D A Prince admires the careful construction of John Greening‘s new collection To the War Poets and is pleased by the way it trusts the reader to look deeper into the subject-matter.

 

To the War Poets greening war
John Greening
Carcanet, 2013
ISBN 978 1 906188 08 5
pp  88    £9.95

 

The War Poets: we think we know who they are, and this year they are hardly ever out of our sight through radio and television, newspaper supplements, even Ministerial comments on the teaching of World War 1 history. They are staples of English Literature syllabuses in schools. They are specifically British. Greening’s title, modest and reverential, suggests that his collection will remain within this familiar area.  So the opening poem comes as a shock:  a translation of ‘War’ by George Heym (1887-1912), retaining the original’s rhyming couplets presented in quatrains. War is personified, shown as a colossus.  It’s formal, violent – and by a German who died before the start of WW1.  Three more translations from the German follow – from Georg Trakl (d.1914), Ernest Stadler (d.1914) and August Stramm (d.1915).  Greening gives us their dates and a quick check online reveals that both Stadler and Stramm were killed on active service.

Some collections seem to be random, arranged in no particular order:  this is the opposite.  It’s a collection in which the reading of the poems sequentially adds enormously to our understanding of Greening’s subtlety in extending ‘war poets’ beyond Britain, and also bringing their legacy into his own life. Born in 1954, Greening has accumulated his understanding of the two world wars through family memories and visits to battle sites, cemeteries and memorials in France and Germany and he allows this knowledge to sit within his own life.  We need the information, slipped in via one of the early poems (‘The train’) that he studied German and thus has direct access to German literature.

Past Cologne,
past the Lorelei
and the Mouse Tower

we advance along
my green and narrow
sixteenth year

towards a dark
platform where the Sandmann
family reach out

and shake my hand
and take me in the car
blinking blinking

over level crossings
that have forgotten
what once wept through

and blindly salute.

The language is reticent, appropriately teenage-shy in its low-key register but the wordplay between ‘wept’ and the expected ‘swept’ evokes images of British trains, British departures and seeds the idea that there is something shared in the militarisation of ordinary lives.  This poem follows ‘To August Stramm, Georg Trakl, Ernest Stadler, Georg Heym’, a first-person account of staying in a hostel designed for schoolchildren beside a German war cemetery –  Over forty thousand in this/ square of earth.…  Greening does not weigh down his poems with footnotes but leaves the reader to follow up place names;  Langemark, I discover, is the German War Grave at Ypres. I look at other websites, read on, learn the other side to Ypres. Greening knows how to encourage wider exploration.

Wordplay, irony, humour: he uses them judiciously, as in the opening of ‘To John McCrae’ –

We stop at Flanders Fields
and Owen’s Coaches
draw up in the same layby.

McCrae (d.1918), a Canadian surgeon at Ypres, wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’;  the poem is displayed as part of a memorial.

                       Here, your poem.
There, parked tankers. The coach
driver is pacing, tie over
beer belly. No larks,
just the passing of traffic.
And no chance of a poppy
that isn’t paper or plastic.

The British poets of World War1 are at the heart of the collection: Greening addresses the familiar names in separate poems, each assigned a significant location.  He places them throughout the collection, not as a block, so that we are constantly aware of their relevance to the twenty-first century.  Take ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’, quoted here in full

No need to fantasise a tank
coming down the stalls, it’s all
on the hotel TV: dancing girls
flick to Iraq and back
to pop then Palestine
and off again.  Music hall
has taken all the tanks
in the world and rolled them out
to keep us dumb and silent
as these, known unto
database and CCTV.

The location ‘Near Bapaume’ links it to Sassoon’s poem ‘Blighters’, an eight-liner in which he attacks the music hall jokes and jollity about tanks, confronting the cackling audience with the reality of ‘the riddled corpses round Bapaume’.  Kipling is associated with Tyne Cot, a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Laurence Binyon with Sanctuary Wood, Vera Brittain with Louvencourt where her fiancé Roland Leighton died.

The more personal poems echo the same language.  In ‘The Hope Valley Line’, November is the month/ of the unknown soldier. The larks singing in ‘The burial mounds at Sutton Hoo’ – where archaeologists worked in 1939 – recall the larks in ‘To John McCrae’.  The dark/ timbers revealed/ in the damp, dripping/ square of Flag Fen (from ‘Causeway’) are close to the trenches, closer than our flat screen lives. Greening’s own roots remember the aftermath of the Second World War in ‘Middlesex’ –

Whatever I’ve grown into, all took root
in Thames alluvium, old orchard lands,
among the fireweed of the bombsites, slew
of post-war housing schemes. 

‘Hounslow’ is that rare creature, a successful pattern poem, in which the low-flying airbus which ripped the roof from Greening’s former home is shown in the pattern of the lines.  One non-war poet is addressed:  Dennis O’Driscoll, imagined as one of the cranes on the Dublin building sites –

You swing above the networking streets,
a grey set of tombstones on your back,

concrete counterbalance that gives you
the light touch, pirouetting to a

wittily apt angle, a deftly
bowed answering theme.

Greening’s poetic voice is quiet, thoughtful, English – but an Englishness that has looked at war and its legacy with wider understanding.  This is a serious collection, alert to connections through time and history, and always aware of humanity at the centre.

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D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, was published by HappenStance Press in 2008, and a second collection is due later in 2014.