Category Archives: poetry

Rereading Women’s Poetry from The Great War

The commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the First World War have passed their second Christmas. Now the centenary events have become muted, part of the background. While male war poets have been justly celebrated, women’s poetry has been heard much less frequently. Indeed you could argue that ‘war poet’ means a soldier, a man.

115 Ipplepen poppies

The Great War impacted upon everybody. Women had to deal with the absence and possible death of their menfolk. At home the suffragette campaign was suspended and women found they were required to take over ‘men’s work’, including in munitions factories. Many did heroic medical work, including at the front. They managed rationing and the other restrictions on their lives. One of the most significant effects were the loss of nearly a million men from the population. I still find myself moved by the implications of these lines by Margaret Postgate Cole from Praematuri:

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.

Here is the slightly revised post I first published on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

Women’s Poetry and The Great War

How do we remember the First World War? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication.

115 W Owen

The cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice. This is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An example is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

All the dreariness of war

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains the neglect – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

234 Scars cover

I know of only one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain, To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while his wind blow out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (100)

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate. (2)

Women paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancées, wives, daughters …

Surviving Survival

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice a woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of surplus women:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (22)

A woman might suffer considerable hardship to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

Lest we forget

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be more poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us also remember the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we do not forget.

137 LofGG coverAmong the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose books are still available, we can name five:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981.

Related

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

Women in War – Scars upon my Heart from DoveGreyReader Scribbles’ blog in November 2012.

Novels by Winifred Holby reviewed on this blog: The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding.

Over to you

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

To receive emails about future posts, please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, poetry

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

It doesn’t happen very often. I opened the book to just get a flavour and I found myself reading the final page about an hour later. It’s a short book at just over 100 pages. There are lots of white spaces, giving the appearance of a poetry book. Grief is the thing with feathers is one of most powerful books I have read this year. I have revisited it several times since that first reading.

222 Grief cover

The Story

A father and twin sons are grieving at the sudden death of the wife/mother. Crow arrives to look after them all and stays until he is no longer needed. The text is presented in the voices of Dad, Crow and Boys. There is no narrative, although the progress of Dad’s book about Ted Hughes marks some changes over time. Grief must be endured. You don’t need time and you don’t move on. You endure. It’s hard, lonely and very, very raw. That is what Grief is the thing with feathers communicates.

The style

Max Porter’s style is a mixture of poetry and prose in stream of consciousness. Poetry runs through the novella, from the appearance, title and epigram. The epigram by Emily Dickinson has been altered by Crow: That love is all there is, … Crow is a great invention.

222 epigram

And the poetic feel runs through the subject matter, Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Crow’s passages, to the final two sentences. Father and sons are at the sea to scatter the ashes.

And the boys were behind me, a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted

I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU

and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

The novella is in three parts, A Lick of Night, Defence of the Nest and Permission to Leave. And as the whole text is in the voices of those three, the reader is kept very near in the closed world of grief.

Crow

Crow enters, his smell arriving before Dad sees him.

There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather and yeast. (6)

Crow is amusing, perceptive, arrogant, caring and violent. He tells the father that he wont leave until he is not needed any more.

It could be argued that Crow is Ted Hughes’s creation as the novella acknowledges.

‘Thank you Crow.’

‘All part of the service.’

‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

‘You’re welcome. But please remember that I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

‘Lucky me.’ (70)

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Crow is a mysterious delight. He writes notes for Dad for his own literary memoir; he puts him straight about ghosts, sets comprehension questions for the reader (a brilliant pastiche of those book club questions you find in the back of novels), and is poetic in his description of the triptych of death (Father, Mother, Twins). Crow, I think I should meet you in Ted Hughes poetry, Crow, also published by Faber & Faber. Ted Hughes knew a thing or two about wives who die.

222 Crow Hughes cover

Dad

The bereaved husband carries the story, but his contributions are labelled Dad and thus his contribution is located in his relationship to his sons. At times he can’t cope and Crow steps in to babysit, but mostly he is there for them.

Dad shows us the full range of his grief: the incompetence of the days following her death, his memories, the continual presence of the absent one, physical missing as well as the practical woman.

The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet. (50)

Dad allows the reader to both see and empathise with his grief, while he is also able to reflect upon it.

There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him. (22)

Boys

Sometimes the boys speak independently, but are not differentiated. They are gentle, kind, fun, sad, amusing, interested in death and imaginary crows and all the things young boys should be interested in. They accept the change to their father, miss their mother and occasionally their father.

Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He is speaking very slowly, very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas. He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He says Induced . . . he coughs and spits and tries again. INDUCES. He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE.

Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune. (23)

The boys add some lightness to the novella, but lightness true to their youthfulness. And they also represent continuing life and change and will live with the death in a way that their father never can. And they will carry their father after Crow has gone as we learn from those final words:

… and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)

Recommended

222 crow rspbIt’s a beautiful book, the design (cover, paper and arrangements of words on the page). I love to have book like this on my shelves, even if I am not sure whether to place it among poetry, philosophy, psychology or fiction.

