17 December 2015
A thought-provoking series of pictures of soldiers’ kit from 1066 to the present, photographed by Thom Atkinson. They were featured in the Daily Telegraph and show that, in terms of the accoutrements of war, relatively little has changed.
3 Mess tin | Bowl
Someone is chipping the back of your mind,
tin tin tin tin tin, chasing last drips of stew
round a cold vessel. You don’t know it’s you.
The men at Agincourt ate from wooden bowls
with pewter spoons – a softer ritual, though
their poison made some mad and others slow.
5 January 2015
The turning of the year always seems to offer me something of a shift in perspective, whether through release (from the stress / routine of work, from the old year’s possibilities), or the habitual excess / purge bipolarity of the darkest weeks, or the ritual withdrawal (into, or away from, close society) that I practice at this juncture.
Driving back from the sea a couple of days ago – a return from the broadscape of moor, sky and ocean to the quiet nearness of streets and lights – I realised both why my war project wasn’t really working, and why I’d persisted with it. I have worried over its scale and the complex structure imposed by the narrative of the Grail story (particularly as this is a baggy, disparate, dog-eared story stitched together from many others), while at the same time feeling that, through a few of its fragments, I was able to make some worthwhile poems.
For a long time, however, my concerns have conflated this structural complexity with a sense that the subject required it: that the vast, inchoate psychodrama of the First World War could only be realised in an epic form. Numbed by the scale of loss of the conflict, I have been trying to get to grips with the whole.
At a little distance, however, I can see that those parts of my project with which I have so far been most satisfied have been focused on individuals, and on moments of individuals’ lives; and though the testimony of those who experienced the war was very much of ‘one damn thing after another’, the demands of the project – one which neither the Grail story nor my grasp of events has been able sufficiently to supply – has been a narrative progression: a ‘making sense’, in some way, of a senseless experience.
It is natural, though illogical, to attempt to make sense of something senseless: and it is our instinct to do this in our own terms. Whether a person survives a war or not, it is that trajectory of survival or casualty that gives a person’s involvement in war meaning. Very, very few people affect the outcome of a war (and in some ways, the lie that took so many men to their deaths in 1914 was that they could); but there remains the fact of their involvement and the reality of their experience, as individuals. All war poetry testifies to the truth of this. To make any kind of sense of millions killing millions, we must observe the actions and feelings of this man, and that woman, and this child, and that father and brother.
10 September 2014
Over the last few years, as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has approached and the last survivors have died, we have heard some of their testimony. Too old and too sensible to mince words, they have affirmed, plainly and without regard for any political assumption or slant, the unqualifiable horror, waste and futility of war. Among the debate, the revisionism and the pomp, it has been these voices, carrying their messages directly from the trenches across the century, which have made the strongest claims on our moral reckoning.
Poets have responded. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Last Post’ draws on the language of Owen, Sassoon and others to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. Andrew Motion’s sequence ‘An Equal Voice’ gathers testimonies of those suffering from shell-shock into a series of ‘found poems’, seeking to elicit an authentic collaboration between writer and source.
In attempting to describe something of the fear experienced by a young soldier at the front – in my project, the naïve Melyas, who grew up wanting to be a Knight of the Round Table and discovered all too soon that in adventure lies peril – I made a poem from the testimony of one Sergeant Daniels, recorded in Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Arthur, 2003; 138-40):
He asked me how I felt with regard to God, and was I frightened? I said I was frightened, more than once. He asked me my age and I said I was sixteen, which was much too young to be out there. ‘Would you like me to pray, or would you like to pray with me?’ he then asked. I said I’d very much like to, and we knelt on the fire step – which was the step we stood on to fire at the Germans – and prayed there while the others in the traverse looked on.
How do you feel in regard to God,
he asked; and are you scared?
I said I was. He nodded
and looked at me kindly.
Would you like me to pray,
or would you like to pray with me?
I said I would. We knelt
on the fire-step, while others
in the traverse looked on.
We stood up when we had done
and the chaplain asked how old I was.
I said the truth: that I was sixteen.
