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This review is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

PEERING OVER THE BRINK In Flanders Fields: Poetry of the First World War. Edited by George Walter (Allen Lane) £12.00
First World War Poems. Edited by Andrew Motion (Faber) £12.99
COLIN CAMPBELL and ROSALIND GREEN, Can't Shoot a Man with a Cold: Lt. E. Alan Mackintosh MC 1893-1917, Poet of the Highland Division
(Argyll Publishing) £12.99

These three books are just the latest responses to an apparently never-ending need for us to assess and re-assess our attitudes to the First World War. We are particularly keen to look at it through its poetry, as if that will provide us with some hints for understanding our own wars, conflicts and deaths.

But what is 'a poem of the First World War'? The problem stems from that tricky word 'of'. Is it 'written while involved in', 'written during', 'written in response to', 'written having been affected by' or some other way of 'belonging to'?

The first anthology stimulated by the declaration of war in 1914 was the uncharacteristic Songs and Sonnets for England in War Time (1914), John Lane's opportunist collection of patriotic and political cries at the invasion of Belgium. It was not primarily concerned with the fighting, but positioning. Anti-war poems jostle with patriotic and pompous rhetoric of national pride, girding the loins and cursing the Kaiser. No less cashing in on the closeness of the topic to the hearts of the readers were Galloway Kyle's Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men (1916) and E. B. Osborn's The Muse in Arms (1917), but these two set a style by focusing on poems by poets who were soldiers and were fighting.

Anthologies of war poetry ripple away from that central idea of the poet fighting in the trenches at the ...

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