Kipling suffered from several maladies which disqualify him from the title "war poet". He was vastly popular, for one thing. Nothing wins a poet less favor than being straightforward and well-liked. For another, Kipling's poetry in the late 19th Century included many paeans to the common, ordinary soldier, and both apologia and sarcasm for the British Empire. He was not a fresh-faced boy who got his first taste of blood in battle and then extinguished. So Kipling was not a war poet--he merely wrote powerful poetry after losing his son in a war.
Rather, Rupert Brooke is in the mold of a "war poet". His sonnets, though, take a sentimental approach to war. We don't know how his war would have turned out. He did not see as much actual battle as did many. He died instead of blood poisoning from a neglected wound. Winston Churchill praised his poetry as patriotic. Of the dead he wrote:
"Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage".
The imagery of these poems border on the patriotic, unlike those of Isaac Rosenberg, who was not killed until 1918, and who wrote of the lice and the
look of the dead.
Wilfrid Owen's verse documents the horrors of war with vivid imagery. His own death a week before the war's end provides a sad "enhancement" to the poignancy of the poems. I count Owen among my favorite poets, but I wish to write tonight of a poet who lived through the war; indeed, the poet whose efforts gave wide exposure to
Siegfried Sassoon lived through the war that took so many of his friends and acquaintances. He lived until 1967, wrote prose and fiction, poetry and autobiography. Yet all his life he lived under the label "war poet".
The term "war poet" is a curious thing. It is both a tribute and an insult. Yeats famously excluded Owen from an anthology of the "great" poets, on the ground that his war poetry was not in some ways "real". I have always felt a reader's admiring connection with the poetry and prose of men and women who write about war in a human way, rather than merely recounting horrors. If the imagery of verse is set out in terms of witness, I can be drawn into an experience with the words. When Carolyn Forche discusses in "The Colonel" a sackful of severed ears in Central America, I am both horrified and yet drawn to the flame by the quiet "There is not other way to tell this" tone with which she approaches her task. She calls this a "poetry of witness", but it is more a visit to a tattoo parlor of imagery.
But what becomes of the witness who outlives the trauma, and must find a way to live again? During World War One, Sassoon's work came to symbolize the sarcastic, bitter rebellion against a war of global proportions in its senselessness. Sassoon won the Military Cross, but threw his medal into the Mersey River. He became an activist, declaring in a 1917 letter to an editor that "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it". Out of kindness, his superiors treated him as mentally unfit rather than subject to court martial. He again qualified for active duty, but survived the war with only a sniper's bullet, and later a shot to the head, and also a brother lost at Gallipoli.
Immediately after the war, Sassoon focused on getting Wilfrid Owen's verse published. He lived some fifty years after the war's end. He struggled with the social challenges inherent in becoming comfortable with his attraction to men in a homophobic age. He later married, and had a child, though the marriage ultimately foundered. Late in life, he converted to Roman Catholicism. But all these are details, bits of soap--the "All My Children" of the literary life.
Sassoon longed to be a "religious" or "spiritual" poet. Interestingly, he wrote a letter of protest to the Times when a reporter "broke" the story of his conversion after an "off the record" mention by Sassoon. The irony that the same newspaper which printed his letter decrying the needless slaughter in battle should also, decades later, bear the brunt of his disquiet over a revelation that he had joined an organized faith is not lost on his biographers.
But the problem of how one lives after the war is over beckons as an image nonetheless. It's all "well and good" to die in battle, and to become an icon for dissection and hero-worship. But what if one lives, after witnessing the horror? It's both an outrage and a redemption that so many great theologians of the last century remolded their faith amid the endless, senseless death in the trenches as chaplains to the World War One German army. Sometimes the horrors of violence generate great poetry, but sometimes the violence is so ineffable as to take away the words.
From 1975 through 1979 in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge government killed 1,700,000 people. Educated people were executed. Urban people were sent to "re-education" in the countryside, working as slave labor in agricultural camps. One would imagine that no poets survived this melee of death, but Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur, trained at Iowa's MFA program before the genocide, somehow survived his time in the rural killing fields. He understands the problem of writing to voice a genocide. So many voices are silenced. "As a poet," he says "I wish to express the oppressed feelings of the silent world (the world which cannot speak for itself)".
I wonder today how who will write the poetry of Rwanda; the poetry of Bahais tortured in Iran; and the poetry of children killed on both sides of the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians.
This business of war poetry is a sordid thing, really. One must be a witness to the horror, but how then does the horror cease? I am not enough of a poet to know. I think of people trapped in war-torn regions, men and women serving leaders who misguide them. It's so pithy to say someting easy about a world in which people blow up buildings with airplanes, or torture prisoners as an "interrogation" technique. I do not have any pat answers to all this. I am no longer a pacifist. I do not have a formula to bring instant peace.
I think we're all walking wounded sometimes, with sniper bullets we don't really feel, and battlefield-ending injuries we don't really sense. I can count on millions of fingers the victims of genocide during my lifetime. I can count on millions of fingers the victims of starvation during my lifetime. Even the smaller scale setbacks are so disheartening. In my country, in 2002, at least 12 out of every 1,000 kids was neglected, abused or sexually molested. We live in a time drenched in violence, and we're not even sure if the violence has increased, or merely the ways in which we notice and report it. Each new story is yet another war wound. Another grisly war wound, in need of cleaning. All stories, all statistics. 542,000 children in foster care--yet another story, yet another wound.
When I began this post I meant to write a nice ironic contrast between dead young men and a very light poet whom the war made into a very good one. I then wanted to tell the story about the fifty years after--finding a voice after the war has taken the notes away.
But as I sit in my comfortable tract home middle class ease, having never for once known a day of hunger or abuse, having never had to even register for a draft, I think I'll abstain from easy parellels. I'll think about servicepeople stationed in hostile places, and how much I wish them well. I'll think about children in difficult settings, of the dark stains upon genocidal killers, now free, and of rocket bombings which assasinate not only intended targets but "collateral children".
But tomorrow I'll get up and go to work, because that is what I do. I work wounded, among the wounded, and I don't even know I'm hit.