Twelve years ago, the enviably-talented Nick Maitland suggested collaborating on a project: a sequence of poems (mine) and paintings (Nick’s) would co-evolve over a number of months, with drafts and sketches bouncing off one another. Half the fun would be plunging in without a clear plan and seeing where the thing took us. But we struggled to find the right starting point and nothing came of it.
Seeing how way leads on to way, it would have been reasonable to assume that nothing ever would.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Nick emailed out of the blue. Did I want to revive the idea for an exhibition in November 2014? Theme: the First World War.
To put this in context, I spent much of 2013 in a pre-emptive tirade against the infantry-charge of WW1 poems we can expect for this year’s 1914 centenary. Surely no subject has been so thoroughly exhausted in English-language poetry – not just in its original “doomed youth” incarnation, but re-exhausted for each new generation: the in-memoriam-pensioner-tommy-poem; the granddad’s-revolver-I-found-in-the-attic poem; the walking-peacefully-across-a-field-in-France poem. The further we get from the lived experience of the thing, the greater the risk of a time-travelling version of the poetic tourism that Claire Trévien skewered in her recent Poetry School blog post.
None of which negates the human enormity of what happened. But a poet should only grapple with something like this if s/he can write about it congruently (which doesn’t mean only writing from one’s own experience, but does mean inhabiting a subject rather than appropriating it, and above all being able to make it new).
And it’s Pound’s original “make it new” (along with the chance to collaborate with Nick) that led me to say yes to the November project. The slaughter of 1914-1918 accelerated the development of modernism by an order of magnitude. No matter that we can trace its beginnings back to the gravitational collapse of 19th century romanticism; English language modernist poetry picked up its beat from the echo of the big guns. The Waste Land is as much a product of the First World War as “Strange Meeting”; David Jones’s In Parenthesis is unequalled as a treatment of the war itself; the pentameter (or its worn-out Georgian doppelganger) was broken as much by the first day of the Somme as by the first heave of Canto 81. And that’s something I can get passionate about.
It’s become fashionable to pretend modernism never happened. The current enthusiasm for poets like Edward Thomas is (I suspect) at least partly about trying out a counterfactual lyric tradition where the difficulties of modernism are either wholly ignored or declared a dead end. Which is ironic, since no literary movement has been so acutely conscious of the malleability of history as modernism was: Eliot’s perception “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”. The perception that war poetry began – and begins – not with Wilfred Owen but with Homer; that the ships at Mylae are as much a (buried, assimilated) part of our lived experience as the guns at Ypres. We forget this at our peril.
So I find myself on a cold January evening happily surrounded by art books and Latin descriptions of the underworld, adding to some preliminary notes I made with Nick on Monday and wondering where this strange twelve-years-postponed adventure is going to take us.
Happy new year.