The first world war poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke were the bloggers of their day, says Simon Armitage. They revealed a different war to the one being reported through mainstream sources – a war, as we know now, of unimaginable slaughter and suffering.
“What is astonishing about those poems is they run counter to every expectation,” says Armitage. “They are blasphemous, they are treacherous, they are radical and they are unpatriotic. They are everything that you wouldn’t expect for the time and that is what makes them so extraordinary.”
Armitage, the Yorkshire-born poet, playwright, author and songwriter, says his own knowledge of the war is shaped “and probably skewed” by those poets. “They were like the social networkers of their day. Their poems were undercutting all the official formal news sources. What you got in The Times was quite different from what you were hearing from Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon.”
And, of course, the imprint they left was huge. So Armitage admits a slight trepidation in offering his own poetic commentary on the war, using as his inspiration the stories of people whose lives were either ended or profoundly changed by it.
One was Edith Appleton (below), a nurse who worked on the Western Front and whose diaries helped inform the scripts of the BBC1 drama The Crimson Field broadcast earlier this year.
Appleton, who lived to be 80, addressed the diary entries to her mother and was unsparing in the detail she shared. But she juxtaposes those brutally illustrative accounts of men with minds and bodies obliterated by battle, with descriptions of off-duty swims on the Normandy coast close to where she was stationed. It was that paradox Armitage has sought to represent in his poem Sea Sketch (reproduced below), one of seven he’s written for the Culture Show special.
“What really interested me was not just the journal entries, but the drawings that were in and amongst them — all these really charming sketches of Étretat where she used to go to swim on her days off. It seemed to me that she was trying to find repose and even bliss only a few miles away from where she was witnessing and dealing with all this terror. That just seemed to me to be an untold story.”
Other subjects include a Lincolnshire mother who lost five of her eight sons to the war and a navigator shot down and taken prisoner, but who tunnelled his way out to freedom.
Armitage’s enduring concern has been to honour the memory of those whose life stories he is exhuming.
“I am really pleased with them. There was a lot of pressure to put them together quite quickly and I think it provoked or produced something in me that I wasn’t quite expecting. I think there is a sincerity to the work; they are poems that wear their heart on their sleeve.”
And what does he hope their legacy will be? “What I found when we were researching the film was the echo of loss that is still reverberating down through families. It’s 100 years ago now, but it was so catastrophic and so enormous that we do have a duty to tell future generations what happened and how it felt. I hope in a small way these poems can help achieve that.”
Picture drawn by Edith Appleton
by Simon Armitage
Dear Mother, I have come to the sea
to wash my eyes
in its purples, blues, indigos, greens,
to enter its world and emerge cleansed,
to break the surface
then watch the surface heal and mend.
Behind me the land lies mauled and wrenched,
but I have not flinched
from uncommon holes in the flesh of men
or heads oozing with shattered minds,
and have not shied
from livers and lungs exposed to the light,
and have balanced and carried faltering hearts
in my cupped hands
through the egg and spoon race of death and life.
Some men I kissed: boy soldiers
raving and blind,
begging for love from a mother’s lips,
and when death stands with its black shawl
at the foot of the bed
a white cotton handkerchief eases the soul…
So allow me the beach, the sea,
its handwritten waves,
the act of making a simple sketch
of a simple ketch, or stick figures plunging
into the depths,
or a cormorant baring its breast to the sun,
or at dusk, Venus robed in her wedding dress,
her silver train
like a path on the water heading west.
The Great War: an Elegy – a Culture Show Special is on BBC2 tonight (8th November) at 8:00pm