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World War I Poets: An Interview With Alfred Corn

07/25/2014 07:16 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2014

July 28 marks the 100th anniversary of World War I. The military and political consequences of the Great War will be told and retold throughout the week. Therefore, I've decided to focus on the great poets of World War I through an interview with Alfred Corn, a poet equally well-recognized in both America and in the U.K.

Alfred, here's a question for beginners: who are the great WWI poets?

The category of First World War poet is at its narrowest if the requirements are these: you fought as a soldier and wrote about that experience. This would include British poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, and Edward Thomas, though only a few of Thomas's poems refer to the war and never describe combat. Surely those are the best war poets, and as you know four of them died during the conflict. There are Canadian, Australian, French, German, and American war poets, but those are not much read now. The American group is especially small because the USA didn't come into the war until 1917. But Alan Seeger, who was in France when war broke out, joined the French Foreign Legion and served the entire four years. His work is regarded as old-fashioned and high-flown, but "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" was reputedly John F. Kennedy's favorite poem.

Actually, poems about what is sometimes called "the Great War" continued to be written for decades after the fact, by poets who were not contemporaries of the event. The best-known example is Philip Larkin's "MCMXIV," with the famous lines "Never such innocence,/Never before or since."

How have the WWI poets influenced succeeding generations?

That could be the subject of a five-hundred-page dissertation, Jonathan, and probably has been. I'm not a professional scholar, but my sense is the inclusion of horrors in Owen's, Sassoon's and Rosenberg's work set the precedent for a poetry that departed from sweetness and light, instead confronting what was ugly and vile in human experience. The sense of rage and futility left by a conflict that butchered millions in the cruelest way and for an undiscoverable purpose fostered a postwar mood of disaffection and gloom that we see echoed in a work like The Waste Land. Poetry written without meter and rhyme, in fragmented formats, became very common and has often been regarded as an emblem of postwar hostility to the discredited traditional order.

Is there any more we can learn from them?

Yes. Human beings forget, and we can't be reminded too often how unbelievably horrible modern warfare is, with its explosives and machine-made carnage. The war poets haven't lost the power to shock. Owen repays study, with his careful control of tone and irony and the innovation of consonantal rhyme (the rhyming of consonants but not vowels). For example, from "Strange Meeting":

I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

Which of these poets had the most interesting personal life?

Depends on what you find interesting. Rupert Brooke was the best-looking, with the result that dozens of people, women and men, fell in love with him. And he traveled extensively before the war, going to the South Seas and the Continent. He knew notables of his day like Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill.

We haven't mentioned three important avant-garde WWI poets: Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara. The first two poets served in the war.

Yes, Apollinaire and Breton did fight, and Apollinaire received a head wound that he never fully recovered from. The flu epidemic finally carried him off. His best work was already done before 1914, but there are a handful of war subjects, what you might call love poems from the trenches. Some of these ascribe aesthetic aspects to warfare, for example, nocturnal explosions are figured as a kind of flowering. He doesn't dwell on the horror. As for Breton, he was unconcerned with subject matter in the usual sense, so none of his poems qualify as war poems, though it's possible to think of his postwar Surréalisme as being inflected by PTSD; for example, when he says, "Beauty will be convulsive or will not be." Tzara, again, wasn't much concerned with topics in poetry but instead provocation, a gestural absurdism. He was contemporary with the First War but not interested in it.

Which WWI poems do you enjoy the most?

"Enjoy" isn't the word I would use, because more often than not they stir up painful feelings. I'm gripped by, taught by, and admire Rosenberg's "Dead Man's Dump," which includes hideous lines like

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched....

Or Sassoon's "Attack," which concludes this way:

They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

But all in all, I'd say Owen's poems are the best, approaching the subject from so many angles and typically with great technical skill. "Dulce et decorum est," "Strange Meeting," "Anthem for Doomed Youth," "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young," "Mental Cases." And many others. You may know that Benjamin Britten used Owen's poems in his great orchestral and choral work War Requiem. I will begin my commemoration of the centenary by listening to it again. Particularly effective is his setting of these lines from "Anthem for Doomed Youth":

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

*Alfred Corn is the author of a new book entitled Unions. He has written over a dozen other books and is often anthologized.

*Jonathan Hobratsch is the poetry editor for the Literati Quarterly.