POETRY: Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945Edited by Gerald Dawe Blackstaff, 412pp, £16.99 hbk/£9.99 pbk - At the heart of this anthology of Irish war poetry are the delicate ties that lie between imagination and memory.
REMEMBERING LISTENING to news of the war in Spain "on headphones after midnight", the poet John Hewitt considers how names like Jarama and Guadalajara have so quickly been replaced by other "momentarily memorised" place-names from other wars. A picture in a magazine or a fragment of song might suddenly pull him back to his experience of faraway Spain:
"Or maybe an elderly man in a crowd
Catches your eye, flashes a grin
And clenches his fist shoulder high,
He fought in Spain and imagines
We remember it."
The word "imagines" here is important. Does it matter that we don't remember, if imagination fills the gap? Poetry can't help us remember (we can't remember what didn't happen to us), but it might help us see.
The delicate ties between imagination and memory lie at the heart of this welcome anthology, which brings together personal reminiscence and private and public elegy from all the wars in which Ireland was involved between 1914 and 1945: the Great War, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the war in Spain, the second World War. It's a lot of wars and at times the burden of remembrance can seem too great. Hewitt, after all, wasn't in Spain; he only heard about it on the radio.
That difficult gap between first-hand experience, and the survivor's or non-combatant's attempt to bear witness to others is brought home by this collection. Some of these poets remember war; some, such as Francis Ledwidge, Thomas Kettle or Charles Donnelly, wrote their last poems from the front. But while in Britain the image of the Great War is filtered through the poet-combatants, (particularly Owen and Sassoon), in Ireland it comes to us through the elegists: Yeats's Easter 1916, AE's Salutation.
Ledwidge's elegy for Thomas MacDonagh is far better known than his poems about his own war experience. As this sample suggests, the need to memorialise may have a good deal to do with the vast mountain of 1916 commemorative verse which swamped the Irish presses during and after the first World War.
Much of it was poor and Gerald Dawe only includes a tiny sample, but the memorialising impulse set the tone for Irish war poetry in general. At the same time Ireland's first World War poets were more conscious than most that their poetry had to do the work of public commemoration. In 1926, a few months before he was shot, Kevin O'Higgins argued that locating a Great War memorial in Merrion Square in Dublin, would "give a wrong twist, as it were, a wrong suggestion, to the origins of this State".
The visitor might "conclude that the origins of this State were connected with that park and the memorial in that park, was connected with the lives that were lost in the Great War in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and so on. That is not the position". Lord Dunsany responded with the offer of a poem instead:
"Since they have grudged you space in
And any monument of stone or brass,
And you yourselves are powerless, alas,
And your own countrymen seem not to care;
Then let these words of mine drift down the air . . ."
Despite Yeats's insistence that poets had no gift to "set a statesman right", there were plenty of them, Yeats included, who were willing to try. At the heart of the public war poem lies the problem of speaking for others. Thomas MacGreevy's Nocturne (subtitled "To Geoffrey England Taylor, 2nd Lieutenant, RFA, 'Died of Wounds'") captures it very well:
"I labour in a barren place,
Alone, self-conscious, frightened,
Far away, stars wheeling in space,
About my feet, earth voices whispering."
In addition to that wonderful final image - perfectly pitching consolation with horror - which gives this anthology its title, the most striking word here is probably "self-conscious". The dead soldier, like the poet himself, is uncomfortably self-aware, caught in a selfhood which can't be shared: a version of the belief that no-one could understand the war who hadn't been through it. Yet in the process of "remembering" the dead, other peoples' memories must somehow become ours.
MacGreevy stuck to the modernist lyric as his way of negotiating these public and private registers (so that "I" is Taylor, MacGreevy, and the reader too). Others chose ballad and song as ways of getting history or community into their poems, and one of the pleasures of reading the anthology is this broad range and eclectic mix of styles.
I listed five different wars, but one thing these poems bear witness to is the intimate links between them. It is impossible to separate the dead of the Irish wars from those of Europe and indeed from the Japanese theatre of war. (We might see this poetry as setting Kevin O'Higgins right).
This is not only because one war brings on another - a point borne across strongly in that most disturbing of poems, Yeats's Reprisals, where the "half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery" sent to Ireland after the war render airman Major Robert Gregory one of the "cheated dead".
It is also because the poets think back through one war to another: so for the poets of mid-century (MacNeice, Fallon, Donagh MacDonagh and many others) the second World War becomes a way of remembering the first, just as in the work of Longley, Mahon or Heaney the Troubles frame an understanding of the second and the first.
For this reason it seems a shame that Dawe chose to limit the anthology not only to poems which deal with wars up to 1945, but also to poets who were born before 1945, for younger poets haven't stopped thinking about the legacy of those wars in Ireland. Many of the later poems in the book choose family history (Longley, ní Chuilleanáin) or literature (Boland on Yeats, Mahon on Bowen, Heaney on Ledwidge) as ways into their reflections on war.
These poems are as much about our inheritance of war-memory as anything else, moving reminders of the delicate webs which draw us together with all the cheated dead.
Clair Wills is professor of Irish literature at Queen Mary, University of London. That Neutral Island: A History of Ireland During the Second World War won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2007. She is currently writing a book about the GPO