War Poets, Deictic Realism, Remembrance, Polyphonic Poetry
John Greening, To the War Poets, Manchester: Carcanet, 2013
‘At the visionary edge’ (53) could well define John Greening’s poetic stance in his collection To the War Poets published by Carcanet Press Ltd in 2013. Although the title constitutes in itself a dedication to mostly dead poets, the gift sent to the beyond, as if the passage of time did not matter so much, can only be received by the living. Being meant as paradoxical tributes to a category of fellow writers, the poems of this British author who has been the recipient of many literary prizes, are tangible tokens that poetry can actually partake of the duty to remember. Hence, the first question we as readers have to ask ourselves is: will our role be limited to that of silent witnesses? The front cover, which reproduces a detail from Richard Walker’s acrylic on canvas entitled ‘The World War One Memorial’, might give us a clue as to what our answer should be. Indeed, on seeing the legible letters or postcards, some of them bearing birthday wishes, the opened or sealed envelopes, and the newspaper cuttings, which all aim at the illusion of verisimilitude through realism, we cannot but put ourselves in each recipient’s or even sender’s place. Being reminded from the outset of how important any means of communication is in wartime, we quickly come to realize that the poems which follow are themselves the vehicles of a manifold correspondence whose purpose it is to examine the issue of patriotism already materialized by the British flag. The artefacts presented, which are both German and British, possess a truly deictic dimension since they showthrough the superimposition of once incompatible or even conflicting realities how the fate of a nation can be reflected in the secret and intimate signs of individual daily lives where partisanship is only too natural.
As for John Greening, his standpoint becomes manifest as early as the table of contents, his translations from German poets testifying to his willingness to take into account more than one angle by appropriating the texts of so-called former enemies and adapting them to the mother tongue. These dual semiotics of his, which also highlight the absurdity of war, both armies having had to endure the same atrocities, turn the collection into an echo chamber for a score of artists including Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Edmund Blunden, John Clare, Siegfried Sassoon, W. B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Thomas, Elgar and Waldo Williams, whose personalities and aesthetics come through. This polyphony of voices enables the reflector to enhance the various similarities and dissimilarities that have separated and isolated such various styles over time. Yet the readers might regret the absence of footnotes or endnotes summing up the biographies of the poets mentioned or specifying the historical context in which each poem was written. These could have helped to read the testimonies in the right light and assess more easily the kind of departure John Greening takes from the literary traditions he refers to. And all the more so since the original texts have not been reproduced so that for those who might have wished to do so, there is no means of comparing them with their translations.
However, this editorial choice does not really lessen the resounding impact of the collection as a whole though the metaphor which comes to mind on first reading may rather be that of the kaleidoscope. As you turn over the pages, you get to seehow a given number of themes relating to the reality of war happen to combine so as to make difference reflect sameness and singularity, multiplicity, while abstract paradigms are being counterbalanced by concrete situations. In that respect, the function of toponyms often used as epigraphs – ‘the names / that aren’t from dead-leaf catalogues of dreams / but rooted in a real place’ (30) – such as Ypres (29), Bapaume (38) ‘Port Said’ (48), and ‘Dunkerque’ (78), should not be overlooked since they suffice to conjure up memories of the historical past by setting the scenes of sieges and battles and imposing a specific atmosphere from the very beginning. What is most striking is indeed the visual quality of John Greening’s verse as the readers’ imagination is summoned by being addressed directly, often in the imperative mode, the motto seeming to be: ‘Look at this picture’ (72). ‘Ypres. To Edmund Blunden’ (29) illustrates the poet’s manner, in the pictorial sense of the word, for here as elsewhere he cannot resist the temptation to paint the real instead of just wording it:
It’s Brueghelesque. The User Canal. One angler
with two rods and an (unnecessary) mud-brown brolly.
A bell is tolling midday-and-beyond behind me
and birdsong all around. One magpie. Two carrion crows.
The paratactic style of this short extract, which characterizes numerous other poems from this collection, allows him to compose little vignettes whose conciseness and delusive simplicity make for poetic intensity and depth. To some extent, the alternation of sentences with and without verbs creates an effect of perspective as one ground seems to succeed another while the touches of colour enlivening nearly every page are part of a pointillist palette which contributes to such arresting images as ‘The white cliffs are like all the paper they could not have – […] and that steady grey horizon is a never-ending pencil lead’ (‘Dover. To Isaac Rosenberg’, 20, l. 1, 3) or such synaesthesias as ‘a falling bird / a sudden / black dissonance’ (‘St Julien. To One Who Was With Me’, 59, l. 10-12).
