20 January 2017
Now nearing the end of the first draft and see that I started this post 4 years ago. Strange to reflect on the process and the interrelationship of inner and outer narratives, present and past. At this stage I’d make the following observations:
1. The life of the poetry has emerged through an extended period of commemoration in all its contested manifestations (personal honouring vs national and often nationalistic memorial; poppies, red and white; revisiting vs revisionism)…
2. And through the most significant period of political change in my lifetime (EU savaging of Greece, Migrant Crisis, Brexit, Trump)…
3. Leading to a massive broadening out of political and social possibility, along a continuum from radical left progressivism to fascism…
4. And the re-emergence of cold war anxiety.
The poetry has undoubtedly been affected. Alpha men – the shouters and pointers, the quiet smilers, the crazies – strut the media stages; Aleppo crumples; the homeless stream across winter mountains, wash up on shores. At the outset of this project I worried that I couldn’t connect with the experience of war. Now, waiting for the curtain to rise at the Lincoln Monument, I feel it intensely. As Haig almost said:
Backs to the wall.
Every man will stand and fight and fall.
8 March 2016
I travelled last month with my father to that part of northern France where his grandfather, after only a few weeks of engagement at the Western Front, was killed. At the end of February 1917, as the British Army finally began to advance across the Somme landscape in which they had been fixed for much of the war, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, his company was shelled. Albert Brown was killed and his body never recovered. Another ordinary working-class man, leaving behind him in Sheffield a short life, a wife and children. The poet in me observed that Wilfred Owen had, from a few weeks’ and fields’ distance, written that he had ‘been in seventh hell’ in ‘this awful post.’
There was no grave to visit. We stopped the car and trudged along a track between open fields in a raw wind, to stop at a pylon. As far as we could determine, this was the site of a machine gun emplacement; a thousand yards further east, a stand of trees marked the location of a farm. These were the two objectives for 26 February 1917. I took a few photographs of this nondescript place – very like the landscape I’d grown up around – and we hurried back to the warmth of the car.
6 March 2015
Poetry about, or derived from, events in the past is translation work: the intention is to engage a contemporary audience using words and structures which the current ear will respond to. However, the work needs to provide a route back: the listener / reader needs to be able to hear voices which are at the same time intelligible to them and identifiable as historic and authentic.
The layered context of this project makes translation challenging. It is about the First World War, but also ‘about’ the Grail story (which can be located in the 15th century world of its ‘compiler’, Malory – particularly in respect to his personal experience of war – and at the same time in the earlier worlds of Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth and all those chroniclers and romancers who contributed to its development). The language of the early twentieth century is close enough to ours: slightly more formal in diction and structure, perhaps. My approach to the 15th century source, rather than attempting to render it in contemporary language, has been to seek to assimilate it for modern reception by bedding it among the twentieth century voices.
So much for words. There are other challenges, however. The physical world – and our relation to it – has also altered: between 1914 and now, significantly (for the vast majority of those heading for the Western Front, this was their first trip abroad); between the medieval period and the present, massively – and particularly in relation to travel.
We recognise, for example, the cultural and linguistic identities of Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, each a part, effectively, of a Celtic archipelago. However, we tend to consider the persistence of their cultural identity into the medieval period and beyond as a result of geographical isolation preserving each community in a sort of cultural aspic; what is not sufficiently considered is the fact that, up until the 18th century, these were seafaring communities. Cornwall really was closer to Brittany – and Ireland and Wales – than London.
In layering the medieval world with that of 1914, it is important to remember this. The soldiers who fought in the trenches were thrown together at a time when communities were somewhat more separate from each other than they are now (and voices would have been more richly accented); but when Malory went to fight in France, Calais was an English port (and the language of the English court was French); while Cornwall, to all intents and purposes, was a land beyond the mountains: and the stories he gathered (French, Cornish, Welsh, Breton) to make an English myth – told of a world more different in turn from his own than the early twentieth century is from ours.