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This review is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

National Ghosts Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press) £14.99
JOHN LUCAS, Second World War Poetry in English (Greenwich Exchange) £12.99
1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (Faber) £14.99
Poems from the First World War, selected by Gaby Morgan (Macmillan) £10.99
Poetry of the First World War Collector’s Library) £9.99

The most famous pronouncement on war poetry is one that is taught routinely to UK schoolchildren, namely the sentence from the preface to Wilfred Owen’s Poems published posthumously in 1920: ‘The Poetry is in the Pity.’ What your average GCSE student doesn’t say (or at least I didn’t) is, ‘Surely, it should be “the pity is in the poetry”?’ Perhaps because it doesn’t occur to them, as it didn’t to me; or perhaps because the dictum exudes such an air of saintliness that one feels by instinct that to violate it is to violate a taboo – like spitting on a cenotaph. There is a no-man’s-land between a poem of pity and a pitiful poem. This is one of those occasions in which literary sayings bleed into cultural politics – to the extent that the late great Seamus Heaney, with a shrewdness too infrequently acknowledged, appropriated this Owenite taboo, in his book The Government of the Tongue, for his own war poetry. (Though it must be said also that the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the elegiac mode is a constant source of tension in Heaney’s poetry.) When reading anthologies of war poetry, however, the tendentiousness of Owen’s assertion becomes apparent. The poet-as-witness is still a poet, as Heaney was ever painfully aware (see the Colum McCartney passage in ‘Station Island’); and war poetry is subject to ‘the constant battle between truth and metre’, as the much-lamented Irish poet put it. Pity as pietas – reverence to the dead – is at the centre of First World War poetry and its ...


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