Monday, 4 February 2019

Random thoughts on The Great War, Poetry and Poets by Stephen Cribari

With thanks to Stephen Cribari for sending me his latest thoughts on WW1 Poetry 

Peter Jackson’s IWM-commissioned film “They Shall Not Grow Old” is finding some unexpected audiences in the U.S.  Released as a one-day-only showing in 3D it has lingered in the theatres.  I noticed that Edmund Blunden, poet, professor, writer, included in Lucy’s volumes on the Wester Front, is identified as one of the narrators used as a voice-over in the film.

I think Blunden is one of the more dispassionate and therefore significant prose writers about his war experience (see, for example, his “Undertones of War” (U. Chicago Press 1928)), perhaps because he was a poet and a teacher.  Paul Fussell, in “The Great War and Modern Memory” (OUP 1975), quotes Blunden’s reflection on the Somme that “by the end of the day both sides had seen . . . neither race had won, or could win, the War.  The War had won, and would go on winning.”

Frederick Manning (Australian), also involved in the Somme, was a multi-volume published poet ‎who also wrote in prose about The War.  His much more personal and initially controversial (and therefore highly edited) "The Middle Parts of Fortune" (now available in an unexpurgated form), is stark, gritty, and compelling.  It’s a sort of "day in the life" type of book about the Western Front. Hemingway supposedly re-read it every year.

There are many other cross-discipline examples, such as Sassoon's multi-volume third-person autobiography and Graves’s popular and unabashedly fictionalized autobiography, and they make me wonder about that niche genre of prose accounts written by poets.

Many artists work in multiple media, but not all are equally significant in all those media.  Noël Coward was a playwright who painted and wrote poems, good paintings and good poems, but we do not think of him as a poet and painter.  And yet, there are painters and composers whom we have come to recognize as significant artists in both disciplines (Isaac Rosenberg; Ivor Gurney).  Somerset Maugham was a novelist and playwright, Thomas Hardy a novelist and poet.  Some poets were also artists in prose.  Perhaps because the War claimed so many of them, the survivors stand out.

Recently, I finished Mark Thompson's "The White War," about the Italian front.  There is a chapter (“Starlight from Violence”) on Italian poetry from the Front, a brief comparison of Italian with British poetry and an appreciation of how some poets use emotion to make an ideological point whereas others use ideology to get to the emotion. It struck me that Giuseppe Ungaretti (perhaps to become the most well known of the Italian poets who fought) was more like an Edward Thomas than a Sassoon or an Owen, in that the War for Ungaretti was, according to Thompson, “largely a backdrop in a drama about identity and endurance” and his poems “not ‘war’ poems but a ‘soldier’s’ poems.  In the Italian context, poetic self-absorption need not be an escape from the reality of war.  In Ungaretti’s case, it opens a private vista onto a wider truth.  For identity was at the heart of Italy’s war.”

I wrote that Ungaretti ‘became’ the most well known Italian poet out of the Great War, because Gabrielle D’Annunzio was the most well known before and during it.  I had little idea of his influence, perhaps because I never particularly liked his poetry.  Now I know why.  “D’Annunzio was a spectacular case of arrested emotional development, arguably a natural fascist,” writes Thompson.  “The otherness of other people – a puzzle that haunts modern thought and art – could not fascinate him because other people existed as objects of appetite or will, research opportunities in a quest to investigate the effects of denying himself nothing.” After quoting from one of his speeches following the Italian parliament’s vote for war, a speech in which D’Annunzio glorifies the “blood spurting from the veins of Italy,” Thompson writes “(t)he author of these psychotic remarks was a national hero.  Has any artist played a more baleful part in decisions that led to violence and suffering on the largest scale?”  And yet, “there is a sense in which he truly was – as he claimed – a mouthpiece of the ‘national will.’”

It raises the question: how did poetry influence The War, the people who fought in the war, how does it influence the people who survived or came after?  Does the poetry offer insight into The War or into the person writing the poem?  And what is the source of the poem?  Is it the thoughts and feelings of the poet moved by the circumstances in which the poet finds himself or herself?  Or is the poem primarily motivated by a political awareness?  That, I think, is the difference between an Ungaretti and a D’Annunzio, a Vera Brittain and a Newbolt (at least the Newbolt at the start of The War).  The former was a poet who found herself sin a difficult place at a trying time and is relating what she saw and heard because she felt deeply; the latter was essentially giving poetic expression to the always awkward issue of nationalism.

A final thought.  Perhaps Ungaretti did for Italian poetry what Frost did for American and Edward Thomas for English: they all used a more conversational tone (so Wordsworthian) to say nothing except what had to be said.  (And it shows (though Thompson does not linger here) how for all his modernism and innovation, how rooted in antiquity Ungaretti may have been.  2000 years earlier, the Roman poet Horace wrote nil mortale loquar (say nothing not immortal).)

Stephen J. Cribari, February 2019