Friday, 21 June 2013

The Poetry of War

No shelter from the kniving wind
No solace from the driving snow.
No warmth, no comfort or bright cheer
In heav'n above or earth below
from 'Trench Winter. November 1916' by Noel Clark 

If you're following me on Twitter, you'll know that I have been using lines from this poem as part of my current Jigsaw Pieces ebook promo. Noel Clark is a character from the book and his short life as a soldier poet in the first world war makes up one of the story strands. In a few days, we will mark a hundred years since the outbreak of that so called 'War to End all Wars', and there must be very few UK people who don't have some link back to the 1914-18 conflict. My link comes via my late father-in-law, the wonderfully named Herbert Inkerman Hedges.

My father-in-law was the youngest of twelve brothers. The eleven older ones joined the East Riding of Yorkshire Regiment and marched away to fight the Hun. They were all killed at the Battle of the Somme. He recalls his parents telling him how the telegrams kept coming, day after day, until the news of the last son's death was delivered.

I'm always intrigued by the way wars throw up poets. It's not just World War One, though that cohort are probably the best known. Poetry was also being written during World War Two, on both sides, in the Iraq War and is still being produced in Afghanistan today. I think the proliferation of soldier poets during times of conflict is directly related to the situation they find themselves in.

Poetry demands an inner ordering, a precise selection of vocabulary and structure - it's the verbal equivalent of piecing together a complex jigsaw - the picture only emerges when all the pieces are correctly placed. The control needed to make a poem is in direct contrast to the chaos that soldiers live in daily. Poetry is a way of containing their world and making sense of the senseless. It is therefore both therapy, and a psychological outlet for feelings and emotions too horrific to be dealt with in 'normal' prose.

Those who have read Jigsaw Pieces know the story of Noel Clark an imaginary World War One poet who died tragically at the age of nineteen, is closely linked to another soldier from that time: Billy Donne. What you do not know is that Billy was an actual person. I came across him quite by accident in a small article in the Times in 1997. It was headlined 'A happy 100th for man with mysterious past'. I used his story almost to the letter: Billy Dunne (the correct spelling of his surname) couldn't speak, and drew pictures of battlefields, just like his fictional counterpart. He was placed in a mental hospital in 1923 for unknown reasons, and no family had ever claimed him. His story touched me so much that I felt I had to write about him. The link with Noel Clark is where fact and fiction elide.

During the upcoming commemorations for the centenary of World War One, we shall no doubt re-read many times the 'big' soldier poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. But actually I find just as much pity and pathos in the work of the women poets of that time, who did not share in the fighting at the Front, but shared in the suffering, and the changed lives. It is their sense of loss, their attempt to learn to survive survival, that makes their verse so poignant. One of the best is Margaret Postgate Cole. This is her poem Praematuri:
When men are old, and their friends die 
They are not sad,
Because their love is running slow, 
And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;
And they are happy with many memories,
And only a little while to be alone.

But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
- But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. 



41 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Hap. I have taught the ''war poets'' for so long...it was a privilege to write about them.

      Delete
  2. Lovely piece. Very moving poem.
    It's strange how the stories of "ordinary" people from the past take hold and demand to be retold. Had a vey similar experience with the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter in my book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think we are all interconnected in some way....

      Delete
  3. Isn't it wonderful when you come across a real character who just needs to have his or her story told. Love the way you've woven this into fiction - that dialogue between fact and fiction is such fun to write! The very best of luck with this, Carol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jo. Billy's story belonged to the 'you couldn't make it up if you tried' category. Had to be told.

      Delete
  4. Well that's certainly given me plenty to think about this weekend. Poor Billy Dunne! And what a beautiful, poignant poem. Jigsaw pieces will be going straight to my kindle now : )

    ReplyDelete
  5. Your father-in-law was the only one left of twelve sons. The rest all died in one dreadful battle. This brought a huge lump to my throat, Carol. I cannot even begin to imagine what his parents must have felt. Very, very moving. As you know, I have read Jigsaw Pieces and loved it. I found Billy Donne's character very touching and am even more touched to know he was a real person. Gulp stuff, especially the last poem. I think you are very right about poetry in war. I shall have to go away and ponder now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. when Hannah went on a school trip in Year 10, she found some of the names engraved on a memorial at the Mennen Gate.

