Teaching World War I poetry--comparatively

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Author: Margot Norris
Date: Summer 2005
From: College Literature(Vol. 32, Issue 3)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,883 words

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In his magisterial book, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, Samuel Hynes describes the challenge that World War I posed to art. "Reality had changed, in fundamental ways that called into question the assumptions on which art, and civilization itself, had been based" (1990, 11), he writes. This insight has always shaped my approach to the poetic experiments of the canonical figures I teach in my required upper-division course on "Anglo-American Modernism." This large lecture class confronts undergraduates with the difficult texts of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Djuna Barnes, and others. Students readily grasp the notion that writers shaken by a cataclysmic four-year war would feel impelled to develop new forms and devices for conveying a post-traumatic vision of the modern world. But a curious problem emerges when the High Modernists and the trench poets are taught side by side in the same syllabus. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and the other British soldier-poets appear so much more conventional, formally, and so much less brilliantly experimental, than the Eliot of The Waste Land, the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the Woolf of Mrs. Dalloway, and the Barnes of Nightwood. This emergence of such a disparity in the classroom is interesting because it harks back to some of the controversies between British poets with different aesthetic and ideological allegiances at the time of the war and in its aftermath. These controversies culminated, as we remember, in W. B. Yeats's infamous marginalization of trench poetry on poetic and aesthetic grounds. (1) But in the classroom, this problem of poetic evaluation is best addressed by considering it in light of the different aesthetic and ideological pressures on the trench poets or soldier poets that can be historically and culturally contextualized.

One highly productive response to this problem is to teach the British trench poets side by side with the German soldier-poets of the First World War. Like their British counterparts, the German poets too needed to present a new vision of reality, as Hynes has called it (1990, 11). And for the soldier-poets who saw mechanized combat on both sides of the trenches, this challenge was not merely aesthetic, but also ethical and ideological. The problem of inventing new forms for a new reality was further intensified by the immense volume of poetry stimulated almost instantly by the outbreak of World War I. Reliable estimates suggest that close to 50,000 poems were written daily in Germany as well as in Britain during the first month of the War, August 1914. (2) Not surprisingly, much of this poetry was highly patriotic in sentiment and often amateur in form. But the serious soldier-poets of World War I met the challenge of representing the new reality inaugurated by the war by engaging in their own poetic struggles with the received and emergent aesthetic traditions of their day. These traditions offered a variety of acceptable and unacceptable ideological options to both English and Continental poets writing in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A135022679