Title: Teaching World War I poetry--comparatively
Author(s): Margot Norris
Source: College Literature. 32.3 (Summer 2005): p136. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Article
In his magisterial book, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, Samuel Hynes describes the challenge that World War I posed to art. "Reality had changed, in fundamental ways that called into question the assumptions on which art, and civilization itself, had been based" (1990, 11), he writes. This insight has always shaped my approach to the poetic experiments of the canonical figures I teach in my required upper-division course on "Anglo-American Modernism." This large lecture class confronts undergraduates with the difficult texts of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Djuna Barnes, and others. Students readily grasp the notion that writers shaken by a cataclysmic four-year war would feel impelled to develop new forms and devices for conveying a post-traumatic vision of the modern world. But a curious problem emerges when the High Modernists and the trench poets are taught side by side in the same syllabus. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and the other British soldier-poets appear so much more conventional, formally, and so much less brilliantly experimental, than the Eliot of The Waste Land, the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the Woolf of Mrs. Dalloway, and the Barnes of Nightwood. This emergence of such a disparity in the classroom is interesting because it harks back to some of the controversies between British poets with different aesthetic and ideological allegiances at the time of the war and in its aftermath. These controversies culminated, as we remember, in W. B. Yeats's infamous marginalization of trench poetry on poetic and aesthetic grounds. (1) But in the classroom, this problem of poetic evaluation is best addressed by considering it in light of the different aesthetic and ideological pressures on the trench poets or soldier poets that can be historically and culturally contextualized.
One highly productive response to this problem is to teach the British trench poets side by side with the German soldier-poets of the First World War. Like their British counterparts, the German poets too needed to present a new vision of reality, as Hynes has called it (1990, 11). And for the soldier-poets who saw mechanized combat on both sides of the trenches, this challenge was not merely aesthetic, but also ethical and ideological. The problem of inventing new forms for a new reality was further intensified by the immense volume of poetry stimulated almost instantly by the outbreak of World War I. Reliable estimates suggest that close to 50,000 poems were written daily in Germany as well as in Britain during the first month of the War, August 1914. (2) Not surprisingly, much of this poetry was highly patriotic in sentiment and often amateur in form. But the serious soldier-poets of World War I met the challenge of representing the new reality inaugurated by the war by engaging in their own poetic struggles with the received and emergent aesthetic traditions of their day. These traditions offered a variety of acceptable and unacceptable ideological options to both English and Continental poets writing in the early decades of the twentieth century. One outcome of these struggles was that the British poets generally rejected the new forms offered by an ideologically problematic avant-garde, and retreated instead to the pastoralism of Georgian poetry for their forms. The German poets, in contrast, were able to modify Continental avant-garde techniques, such as those offered by a robust Expressionism, into poetic strategies that produced far more radical expressions of the war experience. This difference was produced by the very different political implications offered to the poets by their respective avant-garde options. British poets were appalled by the militarism and violence implicit in the Futurism and Vorticism that excited many of the pre-war modernists, while the Germans could look to an Expressionism that offered ways of presenting intense and dramatic feeling without sentimentality. I will offer more specific examples of this argument at a later moment. But I simply wish to suggest for now that when classroom discussion is guided at the outset by a thesis of the sort I am here proposing, student discussion and analysis of the poetic issues raised by combat poetry is quickly sharpened. And by putting the British trench poetry side by side with German trench poetry, it becomes possible to give students historically specific contexts for understanding the ways that poetry is constrained by traditions, institutions, belief systems, and prevailing aesthetic movements.
Teaching World War I poetry comparatively in this way is, of course, easiest and most plausible in the curricula of Comparative Literature programs and departments. But by using translations and putting bilingual texts for the German poets into a course pack, the course can be taught under a variety of rubrics in English departments as well. Furthermore, by adjusting the specificity of the context, such a course can be adapted to different instructional levels ranging from lower-division to senior and undergraduate honors seminars. In teaching the work of soldier-poets fighting on opposite sides of the trenches, my aim is to communicate three important concepts to students that I hope will offer them valuable applications beyond the realm of war writing. The first principle is that notions of an essential national character are both unhelpful and ideologically suspect in trying to account for the differences in poetry written across national divides. Students with exposure to culture criticism and postcolonial theory have generally been trained to appreciate the necessity to de-essentialize race, gender, and nationality. A comparative war literature course reinforces this insight and offers specific demonstrations even to students without theoretical training. The second point students are led to explore in some depth is that literature is not created ex nihilo out of some unmediated or pure experience, even an experience as dramatic and vivid as military combat. This opens the way for students to consider poetic traditions, cultural communities, publishing venues, economics and other historical conventions, factors, and institutions as determinants of how and what poets may be able to produce. Third, we consider the ideological inflections of literary and cultural enterprises as carriers of value and ethical judgments that may be particularly charged and consequent in a wartime atmosphere.