      Delete
    2. That brings it home even more. I went to the war graves near Amiens and Arras a few years ago. So very sad. All those thousands of little white crosses, all the same. We found the names of several of my in-laws family too.

      Delete
  6. A worthy subject to write about. Cole certainly manages to depict the difference in grieving between the old and young in her poem. Right, off to feed the fish now...

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a beautiful and moving piece Carol. I find it particularly haunting to think of your father-in-law...( love his name!!! )...Herbert Inkerman Hedges, losing his siblings as he did and the unimaginable pain his parents must have suffered as the telegrams arrived one after the other bearing the news of such terrible agonies.
    Of all the posts I have read and enjoyed of yours, this one will sit in my head much longer than usual as my thoughts and ponderings explore the company of Noel Clark, Billy Dunne and the unforgettable..Herbert Inkerman Hedges.
    I'm going to make sure I set some time to one side to read Jigsaw Pieces..I've wanted to do so for some time but I've lacked the patience lately to read. Through this enthralling post you've encouraged me to do just that...excellent stuff Hedges!..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks hon. Thought I'd get my 2p in before the 'BIG' celebrations start and we're all swamped with WW1 sentimental stuff...

      Delete
  8. Very poignant, Carol. I always go to the local Rememberance Day Parade with our local Scoiuts and two things strike me. Firstly that the veterans are there to remember their friend who were in their twenties, or younger when they died. Secondly that each year there are fewer and fewer left to commemorate their fallen fellows. When they're all gone, will we still remember, or will the two World Wars just become references in a history book?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are now no more WW1 veterans alive.. Strange feeling.

      Delete
  9. Some of that is very sad. I am sorry. The book was brilliant. I especially liked the fat girl.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Wonderful piece, Carol - so moving and poignant. The agony your father-in-law's parents went through is quite literally unimaginable. My mother-in-law has been thinking about the composer George Butterworth who was a distant cousin and was killed at the Somme aged 31 in the full flood of creativity. The waste of life and talent was inconceivable. You're observation on how war and adversity throws up poets and artists is so true - perhaps that's some compensation. Congratulations again on such an incisive and thoughtful piece of writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Peter. He was very old and frail when I knew him, but ghe always had an air of detachment and slight cynicism about the world ---I wonder whether that stemmed from his boyhood.

      Delete
    2. Many if not most combat veterans see the world cynically after their experiences. More importantly, we feel guilt. Guilt that we survived, while our friends did not.

      The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a brilliant exclamation point. I stand in front of it looking at a chiseled name, and remembering an 18 or 21 year old, who will forever remain that age in the memories of those who knew him. While I look and remember, I see an image of myself in the polished black granite, aging, and hoping I've lived life well enough to deserve the privilege that was given me.

      Delete
    3. Thanks Hap. I recall this war - I was a teenager at the time, and the horrific images...'survivor guilt' seems to be such a potent emotion..many of the WW1 survivors, though physically fine, were mentally and emotionally so shattered that it is a moot point as to whether they 'survived' You are a brave man, in very many ways,

      Delete
  11. I loved this post. I'm also excited to learn that your latest book takes WW I as its subject. Here in America, we learn very little about that period in history. I'm not sure whether this is a result of our own late entry into that conflict, or simply because it was overshadowed by the events of WW II. Either way, the lapse bothers me. WW I tore the USA apart. People who spoke out against it or criticized our country's involvement were jailed--often without trial. On a more personal level, my great-grandfather on my mother's side was gassed in France and never recovered. He left his Brooklyn, New York home a quiet, gentle soul and returned a broken man, prone to violent outbursts. In and out of the local psychiatric hospital, the only peace he found was in tending the ducks and geese that frequented the institution's small pond. Anyway, I wish you the best of luck with JIGSAW PIECES. I'm going to get myself a copy today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for this. I often wondered how much WW1 featured in American history. Interestingly,even though the Armistice was signed on 11th Nov, and due to come into force at 11 am, and while many British platoon commanders 'stood down' their men in anticipation and so as not to lose more lives, there are many stories of American forces fighting right up until the last second, and the 'we're here so we might as well get on with it' basis. Certainly, we would have lost, had the 'Dough Boys' not arrived in vast numbers.

