Edited by Constance Ruzich
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander
Bloomsbury Academic, 2020
|While Serving in These Trenches on Mte San Michele, Giuseppe Ungaretti Was Inspired to Write Some of the Greatest Poetry of World War I|
World War I gave rise to an extraordinary wave of creative expression. Novels, memoirs, plays, manifestos, paintings, and more appeared from 1914 on, each grappling with the war’s disruptions, brutality, and transformation. The war’s poetry is perhaps the most famous, with British war poets being widely taught and read.
With this volume Constance Ruzich gives us a new collection of WWI poetry, one which goes beyond familiar verse. [Connie runs the excellent blog Behind Their Lines , which looks at lesser-known poetry of the Great War.] To begin with, this new anthology includes works from a wide range of nations, from Russia and Germany to France, (including both French and Breton languages), Italy, India, New Zealand, and the United States (with white and Black writers). Connie also takes care to represent many women’s voices, which can be a surprise to readers accustomed to a primarily male field. She selects poems which offer varied views of the war: yes, the familiar sorrow and pity, as well as fervent calls for more fighting, criticisms of war profiteering, and thoughtful lines about battlefields long after the last shot has been fired.
This panoramic view of First World War poetry is divided into the kinds of human experience each poem addresses. "Soldier’s Lives" leads the volume and presents the kinds of poetry most readers would expect, such as “The Night Patrol France, March 1916.” Rupert Brooke is represented by a fragment. There is quite a tonal range, touching horror (“Song of Mud,” “Little Song of the Maimed" ("Petite Chanson des Mutilés"), momentary peace in war (“The Bathe”) and surreal comedy, (“In No Man’s Land”). One is a very musical piece, which was actually turned into a song (“On Patrol in No Man’s Land”). “The Hill” shows us the shocking first appearance of the tank. Some of these poems describe the experience of war as one of extraordinary intensity, like Giuseppe Ungaretti’s “Vigil" ("Veglia"):
The "Minds at War" section takes us deeper into psychology, giving us views of characters’ thoughts during and close to the war. For example, Albert-Paul Granier’s “Fever (La Fièvre") shows us a mind racing in terror and exhilaration. “Bivouacs” traces a soldier’s imagination from recalling the details of camp to flights of escapist fantasy. Amy Lowell’s “September, 1918” imagines a peace that was actually soon to arrive. Some of the “Minds” are lighthearted, like William Oliphant Down's “Picardy Parodies No. 2 (W.B. Y--ts"), which satirizes the famous Yeats by placing his mythical visions in the west front.
The "Noncombatants" section gives us the views of civilians, from mothers sending sons to war to priests dealing with military occupation. Some are elegiac, while others wish destruction and heightened war on the enemy, like Émile Cammaerts’ brutal “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army" ("Voeux de Nouvel An à l’Armée Allemande"). Dorothy Parker’s cutting “Penelope” focuses on the contrast between soldiers and civilians. May Sinclair’s “After the Retreat” ponders ruined cities from an ambulance volunteer’s viewpoint. C.H.B. Kitchin describes civilians experiencing the new art film of cinema, as it depicts the Battle of the Somme. “A Memory” (Margaret Sackville) ponders a savaged village but, again, not from a military standpoint:
"Making Sense of War" offers reflective or analytical poems, sometimes focused on social problems like venereal disease (“The Camp Follower”) or on calls for national renewal (“A Litany in the Desert”). Classic references (“A Meditation upon the Return of the Greeks,” “I Saw a Man This Morning”) and Biblical language (“O Little David, Play on Your Harp,” “Solomon in All His Glory”) appear alongside the mundane details of daily life (“A Letter from the Front”). At least one is more abstract and also apocalyptic, Georg Trakl’s “Eastern Front" ("Im Osten):
While many accounts of the war’s cultural impact emphasize religious disillusionment, this section shows religion serving a serious and central purpose for a good number of poets.
"Remembering the Dead" and "Aftermath" take the postwar period as their subjects: disability, the gap between veterans and inexperienced civilians, unbearable loss, the desire for peace. What we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appears.
With each poem the editor adds biographical background, as well as particular historical context. In addition, a solid introduction does a fine job of explaining the volume’s plan, along with some of the history of WWI poetry. Readers familiar with the First World War may recognize some themes and topics, from Gallipoli and futility to new technology and comradeship. Yet International Poetry of the First World War lets us see that history from new perspectives. This is indeed a rich, valuable, and rare collection of poetry from the Great War.