Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Poem for Armistice

Yes, I know I've been truly shocking when it comes to paying any attention to this blog. At least I haven't quite let a whole year go by without posting.

I'm currently teaching literature of the First World War and encountering again the pathos and the waste, the images of mud, shellfire, gas and human incompetence, the tones of touching patriotism and bitter cynicism, the familiar names of Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Rosenberg and Owen with which we are all so familiar. Today I finished reading Dominic Hibberd's biography of Owen. Yesterday I bought my red poppy and it meant more to me than it has for a long time. If you haven't read any WWI literature, here are some recommendations. Erich Maria Remarque: 'All Quiet on the Western Front'; Vera Brittain: 'Testament of Youth'; 'Scars Upon my Heart', an anthology giving the female perspective on the war, edited by my late friend Catherine Reilly. And then there are the modern takes on the subject: Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy, for example. I must get round to reading Sebastian Faulks' 'Birdsong'. I'm also looking forward to reading the biography of the last veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, who's 110 years old: 'The Last Fighting Tommy'.

There's only so much of this material you can read at a time because it is so moving, so piognant, so dispiriting. After all, it's not as if we seem to have learned very much from it. However, I do believe that we all should read and learn and remember what happened. My teenage nephew went on a tour of WWI battlefields last year and it had a tremendous effect on him. On the BBC news website today is an article about the battlefields as they now lie, with the familiar images of trench lines and craters scarcely blurred by the passage of ninety years, of the memorials and lines of white lozenges marking the graves of the fallen, of silent woods.

Everything I write is like a cliche. For Armistice I'm going to post a poem - and it may not be one you've come across before. It's not Owen with his Anthems and old lies, it's not Sassoon with his genial killer-General, it's not Brooke with his patriotic fervour for of old England. It's A.E. Housman. I love this poem by its utterly moving understated economy and the simplicity of its language:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

What is PoemRelish about?

'Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.'

'So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea'

'I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child'

'Ah Tam! ah Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'!
In hell they'll roast thee, like a herrin'!'

When I was a child I was beset by severe asthma and spent many days off school and many nights just fighting for breath. Books were my refuge. My mother would not only buy me them and bring them from the library, but she would sit at the end of my bed and read me poetry. The excerpts above I love, not just for themselves, but for my memories of how she would recite those lines and then look at me and say 'Isn't that lovely?'

PoemRelish is where I want to share my favourite poems with you. For twenty five years I've taught English Literature and more and more I'm frustrated by the whole business of teaching to a syllabus and an increasingly jargon-ridden and limiting format. I have to teach in a certain way and mark essays according to ghastly 'Assessment Objectives'. Here's an example of the soul-destroying language of exam boards: 'AO3 - show detailed understanding of the ways in which writers' choices of form, structure and language shape meanings.' The dead hand of box-ticking A level teaching lies on 'candidates' who 'are assessed primarily not on how well they know the texts [!], but on how they use this knowledge to demonstrate a grasp of the skills, concepts and contexts set out in the Assessment Objectives'. As a teacher, I've always seen my role as one where I say to a student: 'Look at this, it's amazing - and this is why, this is how it works, this is why it was written the way it was in the time in which that writer lived, this is the context, but, most importantly - these are the words, these are the words that writer put on the page, and they're what come first. Take the time to understand them, make the effort to appreciate them. Don't dismiss them out of hand as old-fashioned or irrelevant. That writer had the same fears, needs, loves and longings as you have.'

As a teacher and a lover of words, all I really want to say is 'Look at this! Listen to this! Isn't it brilliant? Do you want to know how the writer made it so brilliant?' So as and when the spirit moves me, I going to post up poems and however much commentary I want to add, in the hope that you'll share my pleasure in them. Of necessity, because of copyright, these will be old poems - but I think that's a good thing. Human nature is human nature, whatever the century, and poetry is, as Pope said, 'What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.' Along the way, you'll see where my tastes lie and hopefully you'll rediscover old favourites and find new and unfamiliar poems that will have something to say to you and which may resonate in your mind long after you've read them. If you want to take this process further, take a look at the books I've listed which also enthusiastically reveal the techniques and methods poets use, in such a way that your appreciation will be all the more magnified.

Poetry is so often seen as precious, self-indulgent, preening and intellectual. It doesn't have to be that way. Modern poets manage to communicate message and meaning in a way that's relevant to modern audiences, and some, like Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage, succeed in revivifying the oldest of poems, like 'Beowulf' and 'Gawain and the Green Knight', preserving the spirit of the original while bringing it to a new generation.

What I'll try to avoid, however, is the distancing effect of over-intellectual analysis, of jargon that alienates and gets in the way of a direct appreciation of the original text. I want you to read the poem itself - that's what matters most - and if what I have to say on it gives 'added value' to what you read, my job is done. Sometimes I'll just post the poem and say nothing. If you don't like a selection, that's fine - a poem either speaks to you or doesn't and that doesn't mean there's a fault on either side: just move on and pick another.

The best poems will carry their own added value into your lives and, as Knowledge said to Everyman: 'I will go with thee and be at thy guide/ In thy most need to go by thy side.'


[Poems referenced above; Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Kubla Khan; Alfred Lord Tennyson: Morte d'Arthur; John Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci; Robert Burns: Tam o'Shanter]