I’m greatly looking forward to the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford this weekend, and have been studying the programme with interest. So many panels, and hard choices to be made…
I found myself counting the poets named in the various paper titles, seeing which poets were most academically popular in this centenary year. Of course, titles don’t tell you everything. Some papers have titles like ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’ – with no clue about which poets are making the gestures or suffering the experience. (Mind you, that’s a very promising title: rhetorical gesture versus the recreation of experience – yes, that’s a good way into thinking about war poetry.)
There are also umbrella topics like ‘women’s poetry’ that will presumably bring in a good range of other individuals.
But the league-table of name-checks, for what it’s worth, goes like this:
Owen 8 mentions
Edward Thomas 3
David Jones 2
Ivor Gurney 1 *
May W Cannan 1
Robert Service 1
Ted Hughes 1
Mary Borden 1
Gordon Bottomley 1
Drummond Allison 1
Robert Graves 1
F. W. Harvey 1
W. N. Hodgson 1
D.H. Lawrence 1
*Gurney only gets one title mention, but is well-served in the Friday evening concert.
That Owen reigns supreme is unsurprising; in the popular mind he and Sassoon are war poetry.
The surprise high-scorer is Aldington. He’s not usually made much of a mark in anthologies (Tim Kendall cuts him out altogether) so why the surge of interest? I have to confess I’m a bit biased against him because of his nasty novels (like Stepping Heavenward and Seven Against Reeves) but I’ll be interested to hear what people have to say.
The long tail of one-mentions is promising enough, but I can’t help but notice the absentees; Brooke, Grenfell, Rickword and Mackintosh (another favourite of mine, though ignored by Kendall) are clearly not arousing much interest these days, and the two greatest non-combatant poets – Hardy and Kipling – go undiscussed (though Hardy will be sung to a very fine Finzi setting in the concert).
The conference finishes with a round-table discussion of the relation of poetry to history in FWW studies. With luck there will be a discussion of canon formation, and of the privileging of poetry above prose in accounts of war literature.
My own paper is about the ways that novelists presented war poets in the 1920s, when they were afforded little of the respect that we give them today: sometimes the poets are dismissively, and sometimes as a threat to the status quo. Mine is the only paper about prose in the whole conference. I wonder how people will take to it