Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A wonderful if sobering event

Mud, Blood and Endless Poetry – Dr Jessica Meyer
House Event – Sunday 23 March

Richard Wilcocks writes:
It was revelatory: few in the audience in my front room knew much, if anything, about the poets who were the focus of  Jessica Meyer’s talk. Wilfred Owen made an appearance, but with the little-known, seldom-analysed The Chances, which was written at Craiglockhart and published posthumously in 1919 in Wheels. Written, as was so often the case, at a time when the literate officer classes tried to adopt the accents of the less-educated horny-handed sons of toil, in a nearly-accurate version of the dialect of working-class London, the poem deals with what was known as shell-shock:

‘E’s wounded, killed, and pris’ner, all the lot –
The ruddy lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad.

Jessica Meyer knows plenty about shell-shock. Her brilliant, well-researched article on the subject is in the recently-published Stories from the War Hospital (available  from in which she makes it clear that she links it with her ongoing research into masculinity in the war.

‘Woodbine Willie’, a padre who originated in Leeds (Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy‘s father was vicar of St Mary’s in Quarry Hill) preferred a similar dialect for To Stretcher Bearers, whose heroic activities are well-documented, incidentally, in Wounded by Emily Mayhew, our guest of last week. Kennedy’s Anglican Christian convictions are made apparent in the final lines of his vivid, dramatic poem:

‘Ere we are, now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!
Inasmuch as ye have done it
Ye have done it unto Me.

Ewart Alan Mackintosh (killed in action 21 November 1917 aged 24) wrote In Memoriam in something like his own voice, that of a humane, caring officer addressing a father:
Ewart Alan Mackintosh

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight –
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger (yes, there is a link - he was Pete Seeger’s uncle), who died as a member of the French Foreign Legion in the fighting around Verdun, is a poem well-known in the United States, but not here. Procreation, love and happiness is contrasted with death and destruction to great effect by a poet who knew what was surely coming to him:
Alan Seeger

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Ford Madox Ford has come back into fashion, arguably, because of Parade on television, but an excerpt from his Footsloggers, which deals with love of one’s land and our relationship with the State in wartime, was new to all except one in the room. Haunting memories of a particular place which come to an officer in the trenches (a filthy rat-infested ditch) are the subject of From Steyning to the Ring, by Lt. John Purvis, and Simon Armitage deals with the soldiers who survive in his 2008 poem The Not Dead:

We are the not dead.
Neither happy nor proud
with a bar-code of medals across the heart
nor laid in a box and draped with a flag,
we wander this no man’s land instead,
creatures of a different stripe – the awkward, unwanted, unlovable type –
haunted with fears and guilt,
wounded in spirit and mind.

So what shall we do with the not dead and all of his kind?

Simon Currie adds:
I thought you and Jessica Meyer provided a wonderful if sobering event. I read yesterday two of the poems to our Shakespeare-plus-poetry group at Harrogate theatre and the people were bowled over.

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