8th November 2017
Have you got a poem on your wall? Ana Sampson, poetry anthology editor, shares her words on the wall.
When I was fifteen, I had words on my wall. Between the pictures of Kurt Cobain, Withnail and Bagpuss I taped up my favourite poems: Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. (I would have felt it necessary to defend the inclusion of Dylan at the time, but a Nobel Prize for Literature is a good passport to the pantheon of poets in anyone’s book.) ‘Fern Hill’ is all beauty, a hymn of pleasure tinged with the delicious ache of a nostalgia I was too young to really understand. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’’s lines about dancing beneath the diamond sky chimed with all the yearning for hedonistic beach parties a landlocked British teenager could muster (a lot). But why Wilfred?
I studied the First World War in class, like generations of school children since that cataclysm. We traced the underlying causes – the webs of European alliances, the scramble for arms, the rallying drumbeat of nationalism – and the fate of Franz Ferdinand. We learnt about the battles, the tactics and the casualties. But it wasn’t until we began to read war poetry that the terrors endured by the men – boys, really, most of them – came alive for me.
The Great War encouraged thousands to put pen to paper, producing plays and novels as well as poetry. Ordinary people turned to writing to process their experiences, and a generation of ‘trench poets’ sprang up almost overnight. In 1916 a canny London publisher printed an anthology called Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men – with a portable lightweight edition for the boys at the Front – and a second volume followed in 1918. Rupert Brooke’s patriotic war poetry and tragic death – from a mosquito bite, rather than in action – set the tone and his 1914 and Other Poems became a runaway bestseller. The disenchanted work of poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Owen found few fans at the time.
After the Armistice in November 1918 most of the war poets stopped writing – nobody wanted to mention the war – and only Brooke continued to sell in any numbers, bringing comfort to a grieving nation. However, at the end of the 1920s controversial memoirs of life in the trenches including Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front began to appear. These books ate away at any remaining illusions about the conflict. The writers whose patriotism turned to horrified disgust in the face of that war’s horrors are the ones whose words touch us most deeply now.
‘Strange Meeting’ is a work of hallucinatory horror. The epic language – vain citadels, blood-clogged chariot wheels, the swiftness of the tigress – evokes the colossal scale of the tragedy. Owen forces the reader to contemplate the squandered value of every one of the millions of lives lost, on both sides. Owen met Sassoon while recovering from shell shock in Scotland – ‘Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were’. Both men longed to close the vast gap of understanding between the troops at the Front and those left behind in Blighty, and ‘Strange Meeting’ is part of that quest. It is an enormous poem, straining with emotion, but written with extraordinary control. The unsettling half-rhymes (swiftness/tigress) and pararhymes (hall/Hell; groined/groaned) are designed to disturb. The time was out of joint; easy rhyme and gentle rhythm would be a betrayal of Owen’s message. The poem is a howl – though it isn’t without beauty: ‘hunting wild’ was a phrase I liked so much, I remember doodling it on my exercise books.
I have edited five anthologies and, each time, I look for poetry that particularly moves me to include. The latest is called Best-Loved Poems, so I was on a mission to gather well-known, familiar verses that readers would remember their own first encounters with, rather than uncover more obscure gems. There are other poems by Owen that are perhaps better known – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ among them – but this was the one that had spoken so clearly to me I never forgot it. The experience of a sheltered suburban schoolgirl was light years away from the troops mired in mud on the Western Front but, like all great poetry, it seemed to take me there. Poetry is personal. It has been a privilege and a joy to edit volumes of it, and I can heartily recommend compiling your own anthology of favourites – physically and, if you can, in memory.
Reading brings so many rewards. It can parachute us into other lives, and whisk us off to exotic – or even imaginary – places. It can arouse powerful emotions and readers develop empathy through experiencing, second-hand, what the writer has endured or enjoyed. Poetry, with its inventive use of language, feels even more intimate than prose. Committing poems to heart helps us to absorb this nourishment even more fully, as we add the poet’s words to our mental furniture. In a world in which there is still so much war, ‘Strange Meeting’ is as essential to the canon as it was a hundred years ago. I no longer have a copy pinned to my wall . . . because I carry it in my memory.
Ana Sampson has edited five anthologies of poetry including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. . . and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School – the number three poetry bestseller of 2009 – and Poems to Learn by Heart. Her latest, Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse, has just been published by Michael O’Mara Books. Ana works as a freelance publicist and copywriter. She is delighted that her eldest daughter is now old enough to quote sections of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’, and that the youngest already shrieks when a verse in Room on the Broom gets skipped. She tweets as @Anabooks.