Stanza 2014: an enlightening examination of the poetry of war

Highlighted poets include Anton Schnack, Richard Aldington, DH Lawrence and Edward Thomas

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Stanza 2014: an enlightening examination of the poetry of war

David Constantine

Stanza, Scotland’s International Poetry festival, delivered a programme of stimulating events in 2014. As usual there was a wonderful mix of poets, with headliners including Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Louis de Bernieres and, visiting the festival for the first time, Paul Muldoon. The festival's twin themes – Words Under Fire and A Common Wealth of Poetry – allowed various ideas to be loosely tied together.

I was drawn to the events that focused on poetry from WWI. Many of the discussions and exhibitions were about writers and poets from that time as well as other conflicts, and I especially enjoyed discovering more about Vera Brittain, Wilfred Owen and the painter and poet David Jones in the Past and Present sessions, all of them writing about loss whether of a loved one, or the dislocation and burnt out lives of survivors.

Poet and translator David Constantine gave the Stanza lecture entitled 'The Great War, at Home and Abroad'. He bought together ideas and readings from both poets involved in the war and those who opposed it, such as DH Lawrence. Poetry and fiction’s nature, according to Constantine, is to be partial, 'to attend to the minute particulars' (William Blake). Poets and writers in wartime express what happens to people at the front or at home. Numbers and statistics, talk of the balance of power and the sweeping decisions of generals and politicians do not pay much regard for the soldier or the mother weeping for her son. German poet Anton Schnack, whose collection Tier Rang Gewaltig Mit Tier (translated as Beast Wrestled Violently with Beast) is worth seeking out, was highlighted by Constantine, as was the poetry of Alfred Lichtenstein and Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero, the latter published in 1930 and apparently one of the best novels about the Great War.

The verse of Thomas Hardy contains this distaste for war. His poem ‘Outside the Casement’ has the same consciousness of how life is changed and lives are shattered – he was an old man at the start of 1914 but he had lived through the Boer War, and he influenced many of the war poets. As Constantine described it, the office of poetry is different from the office of politics, where politicians act with the narrowest of consciousness in order to make sweeping decisions and speak in ‘newspaper language’, the vile jingoism that propels enlistment. Afterwards society has to move forward from the abomination of war by acknowledging it, and then setting about reconstructing and nurturing the returned soldiers and broken families. The tragedy is that this did not happen after WWI, as more horror piled on with the influenza epidemic and then the world depression. Better education and homes fit for heroes were postponed and the next war loomed on the horizon.

These reflections highlight Stanza is such a stimulating and interesting experience: I hadn’t thought about DH Lawrence for years and now I want to reread him, especially his anti-war novel Women in Love, and I'm keen to get hold of a copy of anything by Aldington. These men, one as a pacifist and the other wounded at the front, were changed and challenged by the war, and their consciousness expresses the experience of humanity down to the smallest particular. Through his poetry Edward Thomas speaks of a way of life that is changed forever; he does not write obviously of the front or of war, although 'In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)' is charged with his sense that everything is upset and out of sequence. The men who should have picked the forest flowers with their sweethearts are themselves picked and dead.

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