I generally begin my class by reminding students that poetry was an extremely popular genre in both England and Germany at the beginning of World War I--a point that draws their attention to the print cultures that made poetry available to general audiences in newspapers and magazines. This attention to the publication and distribution vehicles of poetry quickly demonstrates how poetry passes through institutional filters on its way to a reading public. In her study of French, English, and German First World War Poetry titled The Nation's Cause, Elizabeth Marsland writes,
Thousands of the poems were first published in popular daily
newspapers, where they reflected or reiterated the paper's political
stance--rampantly chauvinistic in the Daily Mail or the Tagliche
Rundschau, for example, and perhaps a little more subdued in The
Times or the Frankfurter Zeitung. Others appeared in newspapers and
magazines with an anti-war leaning--and consequently with a much
more limited circulation. (Marsland 1991, 6)
The left-leaning British papers and journals Marsland discusses included The Nation, reflecting views of the progressive branch of the Liberal Party, the New Statesman, a major outlet for Bertrand Russell, the Quaker Ploughshare, and The Worker's Dreadnought, published under the aegis of the Worker's Suffrage Federation (19). In addition to these limited venues, the soldier poets experimenting with new voices to express their new realities found publishing opportunities in a number of independent anthologies and noncommercial journals called "little magazines." (3) These forms of independent publishing--which played a crucial role in the publication of Modernist poetry and fiction--played an even more critical role in the dissemination of World War I combat poetry in both England and Germany. My aim in this opening section of the course is to encourage students to imagine an earlier print culture of some heterogeneity and a diverse political spectrum that nonetheless promoted chiefly patriotic poetry to stimulate recruitment, with far fewer venues available for anti-war or protest poetry.
A discussion of one of these independent magazines--Wyndham Lewis's Blast, illustrated with slides of its bold and aggressive typefaces, colors, and illustrations--introduces students not only to avant-garde experimentation in England, but also to its ideological complications. Blast appeared in the context of the growing popularity of Italian Futurism, and should be presented to students along with F.T. Marinetti's Futurist Manifestos. These demonstrate how the fascination with energy, technology, speed, and violence--which captivated Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, among others--could be readily transformed into an overtly militaristic agenda. The elements of theatricality and exaggeration in the Futurist program were displayed in Marinetti's highly popular 1912 and 1914 stage appearances in London. Ezra Pound's biographer, John Tytell, reports Jacob Epstein's account of the spectacle of Marinetti on stage--a report that helps to make Futurism as a spectacle vivid to students: "He would imitate machine-gun fire, the whirr of airplane engines, and the boom of cannon, but the poems were of 'a commonplace and banality that was appalling'" (1988, 106). (4) But if Marinetti's spectacles bordered on harmless self-parody in their early performances, it is not difficult to show why the declaration of war in 1914 would have stripped the playfulness from his 1909 manifesto. "We wish to glorify War--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn of women" (Apollonio 1973, 22) this Futurist Manifesto announced. Futurism's lack of subtlety makes its political agenda readily recognizable to students. For more advanced undergraduates a more complicated explanation for how the modernists reacted to Futurism's political vulgarity may be helpful. I explain that Lewis's Blast was in part a reaction against the blatant militancy of Futurism by translating its aims to celebrate energy and technological power into a more aestheticized version as Vorticism. In other words, Blast promoted a vigorous, energy-filled, even violent art rather than a violent foreign policy. In the end, however, Blast itself offers students the best demonstration why Vorticism became an implausible model for soldier poets. Facsimile editions of the July 1915 War issue of Blast offer the startling juxtaposition of the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska's playful piece "VORTEX GAUDIER-BRZESKA. (Written from the Trenches)" with the shocking obituary notice of his combat death in France (Lewis 1981, 34). Blast dramatizes the unplanned and horrible interplay between an aggressive art form and actual military violence. In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner laments that "the war drained [Vorticism] of usefulness" (1971, 241). "Six weeks after Blast was published Europe was at war. *** End of a Vortex," he writes (247). However, I stress in class that if the war killed the Vortex, it was because the war imitated the Vortex too dramatically and too destructively. It thereby produced a kind of collateral damage by depriving the British soldier poets of an avant-gardism that could have given them the reality-altering forms they needed to express their experiences of combat.
