Finding a way to write fresh poetry on WWI
In responding to one person’s loss I was also responding to my own great-grandmother’s
A cow wanders behind the German lines near Reims during the first World War. Photograph: R Sennecke/Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images
“Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by cultivating an attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall as armies march by.” – Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008)
When in April 2017 the Mary Evans Picture Library in London invited me to write a sequence of poems in response to a first World War family archive, I was hesitant to accept. While the photographs and letters were immediately evocative, I was all too aware that poems come of their own volition. I didn’t know if I would find the emotional resonance needed to spark not just one poem but a series.
In fact what was most difficult was finding fresh ways of writing about the first World War. The work I loved by Wilfred Owen, Francis Ledwidge, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg echoed loudly. I had to abandon the first flush of poems because they were too cliched or derivative, using over-statement and worn out imagery. I searched for a more allusive approach. The first poem that worked, After we’re gone, was inspired by reading accounts of the flower and vegetable gardens planted in the trenches. Soldiers wrote detailed descriptions of the surrounding landscape, birds, plants and animals in their letters and poems. Their affinity with the natural world helped sustain them, humanising an inhuman existence; this gave me a way into the sequence.
Albert Auerbach joined the British army on September 1st, 1914, aged 20, and died at the Somme four years later to the day. His sister, Lucy, survived the war and lived on into the early 1970s. As the poems accumulated I saw a story emerging in their voices – from an evening in a September garden before Albert joined up in 1914 to Lucy’s pilgrimmage in 1920 to the trenches where he died.
There’s a photograph of Lucy standing close to a Jersey cow on the farm in the Malverns where she helped out as part of the war effort. I wondered what it was like for a young woman brought up in a middle-class London family to learn how to milk a cow. Remembering my own attempts as a child, the thought of her struggling to find the necessary combination of strength and rhythm in her fingers led to a poem entitled Milk.
Lucy was a gifted pianist and went on to study with the celebrated Myra Hess. Reading that Albert was invalided home with shell-shock inspired a poem in which tuning and playing the piano is a metaphor for her wish to soothe his anguish. In one of Albert’s last letters to Lucy, he thanks her for sending a sprig of heather. Wondering what that sprig held for her and what it meant to him to receive it led to a poem entitled, Ling.
A visit to an exhibition in the National Library in July 2017 revealed a marvellous archive of letters between Irish soldiers on the Front and their families at home. Imagining Albert and an Irish soldier lying in the same Casualty Clearing Station led me to rework an earlier poem into Mortal Wound. A photograph in the exhibition of people on a bog picking moss set a poem ticking, Base Hospital, Boulogne. I was fascinated to learn about the powerful antiseptic qualities of sphagnum moss and about the tons of moss gathered here, made into at least a million dressings and sent to military hospitals throughout the war. Another poem was inspired by the eye-witness account of a football match on St. Stephen’s Day 1916 by Fr Frank Browne, Jesuit chaplain to the Irish Guards. He wrote, “This is just one little incident of the war, showing how little is thought of human life out here. It sounds callous, but there is no room for sentiment in warfare, and I suppose it is better so.”
While I was reading about the role of nationalism, imperialism and militarism in the lead up to the first World War, nationalism was on the rise again all over Europe. Most European countries were doing all they could to avoid taking in refugees from war in Syria with a largely xenophobic public discourse about what we Europeans would lose rather than what we could gain. A visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres highlighted the vast numbers of people displaced by all wars, leading to a poem about a Belgian refugee.
Meanwhile, Brexit was threatening the relatively fragile reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the maturing relationship between Ireland and the UK. It mattered to me that All the Way Home, with its 21 poems and 11 photographs, was coming into being through a number of collaborative relationships across the Irish Sea, with the Mary Evans Picture Library in London, Albert and Lucy’s niece, Patricia Aubrey in Ealing, and the publisher, Smith|Doorstop, in Sheffield.
Poems respond to stories, tell and retell stories and also unearth stories we have buried. When I read from All the Way Home, people in the audience often talk about their family’s involvement in the war, experiences that have gone unspoken for generations.
Last November, having heard my interview about All the Way Home with Olivia O’Leary on the Poetry Programme, my uncle contacted me to ask if I knew that my great-grandmother had lost two brothers in the Battle of the Somme. I must have heard this as a child but somehow I had forgotten, a memory erased like so many other Irish memories of the first World War. It seems to me now that in responding to Lucy’s loss I was also responding to my own great-grandmother Abby’s loss and for this I am deeply grateful.
All The Way Home is published by Smith|Doorstop. The launch is in Poetry Ireland on April 4th, at 7pm. Jane Clarke’s second collection, When the Tree Falls, will be published by Bloodaxe Books in September 2019. Her first collection is The River (Bloodaxe Books, 2015)