Anthems for doomed youth

THE VOICE OF WAR: Poems of the Second World War ed Victor Selwyn, Michael Joseph £14.99 POETRY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR: An International Anthology ed Desmond Graham, Chatto £18.99
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The Independent Culture
WAR and poetry have come to seem to belong together, like love and songs, or landscape and painting. There has been poetry about war ever since the Iliad, of course, but it wasn't until after 1914-18 that the one was assumed to follow from the other. By 1939, as Denis Healey recalls in his introduction to The Voice of War, everyone believed that "Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had told us what to expect".

What was expected was not only the slaughter which the earlier poets had described but its immediacy: young men slaughtered within days - hours - of arriving at a front line in earshot of the South Coast. What actually happened, of course, as far as the British were concerned, was first of all no war at all, and then one which went on over a bewildering topographical range - in the air and at sea, from Norway to North Africa to Singapore. The defining experiences included waiting as much as killing; especially waiting to travel. In these circumstances, novels and journals came more easily than poetry.

Not that good poems didn't get written. One of the most famous, Keith Douglas's "Vergissmeinicht", appears (in different versions) in both these anthologies: "Three weeks gone and the combatants gone returning over the nightmare ground / we found the place again, and found / the soldier sprawling in the sun." With its calculated repetitions and half-rhymes this is reassuringly like Wilfred Owen. Too much like him, perhaps, and the shadows of Owen and Sassoon are so heavy over many other poems in The Voice of War that prose texts like Anne Frank's Diary, or Primo Levi's If This Is A Man or Henry Green's Caught, can seem by contrast to offer a kind of poetry more distinctive to the Second World War than all these laboriously metred lines beginning "O!" and mingling archaisms like "wrack" and "ruth" with jaunty military slang.

The Voice of War excludes foreign voices, and beside the international, technically sophisticated Poetry of the Second World War can sometimes sound amateurish and jingoistic - the songbook of the British Legion. But the juxtaposition isn't fair to it. The editor, Victor Selwyn, served in the war, founded the Oasis Trust in North Africa in 1942 with the sole purpose of encouraging soldiers to write poetry and has spent half a century promoting and preserving the results in collections of which this book offers the pick. He includes moving verse-anecdotes by a wide range of people: Mary E Harrison, for example, a WAAF whose job was to make models of German towns and who wrote about her feelings when she saw the bomber- crews' photographs of the destruction she had aided. Selwyn also prints marvellous work by Gavin Ewart, Roy Fuller, John Pudney, Alan Ross and others who would have been poets if the war had never been fought.

Gavin Ewart importantly represents an often-forgotten element of Second World War literature: humour. There aren't a lot of jokes in Desmond Graham's anthology (in which Ewart doesn't appear), but then many of Graham's writers would gladly have traded places with Ewart in Italy or Alan Ross in the North Atlantic. Here are Primo Levi, and Mordecai Gerbirtig, a popular balladist killed in the Cracow Ghetto in his mid-sixties, and Mikls Radnti, a Hungarian Jew, also an established poet, who was shot on a forced march after working on the Bor-Belgrade railway line. (When his body was exhumed from its roadside grave in 1945, a notebook of his poems was found in his greatcoat.) Here, too, is Miguel Hernandez. who died of TB in 1942 after spending three years in Franco's prisons; and Tamiki Hara, who committed suicide when he contracted "atom disease" after surviving Hiroshima.

Poetry of the Second World War also includes the best of the anglophone work excluded by Victor Selwyn's British-and-on-active-service criteria: Auden's "September 1, 1939", Elizabeth Bishop's "View of the Capitol from the Library of Con-gress", Stevie Smith's epigram "My child, my child, watch how he goes, / The man in Party coloured clothes." Such poems (along with those by Randall Jarrell, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas and others) highlight a problem with Graham's otherwise impressive, much- needed cosmopolitanism: translations are rarely more than the paraphrasable content of their originals. When the American poet John Ciardi writes of a bombing raid, "It was as far from home as we could go", English-speaking readers instantly get the moral metaphor behind the literal meaning, and may hear an echo of Newman's hymn-line, "The night is dark and I am far from home." But with the pilot's first words in Mikls Radnti's "The Second Eclogue", translated (no doubt accurately) by Clive Wilmer and George Gmri as "Last night we went far", we can't tell whether similar layerings of ambiguity and allusion are involved (or whether the rhythm is what the poet wanted).

It was the technically adept Wilfred Owen, though, who claimed that in war poems, "The poetry is in the pity." Faced with some of the experiences described in these very different anthologies, it's hard to argue with the idea that beyond a certain point, literary skill can't significantly add to what life and death themselves put on the page.

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