The aggressive ideology behind Britain's pre-war avant-garde movements can offer a more nuanced explanation for the British trench poets' turn toward the pastoralism of the Georgians for their conventions--even though this earned them the disdain of the Imagists and the Modernists. Paul Fussell argues that pastoralism was for the trench poets both an antithesis to the calamity of the war, a code for its opposite, as well as a comfort, a kind of spiritual dug-out or woolly vest (1975, 235). Students readily grasp this point about the attraction of a poetry attuned to the natural world and its beauty and its cycles for soldiers living in miserable conditions in underground trenches. But it should be argued that pastoral poetry offered not merely an escape or a poetic regression to soldiers. Instead of a retrograde Romanticism, as the Modernists believed, the anti-mechanistic ideology of the Georgians may have attracted the soldier-poets. Georgian poetry anthologies and magazines, such as the journal New Numbers, thus became hospitable havens for the trench poets. The Georgian poetry movement offers an opportunity to acquaint students with the sociology of independent British publishing during the second decade of the twentieth century. The series, Georgian Poetry, which published five volumes between 1912 and 1922, was edited by Winston Churchill's private secretary, Edward Marsh, a man with a small private income and an eminent circle of friends that included the Asquiths. Harold Monro, the editor of Poetry Review, published the series from his Poetry Bookshop near Gray's Inn in London. (5) Joseph Cohen, the biographer of Isaac Rosenberg, calls Edward Marsh and Harold Monro "those two great middlemen of the Georgian era" (1975, 89). The first volume of Georgian Poetry contained work by Marsh's protege, Rupert Brooke--a young poet whose later war sonnets were greatly admired for their combination of patriotism and flawless craftsmanship. Brooke's presence in Georgian Poetry may have signaled the anthology's willingness to serve as a vehicle that could provide soldier-poets with an alternative both to the violence of Blast and to the aestheticism of the Modernists. Samuel Hynes writes, "The principal war poets allied themselves not with the new avant-garde of Eliot and Pound and Imagism, but with the Georgians: Owen wrote to his mother: 'I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet's poet.' And Sassoon and Graves appeared in Marsh's Georgian Poetry volumes" (1990, 202).
The Georgian Poetry anthologies may also have been particularly hospitable to trench poetry because their publisher, Harold Monro, worked in the War Office and wrote at least one trench poem. "Youth in Arms" is inflected with pastoral images and sentiments. Describing a dead soldier in danger of not being found, the poet fears that "In a little while your limbs will fall apart;/ The birds will take some, but the earth will take most of your heart," and consigns the corpse to a second birth in natural renewal--"You are fuel for a coming spring if they leave you here" (Crawford 1998, 71). This formally flaccid and clumsy poem serves as a useful foil for demonstrating to students the brilliant use of pastoral conventions by a poet like Isaac Rosenberg. Curiously, Rosenberg, who studied painting at the Slade School of Art, first came to Edward Marsh's attention in 1913 because Marsh hoped to publish a companion piece to Georgian Poetry called Georgian Drawing (Hassall 1959, 280). Marsh was impressed enough with Rosenberg's art to buy his paintings and become his patron. (6) To some extent Rosenberg shared the pastoral influences that also characterized the sonnets of Rupert Brooke (7) which were published in New Numbers, another periodical published by four Georgians including Edward Marsh. But Rosenberg went on to re-function the field flower imagery and mellow lyric voice of the pastoral into a paradoxically urbane trench poem. His aubade, "Break of Day in the Trenches," was literally written in the trenches. It is considered by Paul Fussell to be "the greatest poem of the war" (1975, 250),
The darkness crumbles away--
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand--
A queer sardonic rat--
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German--
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver--what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust. (Giddings 1988, 67)
I generally precede discussion of Rosenberg's poem by having students read Rupert Brooke's sonnet "The Soldier." I encourage them to admire the fluidity of Brooke's language poured into the traditional rhyme scheme: "There shall be/ In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;/ A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,/ A body of England's breathing English air" (Giddings 1988, 25). But students quickly appreciate the difference between Brooke's romantic and patriotic image of the soldier's grave and Rosenberg's own elegant ability to conflate the "bowels of the earth" in "the torn fields of France" as the burial ground of healthy young men vulnerable to the "whims of murder." Paul Fussell remarks, "All the speaker's imagining has been proceeding while he has worn--preposterously, ludicrously, with a loving levity and a trace of eroticism--the poppy behind his ear. It is in roughly the place where the bullet would enter if he should stick his head up above the parapet" (1975, 252). Rosenberg's poem is important for showing students how pastoral elements--the daybreak, the poppy--can be used as ironic contrast to the rat-infested trench. Students also appreciate the absence of graphic or brutal images by a poet who expresses the horror of mechanized warfare so obliquely. In the end, the poem's power seems to reside for students in the poem's stirring of a profound regret that the delicate sensibility of the poet, both its speaking persona and its author, will be annihilated. Students are generally jolted to learn that both Brooke and Rosenberg were killed not long after they penned their verses. These poems in which young men predict their own deaths offer students one of the most powerful demonstrations that poetry matters.