27 March 2014
One of the interesting things about a long-term poetry project is that, as it takes you deeper into the subject, you become aware of an increasing range of incidental influences. When starting my preparations for this work, I went to what might be described as primary and secondary sources: Malory, Owen, Sassoon, David Jones; various testimonies and accounts; historical studies; painting, photography, film, drama. These were consciously sought out with a clear sense of purpose: to give me as comprehensive a sense of war – of That War – as possible. The inevitable outcome of this initial process was a certain anxiety of ability. Reading David Jones’ In Parenthesis, in particular, made me wonder whether what I was trying to do was, in some ways, fake: a whimsical, armchair depiction of a subject of which I have had no experience whatsoever.
This anxiety put a halt to the project for most of this winter. I shared the work with two other poets, seeking a response to the overall project. Quite rightly, they focused on the poems, the phrasing, the words – and brought me back into proximity with the felt subject of the work. I began to inhabit the writing: equally, when not writing, I began to carry its pulse around inside.
In this salient condition, the poet becomes more productive as the orbit of influence grows beyond the conscious and purposed ‘research’. All manner of experiences – lived, read, heard – become relevant and significant. I’ve found myself moving through my reading past and gleaning moods, images, stories, motifs – from John McGahern’s stories, Blake’s Songs, Lorca’s plays – which offer something to the current project. Adeline turns back from an imagined future in Dubliners; Cormac McCarthy’s lonely migrants cross rivers and flickering woods; Milton’s angels fall through the depths of Night. Books, bits of books, songs, poems, come to mind unbidden and rich.
Equally, I am finding that everyday, lived experience channels and refines approaches into the subject. Weather is an obvious correlative: bitter wind, or mist, or driving rain takes me to the trenches, the shelled towns, the exposed roads; warm sunshine offers another approach, a reminder of the ironies of Eliot and Thomas, that spring is as sharp a reminder of death and loss as winter. Then there’s the news: of distant tensions in Ukraine, Syria, Egypt; of local discord between the disenfranchised English and migrant peoples; of inhumanities and horrors in barracks, high streets, care homes. Conflict is everywhere: perhaps the First World War is becoming mythic, not because it fades, but because of its continuing emotional relevance and proximity to our own lives.
25 September 2013
In commenting previously on Launcelot’s courage, I seem to have been seduced by a propaganda common to the 15th century English court and to the British establishment of 1914. What we know of Malory in life – by turns loyal knight, rebel and criminal – would suggest that in writing Le Morte Darthur in his prison cell, he was either demonstrating his fealty (or pretending to); or that, having been on the losing, Lancastrian, side of the 15th century fight for English rule, he was advocating a return to a chivalry which he considered lost. Whichever it is, the principles he is advocating – loyalty, fellowship, courage, virtue – are central also to notions of Britishness (and Englishness, by implication) promoted by those advocating war in 1914 (and since).
The power of this is that is both predicated upon, and advocates, a sense of unity. It draws on basic emotional and psychological needs – belonging, identity, fellowship – while discouraging consideration about the many questions thrown up – i.e. Who belongs? How do we feel about those who don’t – or refuse to – belong? Malory’s project and WW1 propaganda, in order to promote this message, tend towards simplification. Malory’s achievement for many is that he is able to draw together disparate elements into a single unified ‘story’, thereby producing a work which moves away from a medieval to a modern narrative structure, focusing on individual identity. The official rhetoric of 1914 was similarly straightforward.
What I would like to articulate in my work is the effectiveness of this position; and how, being so effective, it is utterly treacherous. Malory – whether loyal or cynical – promotes the virtue of a quest for which the sought-for outcome is glorious death: only the failed return. While it might be stretching it to see a direct identification with WW1, the basic principle is the same – as Brooke in 1914, and Eliot in 1922, attest. And Malory, while he seems to be advocating the necessity of the quest, also acknowledges its destructive ramifications: for they shall dye many in the queste, as Arthur says.
20 August 2013
Trying to use the Grail story as a First World War narrative creates an immediate and obvious tension. The archetypal quest myth has the power to carry the emotional freight of the War; but this power might well overwhelm the project, resulting in a Grail story in 20th century costume, in much the same way that Malory’s gathering of myth and romance provided an entertainment for the 15th century English court. My intention in using the Grail story is to confer its power as a mythic, archetypal story of loss onto the subject of the First World War.
