Captured in the amber of history

Poetry of the Second World War: an international anthology ed. Desmond Graham Chatto & Windus £18.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This judicious anthology explodes an old lie: that there's not much to be said for the poetry of the Second World War. Two reasons are usually given to justify this lack of enthusiasm, neither of which holds much water: the first is that the War was too horrible and dehumanising a thing for mere poetry, that gentle, celebratory art, to encompass. The second is that there simply weren't enough poets (exempting perhaps Keith Douglas and a couple of other comrades-in- arms) who were up to depicting its enormities: Owen, thou shouldst have been living at that hour. Unfortunately, he wasn't.

The problem with the second of these arguments is that it's a parochial one, and the need, as far as the Second World War is concerned, has always been to stand back and take a wider view - in short, to internationalise the scene. Desmond Graham has done just that in two ways: he has chosen 130 poets from 20-odd countries; and he has acknowledged the fact that this War, unlike the First, had many different active fronts; that it was a conflict with a perpetually shifting centre.

Graham has included in the book not merely poetry of active warfare, but also poems about the premonition of war (by Brecht and Mandelstam, for example); poems by those who suffered at home (wherever that happened to be); and poems written from the edge of war, which often convince by their seemingly anecdotal casualness. These editorial judgements help to broaden the definition of what a war poem actually is. It is not merely the active witnessing of bloody conflict such as Owen achieved in the last terrible months of his life; it is also about powerlessness and impotent rage; about boundless fear of a much more withdrawn and sedentary nature; and about the terrible feelings of fragility suffered by those condemned to survive.

Nor is this a fashionable, conchies-only, pacifism-bound book. It includes the likes of that old warhorse from the American South, James Dickey, who associates battle with the adrenalin-pumping manly virtues. And it drags back into the light some great, half- forgotten figures such as Randall Jarrell, whose poem "Eighth Air Force" includes the line: "men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can."

The anthology is part poetry written in English, and part poetry in translation, and much of the book's strength is due to the quality of these translated poems - Adam Czerniawski's versions from the Polish of Tadeusz Rozewicz, for example, or Ian Milner's renderings from the Czech of Miroslav Holub. Translations of this quality are a relatively recent phenomenon. Brecht's marvellous poetry, for example, wasn't widely available in English until the Seventies, and it is Brecht who opens the book with the savage bravura of "A German War Primer".

This book has been ten long years in the making, and there are, here and there, signs of battle fatigue on the part of the editor, including one or two dreadful lapses of judgement. Why else would he have printed Edith Sitwell's clanging monster "Still Falls the Rain"? There must have come a moment, during the ninth wearisome year, when that beckoning, beaked visage could no longer be gainsaid. But, generally speaking, this is the kind of anthology that, once produced, seems to have an air of inevitability about it. A simple idea - even an obvious one - in hindsight. Thank goodness it eventually occurred to someone to execute it as well as this.

A Lullaby by Randall Jarrell (1914-65)

For wars his life and half a world away

The soldier sells his family and days.

He learns to fight for freedom and the State;

He sleeps with seven men within six feet.

He picks up matches and he cleans out plates;

Is lied to like a child, cursed like a beast.

They crop his head, his dog tags ring like sheep

As his stiff limbs shift wearily to sleep.

Recalled in dreams or letters, else forgot,

His life is smothered like a grave with dirt;

And his dull torment mottles like a fly's

The lying amber of the histories.