I wanted him back—not his poems
November 12, 2014 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Liam Hoare writes about warrior poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, their brief acquaintance and their influence on each other. "I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze."

More on Siegfried Sassoon.
More on Wilfred Owen.
War poems and poets, mostly WWI.
posted by Athanassiel (30 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Based on my own readings, every single English WW1 poet was hauntingly beautiful and sleeping with each other and died in a ditch at age 24.
posted by The Whelk at 5:47 PM on November 12, 2014 [28 favorites]


(to the point where at the gay geek event on holloween someone started up a What WW1 poet are you? Game. I wanted Sassoon but was denied.)
posted by The Whelk at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Well, Sassoon actually lived through not only WWI but WWII as well, so he'd've been the one to get if you had any interest in surviving and not dying a tragically romantic and pointless death.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:00 PM on November 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


"I would totally support and manage the Wilde estate ...sexilly."
posted by The Whelk at 6:03 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


There was a prety fantastic article about these guys and a few more of their contemporaries in a recent paper issue of Harper's. I hadn't ever really correllated WWI with poetry, and these guys seem to have filled an important space in the evolution of the medium. The fact that they wrote in the trenches is something else. The article drew a pretty sharp line between these guys and the patriots & war boosters who were churning out nationalistic verse at the beginning of the war. Funny to see it come up here in a different context just a couple days later.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:12 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


every single English WW1 poet was hauntingly beautiful and sleeping with each other and died in a ditch at age 24

OR you're Robert Graves and you do that for decades and decades afterwards.

(But Sassoon and Owen were brilliant and heart-rending poets, and WWI poetry is heartbreaking and well-worth getting into, if you haven't read any before.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:20 PM on November 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


This recently popped up in one of my social media streams: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
posted by immlass at 6:28 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Wilfred Owen haunts me, because he nearly made it. He was killed just one week before the Armistice. He wasn't the absolutely last man to die in the war, by any means but he was one of the last.

His poetry is amazing. I became familiar with it when I listened to Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which was first performed at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral after it was rebuilt from damage inflicted during WWII.

It's a monumental work, scored for an orchestra plus a chamber group plus an organ, along with an adult choir, a boy's choir, and a solo Soprano, soloTenor and solo Bass.

The choirs and the Soprano sing the words of the traditional Requiem Mass. Some sections are the adult choir, the Soprano, and the full orchestra. Some are the boy's choir along with the organ.

The Tenor and Bass, however, sing various poems written by Wilfred Owen accompanied by the chamber group, and the contrast between those sections is stirring and haunting.

Well worth your while if you get a chance to listen to it, although it is quite long and takes a significant emotional investment. I think if you're paying attention it's impossible not to be moved by it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:32 PM on November 12, 2014 [16 favorites]


you are not a "warrior poet" unless you are reciting while clad in a leather loin cloth, skin greased up with bear fat, wearing a necklace of teeth.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:49 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Reading the poetry of the WWI poets when I was in high school helped me understand why my mom often wept at war memorials.
posted by rtha at 6:50 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Valleys by Electrelane, with lyrics from Sassoon's poem "A Letter Home".
posted by vogon_poet at 6:55 PM on November 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


So sweet, and so sad. Thanks for posting!
posted by drinkyclown at 6:59 PM on November 12, 2014


I find this period fascinating because they were not gay, it was the last great welcoming of same gendered sexual behavior connected to an almost classical homosociality, and a rigid class structure--much of the recent history of WWI. As well, the sexy, gorgeous, and haunting fictional account of Brooke's The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst is a must read.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:08 PM on November 12, 2014


Ennui.bz, are you in the habit of dancing on the graves of your betters?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:13 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


(I meant much of the recent history of WWI talks about this, esp. Sarah Cole's book Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War , which makes much of the aesthetic argument, and marries it to a v. convincing argument about identity construciton in tight lucid prose. She doesn't spend as much time talking about Hausman, who I always thot was the lost connecting socket)
posted by PinkMoose at 7:18 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the great post, I love Wilfred Owen especially. Yesterday when I saw zarkonnen quoting him in another thread, I thought about making an FPP. You have beaten me to it and done a much better job than I could have.
posted by seasparrow at 7:19 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ernst Toller is another haunting voice from the war. No moon beam cloak or pointy hat with day-glo stars though.
posted by clavdivs at 8:14 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you really want to be depressed, listen to Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est while looking though Otto Dix' War Cycle prints
posted by mattoxic at 8:18 PM on November 12, 2014


Christ, what a monstrous thing WWI was. Over and over it shocks to imagine.

