Poetry By Heart Blog

Lost voices of the First World War

29th October 2020

In 2017 and 2018 Poetry By Heart collaborated with the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme to run three very special tours to France and Belgium. There we read and recited First World War poems in the places related to the poems and poets –  including lost, forgotten and neglected poets of the war too. We knew about these poets from Professor Connie Ruzich’s blog, Behind Their Lines, so we invited her to join us – and to help us to choose poems to read and recite. 

In this blogpost ahead of a commemoration taking place when our world is once again in turmoil, we talk to Connie Ruzich about her just-published anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: an anthology of lost voices. This anthology includes a wonderful selection of poems alongside Connie’s contextual explanations, in sections about ‘Soldiers’ Lives’, ‘Minds at War’, ‘Noncombatants’, ‘Making Sense of War, ‘Remembering the Dead’ and ‘Aftermath’. We’re busy adding some of these poems to the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase. Connie also shares her memories of the moments she especially remembers from those wonderful battlefield tours with Poetry By Heart students and teachers, when taking students on field trips was What We Did.

IPofFWW - Ruzich (3)

In International Poetry of the First World War you bring together ‘Lost voices’ from the period. Why do you think it’s so important to capture these lost voices – and how does this anthology expand our understanding of responses to the conflict and its creative legacies?

As the poems in my anthology demonstrate, there was no single representative experience of the Great War, nor was there a typical response to the conflict. And that is important, because poetry anthologies have long served as a crucial means of preserving and shaping literary, cultural, and social histories. Toni Morrison has written, “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.” The canon of First World War poetry started to be established around 1930, with a new impetus in schools from the 50th anniversary in 1964, and since that time, it has focused almost exclusively on a select number of British soldier poets who fought on the Western Front and wrote in protest of the war. In recent years, there have been increasingly numerous calls to expand the range of voices and perspectives of First World War poetry, but few modern anthologies have included a representative sample of poems written by women and noncombatants, and fewer still have included poems not originally written in English.

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is intended neither to supplant nor to challenge the value of previous anthologies, the poets, or their work, but rather to supplement the canonical poetry of the war and to be read alongside it.  Recovering the diverse body of war poems that were originally published and reading them with a deeper appreciation of their social, cultural, linguistic, and historic contexts can provide a richer understanding not only of war poetry, but of the war itself.

You have described the process of discovering these poems as “happy mudlarking”. Could you say a little more about how you approached this daunting task of assembling this collection?

Mudlarking is the activity of searching the muddy foreshore and banks of rivers for anything of value. I moved my search for lost literary treasure on to dry ground, discovering lost poems and voices in second-hand bookshops, historic society collections, libraries, and museum archives. Digital collections were also invaluable. Numerous poems included in the anthology were written by people who did not identify primarily as poets, but who felt the need to respond to the war and to shape meaning out of their experiences of patriotism, fear, trauma, and grief.

It was particularly rewarding to discover and recover women’s war writing from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, India, America, Australia, and Russia. Both patriarchal societies and the military establishment have frequently attempted to distance women from war. Cynthia Enloe discusses ways in which combat has been viewed as “society’s bastion of male identity,” arguing, “Women as women must be denied access to ‘the front’…. And yet, because women are in practice often exposed to frontline combat, the military has to constantly redefine ‘the front’ and ‘combat’ as wherever ‘women’ are not.”[i]  It is a myth that women did not experience the physical horror of the First World War:  French and Belgium women’s homes were overrun by invading armies, British women were killed in bombing raids, and Armenian women were massacred along with men and children. The first industrial world war challenged the concept of the home front as a safe zone that was separate from the war. British suffragist and pacifist Helena Swanwick wrote in 1915, “War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.”[ii] And though most women lacked first-hand experience of the battlefront, it is impossible to deny that women had first-hand experience of the war. In many women’s war poems, war has escaped its boundaries; women writers reach across border lines as they challenge conventional ideas about women’s distance from the war and seek to bridge the gap between themselves and other women’s experiences. American writer Amy Lowell in her poem “September, 1918” describes the effort that many must have felt as she describes her “endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.”

From your extensive anthology, are there any poems that are especially meaningful to you, or that you find yourself regularly returning to?

Many poems haunt me, particularly those that mourn the loss of youth and innocence, such as Scottish officer E.A. Mackintosh’s poem “In Memoriam,” written for a private he was unable to save;  G.B. Smith’s poem “Let Us Tell Quiet Stories of Kind Eyes,” which remembers Robert Gilson, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s friends and a member of Tolkien’s first fellowship; or Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’s “Regiments” and Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” both of which describe young recruits marching to their death, accompanied by celebration and cheers.

Other special poems are those that evoke memories of Poetry by Heart tours of the Western Front, poems that were powerfully read and shared by teachers and students: Hedd Wyn’s “War” read in both English and Welsh at Artillery Wood Cemetery (“Ballads of boys blow on the wind, / Their blood is mingled with the rain”), Anton Schnack’s “Standing To” read in both English and German at Langemark Cemetery (“I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness”), and René Arcos’ “The Dead” read in both English and French at the Ring of Remembrance (“The widows’ veils / In the wind / All blow the one way”).

Poetry by Heart tour Oct 2018

But perhaps my favorite poems are those with compelling back stories such as Tom Kettle’s “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God” (written shortly before his death), Clifford Dyment’s “The Son” (written for the father who was killed when Clifford Dyment was a young boy), or Gladys Cromwell’s “The Extra” (written by an American nurse volunteer who was overwhelmed by the trauma she witnessed in France and who took her own life).

