Realism is Not Enough

The British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford gave me plenty to think about. One sentence from that has stuck in my mind as a theme I want to develop at some time in the future is from the presentation by Andrew Palmer.
‘Realism is not enough,’ he said.
He was talking about how we evaluate War poetry. Very often this is praised for its realistic and graphic detail. In a standard school exercise, a poem by Wilfred Owen is placed next to some patriotic tub-thumping. Students are expected to praise the Owen for its communication of the hard facts of war. When I was marking AS-level scripts many students produced essays pointing up this contrast, whatever the actual question set in the exam.
Of course, the stress on the pain and horror of the battlefield is an important element of Owen’s work. Dr Palmer’s point, though, is that this is not what makes Owen a great poet. A poem is more than its subject matter.
The identification of ‘good’ war poetry with realism often limits curiosity about the wide range of poems written about the War. Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ and Shaw-Stewart’s ‘I Saw a Man this Morning’ do not have the currency they deserve because they do not fit the stereotype of the realist war poem (and maybe also because they do not deliver a predictable message about war’s futility).
In order to justify the claim that war poetry gets value from its realism, some writers have contributed to a myth about the prose of the period – essentially that it failed in its duty to be realistic, and that the prose writers of the time all obfuscated or lied, while just a few select poets spoke truth to power.
A few weeks ago I analysed this myth as expressed by Roy Greenslade in the Guardian, with his confident generalisations about the press during the war, and its alleged silence on key issues:

Only later did the public learn of the high casualty toll and the horrific nature of trench warfare, such as the use of poison gas and the effects of shell shock.

I don’t think that Mr Greenslade looked at many actual newspapers of the time when writing this article; he is repeating (in authoritative tones) myths passed down by secondary sources.
I read his article while I was researching the Battle of Loos (for a short essay that is printed in the programme of the new play Doctor Scroggy’s War , currently being presented at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in London.). For this I re-read Patrick MacGill’s The Great Push, the 1916 book based on his Daily Mail newspaper articles about the battle. There are passages in this whose depiction of battlefield horrors is quite as graphic as anything found in Owen or Rosenberg. He gives a very full picture of military life, giving a strong sense of soldiers’ solidarity and the companionship of the trenches. Yet he is not afraid to hint strongly that some British troops were not averse to committing the war crime of shooting prisoners, and he identifies the divisions, sent as reinforcements, who retreated in disorder.
The Daily Mail, of course, was a vociferous supporter of the war effort. It used MacGill’s articles to involve its readers in the realities of war, with the implicit message: ‘War is Hell – let’s finish this one by winning it.’
Yet the realistic details of  The Great Push could be used for quite other purposes. C.W.Daniel quoted liberally from the book in The Knock Out Blow a pamphlet in which he made the case for pacifism. He was sent to prison for it.
The point I am making is that graphic realism is a technique, and is value-free. It can be used to make the case for war and against it; it can be the tool of great poets like Owen or Rosenberg, but can also be used nastily by novelists and film directors who linger lovingly over violence to create a sort of military porn.
Realism is not enough. It’s not the same thing as a commitment to truth. And it’s no substitute for a deep and rich literary imagination.


  1. Posted September 15, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Completely agree. I get tired of the notion that poets have to be ‘daring truth tellers’ in order write valid war poetry.
    To quote from Elizabeth Vandiver recently
    “The privileging of the anti-war voice in First World War poetry has skewed our ability to recognise other voices”
    ‘Stand in the Trenches Achilles-Classical Perceptions in British Poetry of the Great War’. (2010).

    • Bill
      Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:46 am | Permalink

      Yet Vandiver’s chosen subject matter inevitably privileges the voice of the traditional public-school and probably restricts the range of voices even more. There is never just a single “anti-war” voice or approach that drowns out all else, whatever those who like to oppose it might try and maintain. Of course, it was Owen himself that rather asked for poetry to be judged by truth-telling. Which is never quite the same as Realism. I have never been sure if being “untrue” is ever necessarily a fault in a poem (as distinct from in journalism). In fact, as Plato suggested, “untruth” may be a characteristic of poetry. I was interested to note that in a recent BBC programme about the war-artist, Paul Nash, there was reference to his adopting an approach he described as “unrealism” to convey what he thought was the truth of his subject.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Sort of silly. Of course realism is “never enough,” any more than rhyme or meter (or their abandonment) or sincerity is “enough.”

    Not even brilliance of inspiration is enough.

    Any true artistic performance is a harmonious “combination of ingredients,” as the TV commercials used to say.

    • Bill
      Posted September 18, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Probably why Russian meerkats now dominate TV advertising.

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  1. […] first wrote it for the excellent Oxford centenary conference in 2014, where it was received quite well. I went on to deliver it at a meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon […]

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