THE First World War still resonates for its horrors…and for its poetry. But do the works of writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke – widely taught in schools – reflect the true poetic legacy of the trenches?
University of Huddersfield senior lecturer Dr David Rudrum aims to increase awareness of the more unconventional literary voices that emerged from the 1914-18 conflict.
He also seeks to dispel the notion that WWI poetry was a particularly British phenomenon. And being half German – with great-grandparents who probably faced each other in the trenches – Dr Rudrum has a special perspective.
“All the various armies of all the powers on both sides produced a tremendous amount of poetry,” said Dr Rudrum, who speculates that the very nature of the war might have lent itself to poetic expression, with much of the verse penned by troops being surprisingly light-hearted.
“Many soldiers wrote to cheer themselves up. Maybe they thought that poetry was somehow more beautiful than prose and that as they were surrounded by so much ugliness and hellishness, it was a way of bringing something back into their lives.
“But it was the kind of war where you stayed put for considerable periods. A lot of the down time that people had was long enough to write a poem, but not long enough to write a novel!”
Avante garde writers on the Front
The poets that Dr Rudrum particularly wants to restore to wider notice are those who adopted experimental literary approaches. His wider perspective and his linguistic skills mean that he has developed a fascination for poets such as the Austrian Georg Trakl, whose experiences on the Eastern Front led him to commit suicide.
“Also, most of the war poetry that we teach in schools is very conventional and rather predictable. It rhymes and it scans,” said Dr Rudrum.
“Something like Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier is in the traditional form of a sonnet, which we associate with love poetry, and effectively it is a love poem to the countryside of England. But the early 20th Century was also the period that we refer to as modernism. All the rules of traditional poetry were being broken. The avante garde writers who went to the Front wrote hectic, frenetic poetry that captured the rhythm and the chaos of the war.”
Welsh poet David Jones’s In Parenthesis
A poet who exemplifies this is the Welsh writer David Jones whose lengthy work In Parenthesis has been a source of fascination for Dr Rudrum. “It really breaks the rules as to what poetry can and should do.”
During 2014, Dr Rudrum will deliver lectures that revolve around In Parenthesis – with Huddersfield’s Tolson Museum – in Armistice week – and the Royal Armouries in Leeds being among the venues. The latter might enable Dr Rudrum to brandish a British army Lee Enfield rifle – for illustrative purposes.
“David Jones often describes in intense detail the Lee Enfield, and not just as a weapon of war. It is used in his poem as everything from a walking stick to a crutch. He talks about cleaning it and oiling it as daily rituals.”
In Parenthesis was written in the 1930s, reflecting on the poet’s service with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and it earned a high literary reputation, with T.S. Elliot being among its admirers. But for general readers, it has fallen from view.
“What makes In Parenthesis unconventional and therefore potentially less accessible is that it is always jumping in and out of verse and prose. And one of the reasons it is not as widely taught it might be its length – about the same as a short novel. People like to teach war poems that you can photocopy on one side of A4!
“In the poem, Jones regards the whole history of humanity as one big war, with The Great War as basically just the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that goes back to the ancient world,” said Dr Rudrum.
However, there is a focus on the Battle of the Somme and the part played by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which, by coincidence, was also the regiment joined by several members of the staff of Huddersfield Technical College, precursor institution to the University of Huddersfield.
In addition to his work on poets who served in the conflict, Dr Rudrum is also collaborating with The Elmet Trust on research which seeks to show how the poetry of Ted Hughes was influenced by his father’s harrowing army experiences during World War One.
“When we talk about war poets we are talking about people who fought, but they aren’t the only people who are affected by war. For Ted Hughes, to grow up as a young man affected by a father who had such a terrible time cannot help but have had a powerful effect.”
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