I was so affected by this book that I was relieved to read that Max Porter lives with his wife and children in London.

Shortlisted for Goldsmiths Prize 2015 and Guardian First Book Award 2015.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

Related links:

The review by Kirsty Gunn in The Guardian in September 2015 alerted me to this book.

Max Porter wrote about writing Grief in the Guardian in November 2015. Of Crow he says ‘I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write him until I did.’

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews

Poetry in Fiction

Does poetry have a place in novels? Far from wandering lonely as a cloud, poetry is a great connector, especially among those who have memorised poems. Its concentration works well to make reference to complex shared ideas. Novelists use poetry to heighten a moment, to say something about the characters and to point up a moment in the novel. They use it as they might imagery or flashback. It takes skill. Here are three examples.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I imagine that the Stephens household quoted poetry with their early morning muffins and throughout the day, and that the Bloomsbury Group prided itself on its knowledge of modern poetry.

209 To_the_LighthouseMrs Ramsay is reading to James, her youngest child, who is disappointed that they will not be going to the lighthouse. She reads the story of the Fisherman and his Wife.

‘And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

“Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Isabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want then?”said the Flounder.’ (65-66)

With this snippet of verse from a children’s story Mrs Ramsay’s resistance to her overbearing husband is revealed. Mr Ramsay has declared the trip to the lighthouse will not take place. It has been established that he is prone to quote a single line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade

Someone had blundered.

The line sets up resonances of war and campaigns commanded by blunderers. The poem is about the massacre of British troops in the Crimea war, mistakenly sent into the Valley of Death. Mr Ramsay appears to be at war with everything, including the elements and ready to blunder on himself unaware of the currents beneath the surface within his family. War will appear again, scything through the family in the passage called Time Passes.

Selecting these two points in the novel I see that flounder and blunder chime.

Later that evening the family and guests are seated at supper. Virginia Woolf writes the scene through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes.

Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice:

Come out and climb the garden path,

Luriana Lurilee

The China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee.

The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be

Are full of trees and changing leaves.

She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside herself, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she had said different things. She knew without looking round that everyone at the table was listening to the voice saying:

I wonder if it seems to you

Luriana Lurilee.

with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had as if this were, at last the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.

But the voice stopped. She looked round. She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and, holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting:

To see the King go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea

With their palm leaves and cedar

Luriana Lurilee,

and as she passed him he turned slightly towards her repeating the last words

Luriana, Lurilee.

and bowed to her as if he did her homage. (127-8)

This is beautiful passage. Virginia Woolf wants us to hear the lines being quoted, hear ‘the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy’. The repetition of Luriana Lurilee adds to the intensity.

I notice her observation about the effects of poetry read aloud, how the words ‘were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all’. And how she was responding to the poem as if the words were hers. And when Augustus Carmichael takes over the recitation she reminds us of the pleasures of sharing poetry when it is read aloud.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Perhaps like me you thought that this poem, called A Garden Song, was well known at the time when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. The novel was published in 1927 but the complete poem was not published until 1945, when it was included in an anthology by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. It was a poem known within the Bloomsbury group it seems.

A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee) is by Charles Isaac Elton. You can find the complete text here. You can also finds lines from William Browne, William Cowper and William Shakespeare in To the Lighthouse.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

209 Crossing to S cover This is a beautiful American story about two couples who were friends for decades. The men are both connected to writing, one in the University the other in publishing. Larry Morgan narrates, and he is professor of English Literature and a novelist and frequently quotes lines of poetry. At the start of the novel five lines by Robert Frost appear, the source of the novel’s title.

I could give all to Time except – except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.

As with Virginia Woolf one gets the impression that poetry for Wallace Stegner and his circle was always present. On page 7 we get four lines of Swinburne, followed by Easter Hymn by AE Housman (p42-3). And poetry appears every now and again throughout the novel, along with money problems, tenure issues, marriage, children, arguments, disability, illness, holidays and the rest of life: WB Yeats, Bliss Carman, and several quotations I don’t recognise. Poetry is as everyday as friendship.

I was introduced to this novel by the enthusiasm with which BookSnob referred to it on her blog.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey greyMrs Palfrey is also revealed to have poetry as part of her life. Struggling to keep up her spirits she is going for a short walk.

Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought. Every day for years she had memorised a few lines of poetry to train her mind against threatening forgetfulness. She now determined to train her limbs against similar uselessness.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.

Her lips moved gently as she tried to remember her lines for the day. By tomorrow she would have forgotten them. Only the poetry she had learned by heart as a girl remained.

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

She was stuck after the third line. That was the way it went with her these days. (108)

Unlike the first two novels I have considered where poetry connects people, Mrs Palfrey’s failing memory intensifies her separation from the world as she ages.

The poem is by Wordsworth. The first line is the title and the full text can be found here. The unrecovered fourth line is: We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! It is a poem about being out of kilter with the world. A nice touch by Elizabeth Taylor.

