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This article is taken from PN Review 120, Volume 24 Number 4, March - April 1998.

Living Pictures of the Dead Sally Minogue

As we approach the end of the twentieth century its earliest and greatest cataclysmic event, the First World War, is undergoing a cultural and imaginative renaissance. Paul Wombell, reviewing the film version of Pat Barker's Regeneration even connected Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch with a literary tradition stemming from that war, citing masculinity as a common ground. World War One poets set that tradition in motion, yet in the path of the poetic tradition this century theirs has been a very faint footprint. Sidelined by Modernism (whose central exponents were, conveniently, alive), their potential influence was lost in the immediate aftermath of the war. As soon as they began to be anthologised a reductive process of selection and categorisation determined the war poetry canon, in which protest and documentary realism figured centrally. War poets with modernist tendencies (Herbert Read, David Jones) were peripheral in both war and modernist canons; those who defied categorisation (Ivor Gurney) remained resolutely minor figures. As a result, a complex and many-voiced poetic engagement with an event of huge significance was reduced, simplified and stratified, and an important precedent for later poets was not recognised as such. It is profoundly ironic that the poetry of World War One has acquired great importance as historical documentation but has lost its poetic complexity and significance as a result. If Barker and Hornby in their different ways have taken up that hidden tradition, it is because prose fiction is still seen in our culture as the proper place for ...


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