This project’s work has been a rich adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding new and meaningful voices, histories, and poems in this collection. (When ordered directly from Bloomsbury’s website, the code GLR TW5 can be used for a 35% discount.)

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Connie Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. She is the editor of International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she runs the popular blog Behind Their Lines, which discusses poetry of the Great War. Her essay “Distanced, disembodied, and detached: Women’s poetry of the First World War” appears in An International Rediscovery of World War One: Distant Fronts (Routledge, 2020), and an essay on wartime language and identity will appear in Multilingual Environments in the Great War (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is a professor of English at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, and you can follow her on Twitter @wherrypilgrim.

 

 

[i] Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 15.

[ii] Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War” (London: Union of Democratic Control pamphlet, 1915), 1.

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The Fire Of Joy – Clive James on learning poetry

15th October 2020

Clive James’ last book The Fire of Joy  – written with the support of his artist daughter while he was dying – is a sparkling testimony to a life lived with the pulse of poetry running through it. The book embodies and bears witness to James’s deeply held beliefs about poetry, beliefs that relate strongly to the project of Poetry By Heart. In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley enjoys this new anthology of poems and explores what James has to say about getting a poem by heart and saying it aloud. 

FOJ

Poetry is primarily sound for James (or ‘noise’ as he puts it, with characteristically undercutting pretensions): “noise is the first and last thing poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compelling, it won’t continue to exist”, he opines.

This fundamental belief is what inspires the whole book, whose main purpose “is to provide ammunition that will satisfy the reader’s urge to get on his or her feet and declaim”. James is a little tongue-in-cheek in casting the urge to recite as ‘declamatory’, but he is deadly serious about the strength and importance of the impulse itself. “Even the most shy young people, in my experience, have this desire,” he argues, “although they might suppress it for fear of making clowns of themselves. With a poem, the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it.”

What makes poetry stay with you, though, is the way it also slides insidiously into your memory. Reflecting back on his life, James recognises that his “understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.”

The Fire of Joy, then, is a treasure house anthology of the poems that have stayed with James over a lifetime, the poems that have come to mean most to him. Each is accompanied by a personal, penetrating – and sometimes provocative (there is always a bit of the showman about Clive James)– commentary.

The central importance he ascribes to memorisation and performance will be familiar themes for those who visit the Poetry By Heart website regularly: but James manages to invest them with fresh impetus and perspective here. Right from the off, for instance, we are cued into the nuances of the most desirable way construe recitation by the phrasing of the subtitle. There are dozens of anthologies of poems to memorize with the words ‘by heart’ on the title page, but James’ version sports ‘Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud’. To ‘Get by Heart’ feels deliberately less earnest and institutional than the more standard phrasing, ‘Learn by Heart’; while to ‘Get’ also engages a range of subsidiary meanings; such as taking hold of something desirable; or understanding, as in the colloquial expression ‘I get it’. Even the injunction to ‘Say Aloud’ subtly marks its distance from the declamatory urge with which James (somewhat hyperbolically) introduced the topic. ‘Say aloud’ is less self-consciously histrionic, closer to ordinary speech than alternatives such as ‘declaim’, ‘perform’, or even ‘speak’.

After a brief introduction (interestingly, here James recalls his own school experiences of recitation, where he learned to associate poetry with freedom), James offers a page or so of advice for reading aloud which he calls ‘rules’. These are clearly sacred tenets for him, the distillation of his own experience and his lifelong attempt, not only to bring poetry alive, but to stay true to its essential form. A number of these nostrums are similar to the advice given on the Poetry By Heart website, though given distinctive Jamesian phrasing. “Go more slowly than you think you need to”, he begins, for instance; and later, with a slightly sardonic edge: “No amount of vocal beauty will compensate for the fact that you have no idea what the poem means. Figure it out before you start”. (One might add to this Jamesian credo that you often ‘figure it out’ at a deeper level in the process of getting a poem by heart, however).

But it is in the attention that he gives to line endings that James’ advice is most distinctive – indeed punctilious. One of his injunctions is simply to “[K]eep your voice up towards the end of the line”. This seems sensible in terms of not trailing off, but also recognises that line endings – especially where they rhyme – are designed to give subtly greater emphasis to the last word. More controversially, though, James provides a whole inventory of strict rules for administering pauses to line endings, at least in relation to regular stanzas. It is worth quoting the edicts in full here:

pause for the length of a comma at the end of the line to indicate that the line is turning over. If there is already a comma there, pause for the length of two commas. Pause also for two comma lengths at the end of any line ending with a semi-colon, colon or full stop. Pause for at least three comma lengths between stanzas. Don’t be afraid about the pauses losing you the audience. The impetus of the line will keep them listening, whereas a stumble from too much gabble will very soon make them wonder why they didn’t stay at home and watch television.

Teachers, and many experienced reciters, may wonder whether this antidote to ‘gabble’ risks being too doctrinaire, potentially inhibiting fluency and instinctive feel for the rhythms of verse amongst younger reciters who are finding their way into this ancient art for the first time. But these strict rules do provide an interesting topic for debate. And perhaps it is good to be this clear about baseline principles for recitation that cleave so closely to the formal structure of the poem, even if you decide to loosen and vary this practice? James doesn’t say how line endings in more open, free verse forms should be treated, but one suspects that he feels these should still generally be marked to a large degree consistently. Comments from Poetry By Heart users and any other interested parties would be very welcome!

I’ve finished this blogpost with a focus on some rather technical aspects of recitation. But I would heartily recommend James’ book on more general grounds – for its wit, wisdom and unbounded enthusiasm for the power of poetry to enrich our lives. Amongst other things, this is an exceptional anthology of poems.

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.  He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.

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