suppose it is true. In wartime every emotion is heightened by prospects and events, and heightened emotion used to be a hallmark of “true” poetry. I imagine “tension” must include the urge to express oneself also.

    But as we know, heightened emotions and a need for self-expression alone don’t lead to excellent writing, even if they’re often indispensable to it.

    Catherine Reilly found more than 2,200 British versifiers alone published during 1914-18.

    How many really excellent and enduring poems did they produce? It’s largely subjective, of course, but in proportion to the vast number of attempts, very few.

    Which probably can be said about peacetime poetry as well.

    • Posted August 20, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      I rather agree. I found this among some old notes, and started puzzling out its implications, and increasingly disagreeing with them.
      Perhaps it’s true that war gives rise to the urge to dignify your feelings by expressing them in poetry, but that isn’t the same thing as war producing poetry.

      • Jonathan Lighter
        Posted August 20, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        And what counts as “good poetry” is naturally controversial.

  2. Bill
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Sackville-West refers to both writer and reader being more open to poetry. I suspect it is probably true that the audience for poetry expanded during the war, in that people were less prone to be instantly dismissive of “heightened” language. Of course, the audience for rotten poetry – as for sentimental songs – probably expanded more than the audience for “good” poetry.

  3. J. Grant Repshire
    Posted August 27, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Just from my own experience in combat – swearing often did the trick just as well. Then again, there were a few senior-NCOs whose swearing nearly was poetic.

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