A recommended novel – about a poet

209 Great Lover cover The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published in 2009 by Sceptre about Rupert Brook and his Cambridge days.

Related posts

Andre’s Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the Lighthouse.

Here is my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor And a post about her ageing here.

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.

164 cover S RidingMrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.

Mrs Beddows

Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.

Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)

There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.

In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.

Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.

164 S R green coverWinifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.

South Riding

Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.

This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.

Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.

Relevant links:

Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty

And on Booksnob

Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.

Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp

 

To ensure you are notified of future blogposts please subscribe to email notifications by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, poetry

Women’s Poetry and The Great War

I am posting this on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War. How do we remember that war? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

115 poppy wreaths

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication. The price was 10s 6d. I was part of a generation that believed in ‘telling it like it is’, and was fiercely pacifist.

115 W OwenThe cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice and is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An up-to-the-minute example of this side-lining is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

115 Ipplepen poppies

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains in part the neglect of women’s experience – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

115 Scars coverI only know one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain called To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (p15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:

The world gyrates too. God is good

That while his wind blow out the light

For those who hourly die for us –

We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (p100)

115 silhouettes TommyWomen paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all once had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancees, wives, daughters …

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,

And when I leave the meadow, almost wait

That you should open first the wooden gate. (p2)

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of women after the war:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead

But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (p22)

The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice women had to adjust to life with an unbalanced demography. A woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’.A woman might suffer considerable hardship having to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

115 Women of B

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us include also the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we can remember.

Among the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose novels are still available, we can name:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

 

Subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right and you will receive email notifications of future blogposts.

3 Comments

Filed under poetry

Poetry in the garden

I sit in my cottage garden in the sun, for an hour, reading poems. I am looking for poems on the theme of ‘journeys’ to share with the poetry group that meets in our local library next week. Some people write poems on the theme, or find them from within their previous works. I don’t write poetry, but I am enjoying browsing through my shelves, and look forward to reading it aloud. It’s a special pleasure.

97 poetry in gdnThe sun is mild, occasionally obscured by clouds. No mechanical, man-made sounds reach me, just the droning of the bees in the hedge behind me, the arguments of the rooks who live in the trees by the old people’s home, and the clicking of plastic guttering in the sun.

I work through my pile, getting distracted by the pleasure of the task and by poems not about journeys.

I try the anthology called Staying Alive, which has a whole section on journeys and the road, and I note Adrienne Rich’s poem. This is the first line

A wild patience has brought me this far

I had remembered it as a wild impatience, which was more appealing to my ambitions and character when I first encountered the poem in the ‘70s. The rhythm is better in my version I think. But I must slow down and read the poem more closely. A wild patience? The lines of the childhood chant come into my head, which associates patience with good girls in an adult view.

Patience is a virtue

Virtue is a grace.

Grace is a little girl

Who didn’t wash her face.

That puts patience in her place for me. How can patience be wild? The juxtaposition of these words begins to create ripples in my head.

I move on to Robert Frost, Stopping in Woods, and recall walking in Robert Frost’s woods a few years ago on a visit to Amherst (when I also visited Emily Dickinson’s house). It was May, so there was no snow and no ponies. I read this poem to a group of travellers on Stewart Island, on Christmas Day a couple of years later – also no ponies and no snow but miles from home. Stewart Island is about as far south as normal people can travel without being in Antarctica.

97 Poetry booksAnd then I meet again Michael Donaghy’s poem Machines about writing poetry, cycling and harpsichord music. It starts …

Dearest, note how these two are alike:

This harpsichord pavane by Purcell

And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

Then I loose myself in an anthology of poems by women in the 1930s. I marvel again at the steadfastness, endurance and perceptions of that generation of women who flourished between the wars. I find a poem by Winifred Holtby called Trains in France, the sounds of trains haunting the night, reminding her of wartime trains transporting people to and from the Front.

I move on to Billy Collins who can always be relied upon to write quirky, witty and intelligent poems about everyday things. I find two that I might read to the poetry group: Passengers and Walking across the Atlantic. I always enjoy the last three lines of Walking across the Atlantic.

97 b collins' feet

Drowsiness begins to infect me and I imagine lying on the lounger on the lawn all afternoon, reading, as the bees drone, the rooks caw and all seems well with this corner of England.

In my head, words are singing, like poetry when it is read aloud. In my head my own words become poetic, lyrical and full of intelligent observations. My mood is violently broken by a call on my mobile phone about PPI.

These are the poems I finally chose:

  • Walking across the Atlantic and Passengers by Billy Collins.
  • Trains in France by Winifred Holtby.
  • But I might add Honeymoon Flight by Seamus Heaney for the imagery of sewing that he uses to write about marriage.
  • And Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, which presents the world and its people from a fresh, Martian, perspective.

Have you any suggestions of poems connected with journeys?

 

To receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Libraries, poetry