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Genius loci: war poets of place

It’s curious how intensely some writers, especially poets, respond to place. Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, of course, John Clare at Helpston, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But there are earlier names: William Cowper and Olney, Alexander Pope’s Windsor or Twickenham, Charles Cotton in Derbyshire…

I found myself thinking of this as I heard of the deaths of two poets associated with Gloucestershire; Charles Tomlinson and P.J. Kavanagh. Both wrote regularly about their adopted county, its landscapes, its secrets and their particular attachment to it, although Tomlinson was equally drawn back to the Stoke of his boyhood, and to certain places in America and Italy. In Kavanagh’s case the love affair was tied up with his fascination for the work of the Gloucester-born First World War poet and composer Ivor Gurney, whose reputation he rehabilitated through extraordinary close work on the manuscripts, clarifying what had appeared to be misprints, showing him to be less incoherent, more original than anyone had realised.

Ivor Gurney was above all a poet of place. Specific localities, particular walks, thread his poetry and stayed with him even when he was incarcerated far from any that he knew. For him, the battlefields and billets were physical locations whose names carried the same kind of power as Foscombe Hill or Leckhampton. Editions of his poetry cry out for maps. Indeed, Edward Thomas’s widow, Helen, had the brilliant idea of bringing him ordnance survey maps to pore over in his Dartford asylum. While not all the poets of the First World War have this almost visionary reaction to where they physically are (Owen is moved more by pity, Sassoon by anger, Rosenberg by what he sees, hears), it is a common feature in their work. Certainly it is true of Edward Thomas, who famously picked up a clod of English earth to demonstrate what he would be fighting for, and even more so for Edmund Blunden, who was one of the very first to bring Ivor Gurney to the world’s attention, editing an early edition of his verse.

Image credit: Agny Military Cemetery, France. Photo by John Greening, used with permission.

The very nature of the 1914-18 land-war, with its colourfully named trenches, its endless battles over lyrical-sounding villages, seemed to encourage what Irish poets call dinnseanchas: place poetry. Even a severe but not life-threatening wound was referred to as a ‘Blighty’, the place you hoped it could get you to. For soldier poets brought up in the pastoral tradition (which depends on fastidious contrast between court and country), to witness fields, orchards, farmsteads violently torn up was a stylistic earthquake. And although a century has passed, a simple place-name, Passchendaele, can still raise a shudder. Those, like Blunden, who survived, often found themselves returning to the sites again and again, like medieval pilgrims. Repeating the names became as inevitable a stylistic feature of their poetry as breaking the pentameter, or allowing ‘whizzbangs’ and corpses alongside woods and flowers.

This instinct for place applies to poets of peace too (as with Tomlinson and Kavanagh, although the latter fought in the Korean War) but one could trace the very history of war poetry since 1918 through locations: from John Cornford in Aragon to Louis Simpson’s Carentan O Carentan and Norman Cameron’s Green, Green is El Aghir; from Edwin Muir’s Orcadian post-nuclear horses to Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? about Vietnam, Moniza Alvi’s Partition sequence or recent dispatches by Brian Turner (‘Al-A’imma Bridge’), Dan O’Brien, and Kevin Powers. It’s understandable that anyone should feel strongly about somewhere they were traumatized. War makes non-combatants (which includes some of those just mentioned) exceptionally conscious of a location’s vulnerability, too: think of Eliot’s masterpiece of the Second World War, Four Quartets, full of phrases about ‘significant soil.’ Seamus Heaney’s idea of the ‘omphalos’, too, a sacred still centre, could be seen as a reaction to the Troubles; and Jo Shapcott’s Phrase Book, about sitting watching the Iraq war on television, is a war poem about place – even if that place is the sofa.

As for me, my first book was entirely about Egypt, where my wife and I lived as volunteers from 1979-81 when Sadat was making peace with Israel; and a quarter of a century later a collection about Iceland was an exploration of the country where my father was stationed during the Second World War. But inbetween I found myself writing a good deal about the largely imaginary county where we live, Huntingdonshire, a thinned-out Forest of Arden, far (or so I thought) from the world’s concerns. Yet it had once been at the epicentre of the English Civil War; Little Gidding, with echoes of Eliot’s ‘broken king’, was only a cycle ride away. Next to the US cruise missile base, John Clare’s brambles were barbed wire fencing around that base, and fighter jets seared the open sky that had heard William Cowper sing ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. All this proved in the end fruitful material for a trilogy of Huntingdonshire ‘Eclogues’, ‘Nocturnes’ and ‘Elegies’.

So I am a poet of place, yes, but there is more of the war poet than I might have admitted. Even my latest homage to the genius loci – a collaboration in verse with Penelope Shuttle about the area around Heathrow Airport where we both grew up – turns out to be ticking ominously. Hounslow Heath was where revolutionary armies used to muster.

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