Writers and war: reflecting or shaping our perceptions?

Saturday 25 October, 11.30 until 13.00, Hollingworth Suite, Rochdale Central Library, Number One Riverside, Smith Street, Rochdale, OL16 1XU UK Satellite Events 2014

Free but ticketed. Please book via Eventbrite.

Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. Whether schooled in the classics or not, this is the one line of Latin that most of us can probably recall from our school days and our introduction to war poetry through Wilfred Owen’s visceral and haunting lyrics. Next to Owen’s young soldiers bent double like old hags towing a gas-ravaged corpse we may have been asked to compare Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, read by the Dean of St Paul’s at Easter 1915. The poem’s gold-tinted, almost giddy, expostulation to the concealed dust in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England seems as jingoistic and sentimental as Owen’s lines are tormented and disillusioned.

It is the later poets of the First World War – notably Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – who set the timbre and tone for not just the poetry that came out of the trenches but for a genre of poetry, literature and art that deals with the subject of war. Following the trenches, gone is the sentimental glorification of sacrifice for country, replaced with the savagery and senselessness of war. If the First World War was ‘the war to end all wars’ First World War poetry is ‘the poetry to define all wars’.

But is this right? Should our perception and understanding of the great conflicts of the twentieth century and beyond be shaped by a handful of poets who came from a very particular social milieu and who had very particular experiences and perspectives? Recently the poet Ian McMillan has asked “It is easy to assume that the powerful words of this young man from Shropshire captured the true experience of the war. But is that assumption right? Or has our focus on poems like Owen’s distorted our view of the war?” McMillan points to a plethora of poetry written from the trenches which shared Brooke’s more jingoistic vision, sometimes expressed through explicit anti-German feeling, as well as to poets such as Padre Woodbine Willie who wrote about everyday concerns such as where the next rum ration was coming from. There are also female poets from the period who wrote about the war and its impact on them individually and on the society they lived in such as Charlotte Mew.

Have we relied too much on the force and feeling of war poets such as Owen to be the barometer of our understanding of the war? Does this do justice to either our political insight or the poetry written by those who experienced the war? Do we need to expand the canon of First World War poets to hear more voices and see more reflections and perspectives than we have? At the same time, how cautious should we be of demoting in importance some of the greatest, most moving poetry ever written?

And how should we approach poetry written about later wars, from 100 Poets Against the War to David Harsent’s Legion? Can poets give us insight into war that political analysis and social commentary cannot? Is all contemporary poetry about war protest poetry? If so, is this the most valid way of arguing against war? From the First World War on, does the emotional and lyrical force of poetry drown out the cool-headed, political, social and economic analysis needed to understand the causes and consequences of war? What is the role of the First World War poets and later poets in reflecting and shaping our understanding of wars?

Watch this debate:

Jonathan Ali
journalist, BBC Radio Manchester; author, Our Boys: the Great War in a Lancashire village

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake

John Greening
writer; editor, Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War

Dr Jane Potter
senior lecturer in publishing, Oxford Brookes University; author, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918

Rania Hafez
programme leader, MA Education, Greenwich University; fellow, The Muslim Institute

Produced by
Simon Belt IT consultant; coordinator, Manchester Salon

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