Nurses’ Songs

November 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

A friend said recently how lucky he felt we were to be alive at a time when Seamus Heaney was writing.  We have all begun to take measure of a poet who, while he was alive, always working, always present, was in some ways contingent: part of the process; a contributor to the conversation.

Not that his death changes this, really.  His work will continue to be a part of those discussions about what poetry is and does.  The difference, now, is that the work stands: not as an edifice – it will continue to change its value and currency as we change and as poetry changes; but as a body of poems.  And knowing this allows us to return to the work with our familiarity of them undiminished by an expectation that there is more to come.

Heaney’s death was more of a shock to me than I had expected.  His poems – and his sharing of them – were a great gift: a well-spring of that life in poetry which deepens immeasurably our understanding of the world.  I can’t remember not knowing the squelch and slap, the frogs in the flax-dam, the smell of churning day.  They form a liturgy: a sustaining magic that for earlier generations would have been found in the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible; or in the whispered incantations of lullabies and nursery rhymes.

No Glory

November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

In trying to tackle the subject of the First World War in poetry, I’m finding that, despite clear political convictions about this, things become are becoming emotionally muddy. While I hope I would have had the courage to have conscientiously objected to any participation in the conflict, I can admit that, at best, I don’t know what my response would have been; in fact, given the pressures that were brought to bear on young men about their social and moral responsibility to sign up, I reckon I might well have gone.

Whether or not this would have been the case, I can certainly say that, from this distance, the grievous nature and outcome of that war are more readily evoked by contemplation of ‘the fallen’ than from the stories and testimonies of conscientious objectors. Reading David Jones’ In Parenthesis, his association of the casualties at the front with the Celtic legends of the ‘sleeping ones’ – Arthur and other heroes, lying beneath their mounds – and the inference that in them lies the salvation of the people, promotes a romanticism which goes against the vision of chaos, destruction and futility that he so successfully articulates.  The poems through which we encounter the First World War, however critical a stance they take, posit the centrality of the fallen soldier: and whether we see this in terms of noble sacrifice or politically-driven slaughter, death in battle takes top spot in our culture’s emotional hierarchy of need – with survivors below them (whatever horrors they consequently live with), and refusers very much at the bottom.

Our responses today are much more equivocal: yet the dominant narrative, while perhaps broader (the families left behind, the silences of those returning, the change in attitudes), still tends to avoid consideration of the effects of war on those that refused to fight.  The same seems to hold for poetry.  In the run-up to 2014, the allure of battle – whether at Ilium or on the Western Front – is clear.  We weigh the pity of war with our dead.

 

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