      Delete
  12. Great post, Carol. At this distance in time there seems to be a tendency to think of 'The War' as something homogenous, a 'Thing That Happened'. Stories and poems such as you give us here make it a personal thing, and that's something we shouldn't forget - it wasn't armies fighting, it was Men. Dying. Fathers, brothers and lovers, real people.
    We sometimes seem to make history impersonal and about events, but, at base, it's all people.

    ReplyDelete
  13. A very moving post. It's fascinating how you used the life of Billy and wove it into the novel. But my mind keeps going back to your father-in-law's brothers. How did his parents continue to live their lives? How can we humans have done (and continue to do) such awful things to each other?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jane, Ros, thanks. When it touches your own family, it brings it home., I lost all my father's family in WW2..killd in a concentration camp. Prob this is why I am a pacifist.

      Delete
  14. Somthing very different from you this week Carol I will have to look up more of Margaret Cole's poams.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There were over 500 women war poets, rarely read. If you can get hold of 'Scars Upon My Heart' the book of their poetry, you will find much to enjoy.

      Delete
  15. Powerful poems. Your book was so emotional, Carol. A really good read.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This is a thought provoking post. I am not sure poetry enables us to order a chaotic world, perhaps it allows us to make sense of the past, of the experiences we have been through.
    Your story of your in-laws parents receiving telegram after telegram is heart breaking. How terrible that must have been.
    When I read the poem by Noel Clerk I did not realise you had written it, I assumed it was authentic-I like the line Kniving wind-very good. I wondered though if adding a second "in" to the last line would not make it scan better?
    In heav'n above or in earth below? Just an idea.
    There's much to reflect in what you have written.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Paul - see that's why you're a poet and I'm a novelist...you do scanning, I do plotting!

      Delete
  17. What a beautiful poem by the woman - I forget that they suffered too, usually in a life-long fashion. And you are right to say that we don't get much of their writing promoted. Perhaps 100 years on they'll begin to get the recognition they deserve.
    Great to get some insights into your writing as well - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  18. How can anyone survive after loosing 11 boys? She must have been made of strong stuff. It's even sadder to know that Billy's story was true. Am I write in saying that you wrote the poem you opened with that says its by Noel? I loved the part of your book with Billy in it even although it was sad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Anne. I know. Unbelievable. I wrote all the poetry in the book. First and last time I try to be a poet!!

      Delete
  19. A deeply touching article. World War 1 was undoubtedly horrific in the loss of innocent beings to the vile ego of a monstrous ruling body.

    ReplyDelete
  20. WW1 was such a terrible war for the young men at the Front and the poem Praematuri speaks eloquently of the suffering of those left behind. It's hard to imagine exactly how horrific it all was. Losing 12 sons must have been unbearable. Your in-laws would have dreaded the postman coming. How brave they were to survive such anguish and loss. I was touched by the letter at the end of Jigsaw. War is madness and you'd think by now we'd have found a better way to settle our differences, but not yet...

    ReplyDelete
  21. I have only recently started reading you posts. This one has touched me somewhat. Although I was not born until one year and one month before WW2 broke out, the picture my mum had of her brother us so much like my brother, I think I am just as close to my uncle, who also died in The Battle of The Somme. I had not even heard of your book, i am going to take a Kindle sample.

    ReplyDelete
  22. What a poignant poem. And a very moving post altogether. My parents were both born before WW1, my father was 9 when it broke out, but I never thought to ask how it affected them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. they may not have told you. Mine spoke rarely about the build up to WW2.

      Delete

So here's your chance! Talk to me. Comments will be visible after moderation.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.