We follow discussion of Rosenberg's poetry with that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others with the aim of tracking how pastoralism was transformed into a viable and powerful expression of the British soldiers' World War I combat experience. In their imaginations, such natural images as poppies, wheat, and the cyclical year became signifiers of the war's cost. In an early poem, Wilfred Owen's invocation of the seasons in his sonnet "1914" uses nature to allegorize the war as a harvest of cultural loss and spiritual destruction--"Now begin/ Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin./The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled" (Giddings 1988, 26). These poignant figurations of a ruined poetic world prepare students to ponder the mystery of why one the greatest and most renowned poets of the twentieth century, W.B. Yeats, would exclude all trench poets except Herbert Read from his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. How could Yeats deride Owen as a sappy sentimentalist and dismiss Rosenberg as "all windy rhetoric" (Crawford 1998, 202)? This question is usefully raised at this point because it provides a sharp focus on Modernist aesthetic criteria. I suggest to students that Yeats's own example of a great World War I poem, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," serves as his aesthetic (and aestheticized) alternative to trench poetry: "I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above;/ Those that I fight I do not hate,/ Those that I guard I do not love" (Yeats 1937, 87). The poem abolishes the trenches and every trace of combat and its horrific machinery of war, including the airplane, to transform the airman into a kind of angel of peace, a voice of perfect equanimity and acceptance. In a sense, Yeats's gesture as editor banishing trench poetry from his important Oxford anthology recapitulates his gesture as a World War I poet, banishing fighting and killing from his poem in favor of making his airman transcendent and turning his combat death into an apotheosis. Paul Fussell deserves great credit for restoring British trench poetry to the canon in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). My hope is to convince students not only that the greatest of the soldier-poets--Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Charles Hamilton Sorley, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Herbert Read, Edmund Blunden, Richard Aldington, Ivor Gurney, Julian Grenfell, and Robert Graves--produced great poetry, but that they did so in the face of ideological pressures that consigned them to old and seemingly exhausted poetic forms. Their implicit and explicit criticism of the War in their poems flew in the face of the hyper-patriotic fervor on the home front and in the media during the war, a fervor seen in the public adoration that met Rupert Brooke's patriotic sonnets. Yet Futurism and Vorticism, with their celebration of energy, technology, and violence made a virtual mockery of their experiences in the trenches. And Modernism, with its pressure to restrain feeling and maintain impersonality further deprived them of the new vehicle of Modernism's highly crafted and controlled poetic forms to express their experiences. The trench poets ended up fighting not only a military war but also a cultural war--one they effectively lost to the Modernists until Fussell rescued them in the 1970s.
An excellent work for concluding the section on British poetry is Charles Hamilton Sorley's "When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead" because it self-consciously addresses the war poet directly on the ethical and representational problem of the use and abuse of the dead, the fallen soldiers, in verse.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so. (Giddings 1988, 29)
The poet tempted to eulogize the fallen is told to lay off praising dead soldiers because it provides them no benefit, does them no good, and therefore doesn't matter. There is only this shocking advice to the war poet: "It is easy to be dead./ Say only this, 'They are dead'." Sorley's poem is one of a number of poems that invoke the figure of mouthlessness, or the broken mouth or broken teeth, as a trope for the difficulty or inability of soldiers to articulate their experiences. The trope of the broken mouth also serves as an effective segue to the German soldier-poets of the first World War--where it can be linked to Georg Trakl's famous poem "Grodek." The poem begins:
At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths. (Giddings 1988, 30)
Unlike many of the British poems that end in hopeful exhortations to the reader, the German poems appear much more fatalistic and nihilistic. For them the front was perilously close to their homeland, a proximity that seemed to produce in them a sense of engulfment--as though there were no separate civilian world to which one might appeal to stop the war. Yet in another respect the German writers were more fortunate than their British counterparts. They had access to an amenable avant-garde tradition in the form of Expressionism, which gave them a powerful vehicle for expressing extreme emotion without resorting either to the overcharged sentiment of German Romanticism or the cold violence of Italian Futurism. I generally remind my students of the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Edvard Munch's painting of The Scream to illustrate how Expressionism used pictorial distortions of both natural and cultural landscapes to formally represent the traumatized or deranged psyche.
