Sunday, October 30, 2011
'War poetry is as alive as it ever was'
When Theodore Knell left the army, 15 years ago, he brought back with him a certain amount of baggage. "No soldier will ever admit to having post-traumatic stress disorder," he says, "but trust me, what you do during your time in the army has a huge impact on your life afterwards. It couldn't not."
Knell turned to poetry. In "Loss", he writes: "Quietly we cry/ Not like children who have lost a favourite toy/ But as men/ Here to bury a brother, a warrior, and my best friend/ Who in the eyes of his mother/ Will always be just a boy."
"Loss" is one of many new war poems published by Ebury this month in Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets. The collection, which reflects on all aspects of duty from conflict to the complications of homecoming to remembrance, is notable for its lack of poetic ambiguity. Little here is dressed up in elliptical prose, and deliberately so.
Then there is Major Stewart Hall, injured in the line of duty. "Thirty-nine years of personal development stubbed out," he writes, in "Life With A Brain Injury". "No longer can I serve to lead/ Although I plead just to see again the person I grew to be."
The project is backed by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who has said that it is "humbling, allowing the voices of those whose lives have been changed by war to speak to us with the raw directness of feeling and experience".
Knell confirms that poetry is as popular among the troops as ever. "Most of us have read our Wilfred Owens, our Siegfried Sassoons," he says. "Not the more bloodthirsty poems, perhaps, but there are many that show the lighter side of the trenches. They help boost morale and camaraderie."
Reading and writing poetry allows the forces to display something they may otherwise rarely do.
"It's not that we're not allowed to show sensitivity," Knell says, "it's just the way we are trained. The environment is very macho and so the minute anybody reveals a softer side, someone will make fun of that. Army humour is an acquired taste."
Colonel Simon Marr MBE, has been in uniform for 28 years and is a veteran of Afghanistan and desk duty in Whitehall. As a recent graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, he has also written an award-winning dissertation on contemporary war poetry.
"It can often be seen as a dying form, given that we now live in a world of e-mail and blogging," he says, "but the evidence actually suggests the opposite, that poetry is as alive as it ever was. It is something we turn to in times of high emotion, and instinctively so, because you can express more in verse, and more succinctly, than in any other form."
Marr, who has several poems in "Heroes", writes, he says, "for the intellectual exercise of it". His are measured texts that manage to convey scorn and reprobation – over the bureaucracy of combat and the way it is reported back home – in a coolly understated fashion. "I like to comment on what I've seen, but I leave judgement to others," he says.
Whether these verses will stand the test of time, like their Great War counterparts, is not the concern of the book's editor, Captain John Jeffcock. "I'm more concerned with what other soldiers think of it than the poetry community," he says.
Knell, who will publish his own volume next year, says he would like the book to find its way into every soldier's pack; Marr believes this volume, and many like it, is part of our national heritage. "They have historical value, and are more powerful than any news item, or any film, on war ever could be," he says. "I hope they are read in 50 years' time."