It seems to me that part of the challenge is in being able to transform the ‘Sankgreall’ into something which has emotional resonance in terms of the War. A large part of this, I think, is in drawing out the particular and personal from the heroic tropes of Malory’s work – while at the same time presenting these individual stories as part of ‘the human condition.’ So, for example, the arrival of Launcelot’s illegitimate son, Galahad, at Camelot, on the eve of the Knights’ departure on the Grail quest – adding to the already complex circumstances of Launcelot’s illicit relationship with Guinevere – can be configured effectively by focusing on its domestic drama: that of the well-regarded man about to do his duty for king and country, whose position, both social and personal, is threatened by the sudden appearance of his son (with his father’s looks but also youth on his side). Here is the emotion of the story – further heightened, perhaps, by the knowledge of at least those readers familiar with the Grail story, that the father will come back, the measure of his courage found wanting, while the son will not.
His going to war, now,
leaves a wound open.
He has a son – handsome
as him, beautiful
as some other woman.
July 22, 2013
At the opening of The Quest, the Grail appears, covered with whyght samyte. All the knights rejoice – above all, Gawain, the old champion, who stands up (replete as he is with metis and drynkes) and vows to seek out the Grail for a year and a day. A hundred and fifty knights follow his lead, the hall ringing out with their hearty fellowship.
Testosterone is flowing, clearly. Gawain has just failed the sword in the stone test and is no doubt feeling his age. A fine young man called Galahad has arrived at court (the sword came out like a knife from butter for him), arm in arm with his proud, sheepish father, Launcelot, Gawain’s Frenchie rival, to sit in the champion’s chair. And Gawain does tend to get carried away on such occasions, as the Green Knight would attest. But there is something deep and felt about this felyshyp, too: it has been forged through sweat and labour.
This combination of pride and community is the starting point for my poems. It offers some sense to the bewildered, haunted faces of those three soldiers returning from hell. It also underlies the stories and images of men – and boys – lining up outside recruiting halls in August 1914. My opening scene is of such a hall: I imagine a mining village in the Welsh Valleys, where kith- and kinship are deep and sure, one of their main men stepping forward:
First comes a blacksmith straight off his shift,
the trestle shaking as he writes his name;
behind him, a gathering line of men.
I woll make here a vow
4 July 13
This new page is effectively a notebook. Its intention is to put into view a project as it develops. Whether the project will be achieved, I have no idea; but hopefully it will be helped in some way by instilling some form of obligation (even if it is of my own choosing). I’ve found that having some kind of ‘contract’ is productive: and whether this elicits dialogue (about process or product) or not, the hope is that it will provide me with a space to reflect. I know this is nothing new, certainly for university creative writing students; the difference, maybe, is that rather than a tutor being first reader, it’ll be you (plural): Woolf’s ideal reader. The ‘contract’ should always be between the writer and the work: but too often, whether real or not, other elements – tutor, editor, agent (if you write novels), The Canon – get in the way. We can’t get rid of the last one, and shouldn’t: it’s the most helpful of them; but there are strategies to at least diminish the anxiety of others’ influence.
I wrote some months ago about writers’ block – specifically, about the apparent cause of this, which was that I felt a strong need to respond to the looming, centennial subject of the Great War; and that the subject was so vast, it was paralysing my creativity. I felt I had to tackle it, but couldn’t see a way in that wasn’t thoroughly trampled.
What I did have, apart from Thomas and Owen and Hardy and Rosenberg and Gurney, were the following:
– Some basic details about my great grandfather, Albert Brown, who died on The Somme in 1917 (about the same time as Edward Thomas; in the same area as Wilfred Owen);
– A picture, on the cover of a book called Forgotten Voices of the Great War. The book is full of personal accounts; but it was the cover, presumably hand-coloured, that got me. 3 soldiers walking down a road towards us, their faces blatantly expressing something known which we could never know;
– A vague sense that the Western Front had long been contested land, marked by villages other than Verdun, Passchendaele and Ypres: farmers turning fields round Crecy and Agincourt had long dug out older bones.
The first exerted a strong emotional pull; but perhaps my sense of personal identification with Albert, or some sense that his is one ‘straight’ story of so very many, left me unable to find a way forward with him.
Discounting Albert, then, and focusing on the two archetypes – the wounded men and the wasted land – I fairly quickly began to move towards an archetypal story: the quest for the grail. I went back to Malory’s version – and there were my 3 wounded men, returning unsuccessful from their quest: Gawain, Launcelot, Bors – the three soldiers who, despite their prowess, were unable to achieve the Sankgreall.
Three men travelling a ruined road,
each one clinging to the wreck of another:
they’ve walked all the way from the underworld
and will carry it in them forever.