I've always been perfectly ignorant of this genre, and have just looked up some of the poetry mentioned in the Slate article and comments for the first time. These must be some of the most brutally beautiful poems ever composed. You know when you seem to feel a spark begin to flicker somewhere under your lungs? And you think, how could I have overlooked something so astonishing for so long? I've even been living with a copy of this fascinating illustrated anthology of WWI poetry for years, and have ever barely picked it up except to dust it off -- until now. Thank you very much for this post, Athanassiel.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:07 PM on November 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Surprised no one has mentioned Pat Barker's Regeneration Triology. Amazing stuff.
posted by Nevin at 9:36 PM on November 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


Related: Just released this year, an anthology of WWI poetry illustrated by contemporary comics artists - Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics (link to NPR review)
posted by cadge at 9:45 PM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


WWI poetry was some of the first poetry that really made an emotional impact on me as a teenager first exploring the form. The poets all seemed so alive and angry, their poems so visceral and urgent. There was no sense of remove or distance from them. It's powerful stuff.
posted by yasaman at 9:47 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wanted somehow to work in an amazing story I just learned about Robert Desnos, a French surrealist poet who joined the Résistance in WWII and was arrested, sent to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald and finally to Teresienstadt. Susan Griffin, in her essay To Love the Marigold, writes:
Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change. I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man's palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.

Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us? Robert Desnos, a surrealist poet, was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In the interest of realism, this story must be accompanied by another. Desnos did not survive the camps. He died of typhus a few days after the liberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and children who died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepest longings to live.
It's a different war, and I didn't want to distract from Sassoon and Owen and their war. And of course, it's at best a secondhand story and may never have actually happened. But somehow in my head, the stories go together, the brightness of creativity and brilliance in the darkness of war.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:50 PM on November 12, 2014 [12 favorites]


The Poetry by Heart initiative has a really nice collection of WWI poetry (both poets of the war, and poetry about the war) as well, for the interested reader, which you all should be. I took a seminar on literature of the First World War my freshman year in college, and it was one of my favorites out of my entire undergraduate career.
posted by drlith at 9:50 PM on November 12, 2014


This crucible formed what I think are the best writers of english prose I've encountered in my life, as well. Milne, Lewis, Graves, Tolkien.

I also wonder: is this the last time the sons of the rich actually went to war?
posted by Trochanter at 2:07 AM on November 13, 2014


these guys seem to have filled an important space in the evolution of the medium. The fact that they wrote in the trenches is something else. The article drew a pretty sharp line between these guys and the patriots & war boosters who were churning out nationalistic verse at the beginning of the war.
The interesting thing, though, is that "nationalistic verse" was what most people were actually reading for the duration of the war in Britain. Based on contemporary reception and circulation, the patriotic poems published in volumes like Songs and Sonnets for England in War Time (1914) have a stronger case to be regarded as the "poetry of the First World War" than Owen/Sassoon/Graves/Rosenberg, as counter-intuitive as that seems now. The story of how anti-war poetry came to be seen as the poetry of the First World War is a fascinating one, and Santanu Das (author of the excellent Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature) talks about it here. But these poems weren't really read by anyone (except other war poets) during the war. Sassoon had a few published poems in the Cambridge Magazine and I know that Rosenberg and the writer A. E. Tomlinson read them in the trenches, because they say so in their letters. But that was because they were connected to the war poets by friendship and professional writing networks. Going by the reading experiences recorded in contemporary letters and diaries, people (soldiers and civilians) outside these tiny circles were reading patriotic war poems by Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Rupert Brooke and anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury—and of course Romantic and Victorian poetry, which still had enormous readerships during this period. Canons are tricky things.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:08 AM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have loved Wilfred Owen's poetry since high school. It's trite, but I tend to quote Dulce et decorum est in a rage whenever I see those Space Age The Military Is A Real Life Videogame! ads on television. Which is often.

The old lie, people. The very, very, very, old lie.
posted by lydhre at 5:51 AM on November 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Surprised no one has mentioned Pat Barker's Regeneration Triology. Amazing stuff.
posted by Nevin at 12:36 AM on November 13 [4 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


There was quite a good movie version of Regeneration, with Jonathan Pryce as W.H.R. Rivers.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:51 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle, I performed the War Requiem about a year and a half ago, and it was an experience that changed me. I can't even think of the poem "Parable of the Old Man and the Young," which Britten so brilliantly set against the text "Quod olim Abrahae promissisti, et semini ejus," without my heart breaking.
posted by KathrynT at 9:12 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


With apologies if this has been posted already, Sassoon's full handwritten journals from WWI are available on the Cambridge Digital Library site. Pick a page at random .....
posted by Cocodrillo at 3:40 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


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