With either Brueghel (29), Constable (71) or Turner (35) in mind, the poet thus invites us to follow him into his own imaginary museum of the Great War and other conflicts or of present-day scenes, so as to ponder on them for a while in the blanks, along the dashes whose minus signs can yet introduce as many hermeneutic additions. The objectivity he claims, ‘while I – / in my green raincoat – cast / the necessary cold eye’ (42), explains why hard facts are given as such without ever being tinged with sentimentalism (cf. 48) as he prefers to portray people uncompromisingly or to confront violence and death head-on, as some soldiers would their enemies. He is nevertheless aware that the reality of war has never been so close and so distant, mediated and projected as it is onto the multiple screens which people our everyday lives (38, 44). The revealing phrase ‘thumbing a remote’ (30) might apply to this oxymoronic literary standpoint which brings together proximity and its opposite, be it in space, time or memory. The recurring telescoping of different eras going so far back as antiquity or even the mythical past (44-45, 53) and of different cultural areas heightens the sense of loss through contrast and gives rise to a kind of intransitive nostalgia. For its object seems to be an ever elusive ideal akin to the ‘sacred polyphony’ of ‘dawn’ (45) or to the mirage vision offered by the fine poem ‘Wadi Halfa’ (49), which ‘would be the thousand and second night’.
The gaps thus opened by the loose slivers of images which follow one another along the many run-on-lines conveying a sense of urgency or of impending doom and reverberating the introductory epigraph from Wilfred Owen, imply that the readers have to provide the missing links to try and make sense in peacetime of what, in wartime, appears all too often senseless. Many poems being unrhymed, their musical quality is hence to be found in the swift rhythm which at times mimicks the hectic pace of life introduced by new technology and subtly links the bigger picture with its minute parts to elicit a feeling of empathy for any potential victim. More denotative than connotative, richer in comparisons than in metaphors, all the attempts at defining reality as it supposedly was or is like, point at universal truths through the frequent use of the aoristic present tense or through indirection. For instance, the lexicon of war is sometimes transposed into another context (19, 31, 33, 55) or figures of displacement are meant to express repressed feelings: ‘the rain / weeping against the window but unable to trouble us’ (24).
As with Brueghel, story-telling prevails while the tension between inscription and erasure, what is said, denied, or remains unsaid, endows an overall aesthetics of fragmentation with a tragic quality the better to let the archetypal find contemporary referents. In the image of their synecdoches, these pictorial narrative poems, which cannot but come across as truly modern, focus on the anecdotal details suggesting the whole in a way that is reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s style (57). Though famous artists mix with anonymous people, the impersonal is pre-eminent, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as the nominalized adjectives like ‘The young’, ‘the old’ (25), triggering generalizations which nevertheless remain idiosyncratic thanks to the often unexpected associations of epithet and noun. The presence of death looms so large that to somewhat muffle ‘The screams of the grown-not-old’ (33) haunting the evocative landscape, whose sporadic animality calls to mind Ted Hughes’ imagery (56), the poet often resorts to humour:
just the passing
And no chance of a poppy
that isn’t paper or plastic.
The children among the graves
are dressed as if they were
themselves a floral tribute.
(“’Essex Farm,’ Yser Canal. To John McCrae, » 26)
The insistence on the mortal nature of the body (43, 48, 51, 59, 60, 63) as opposed to the ‘corpus, [the] body of work, / whether poetry or prose’ (79) which may reach posterity (48), explains why so many poems have turned into epitaphs (27, 60), while others stage ‘a festival of black humour on the Isle of Wight’ (53). Playing on the homonymy of proper names, such as Wight (53) or Graves (79-80), on numbers such as 11 which symbolizes the commemorative month of November (25), on musical notes (64), the poet endeavours to defuse the tension which has built up as he travels across British or foreign lands and describes places which are so many objective correlatives for other realities.
When more traditional in content, John Greening’s verse is less so in form for he revisits the canon and experiments with the layout as when he spaces out the stanzas to hint at various instances of destruction in wartime or not (55, 68), even making his paragraphs look like the keys of a piano threatened by a ‘buzz-bomb’ (64). If ‘Art mocks Life and Terror / is trompe-l’œil’ (37), the interactive guessing game, which raises more questions than it can provide, nevertheless aims at combating illusions, and not just optical ones: ‘Abducted / by memory card, I’m / danced up around / Ben Bulben, cropped / and Photoshopped / to fit the image of / the poet’ (41). As the readers leaf through the collection, they could well consider poetry to be ‘La Flèche d’Or:/ this golden arrow / straight to the heart’ (17), or the great question mark which takes the shape of life and tries to encapsulate its mystery only to perpetuate the sense of wonder.
Cathy Parc is Associate Professor of English at the Catholic University of Paris and is the author of Calvin et Hobbes de Bill Watterson (2013) and L’Anglais du Monde Politique (2014). She also co-edited Poetry & Religion: Figures of the Sacred (2013).