The earlier discussion of how various cultural institutions and publishing venues either constrained or abetted the work of the British soldiers can be made about the Germans as well. In contrast to the English trench poets, the German poets benefited from anti-establishment avant-garde journals politically hospitable to anti-war and protest poetry at the outbreak of the war. In one respect they had their counterpart to Edward Marsh, an editor named Julius Bab. Bab collected reprints of poems already published in newspapers and magazines in a series of twelve anthologies between 1914 and 1919 titled 1914: Der deutsche Krieg im deutschen Gedicht (that is, "1914: German War in German Poetry"). He also compiled a bibliography on the German war lyric called Der deutsche Kriegslyric, 1914-1918, which he published in 1920 (Marsland 1991, 11). But while Julius Bab was not particularly interested in experimental poetry per se, three German literary magazines in existence at the beginning of the war welcomed avant-garde poetry influenced by Continental Expressionism. They were Die Aktion ("Action"), Die weisse Blatter ("White Pages"), and Der Sturm ("The Storm"). Two of these journals particularly welcomed anti-war contributions from soldiers in combat. The editor of Die Aktion, Franz Pfemfert, introduced a column dedicated to "Verses from the Battlefield" as early as October 1914. In 1916, these poems, many of them influenced by German Expressionism, were collected into an anthology that billed itself explicitly as an "anti-war anthology"--eine Anti-Kriegs Anthologie (16). The point in drawing attention to these avant-garde publishing venues is not to argue for a more generally progressive cultural milieu in Germany but for the existence of an experimental and avant-garde tradition without the ideological complications confronted by the British poets. Expressionism carried with it none of the militarism of Futurism, nor the celebration of violence in Vorticism, nor the contempt for the masses and their degradation of art that riled the Anglo-American Modernists and made them contemptuous of the proletariat in the trenches. (8) The German havens for poetic protest literature did encounter official opposition. Indeed, a number had acute problems with censorship. Rene Schickele's journal, Die weissen Blatter was moved to Switzerland in 1916, and another Expressionist journal, titled Neue Jugend ("New Youth") was actually closed down (187). Another pre-war anti-establishment journal called Simplicissimus, edited by Ludwig Thoma, lost considerable respect during the war for deciding to abandon its anti-establishment satire in the interest of nationalist solidarity in the face of the War (169). Franz Pfemfert was warned by the German censors to refrain from political commentary after publishing an editorial condemnation of chauvinism in the August 1914 issue of Die Aktion. (9) But Elizabeth Marsland notes that this threat seems to "have reinforced the commitment of the editor, his collaborators, and their circle of readers, rather than impeding it "(188). Pfemfert gave up editorializing, but the unflinching trench poetry he continued to publish throughout the war took its place as a tacit protest.
The contrast between the British trench poets and the German trench poets is best demonstrated by their very different handling of pastoralism. In its 1914-1916 war poetry anthology, Die Aktion published the graphic field hospital poems of the German surgeon-poet Wilhelm Klemm as well as several of his great Expressionistic poems including one called "Schlacht and der Marne," or "The Battle of the Marne." In Klemm's poem, as in Trakl's "Grodek," the pastoral elements became a transmogrified nature rendered unnatural and menacing to convey a shocked perception, a traumatized psyche mirrored in monstrously distorted images. The English poets rarely transformed nature in such a hallucinatory and disturbing way in their pastoral evocations. Here is Patrick Bridgwater's translation of the first stanza of Klemm's "Battle of the Marne":
Slowly the stones begin to stir and to speak.
The blades of grass freeze into green metal.
The woods, low, dense hideouts, swallow distant columns.
Heaven, that chalk-white mystery, threatens to burst (Bridgwater
All is perverse in this landscape, in which inorganic stones speak while grass becomes petrified, and the forest, shelter for living things, becomes itself a predator gorging on human men. The swollen sky, threatening to explode, seems prophetically to look forward to the explosive mushroom clouds shuddering through the firmament with the atomic bomb blasts of World War II.
But the most avant-garde German poetry of World War I appeared not in Die Aktion, but in the journal Der Sturm, published by Herwarth Walden. And here a possible paradox enters into my narrative of combat poetry's relationship to the avant-garde in England and Germany. The English critic T.E. Hulme--who approved of the War and has been described as an "intellectual militarist"--became acquainted with the poetry in The Storm and wrote about it in his "German Chronicle." Describing it as an "art-paper" of the Futurist and Cubist type, he was impressed with the poetry: "Very short sentences are used, sometimes so terse and elliptical as to produce a blunt and jerky effect ... it is clear that a definite attempt is being made to use the language in a new way" (Bridgwater 1985, 38). The most unusual and radically new poetry published in the periodical was that of the German poet August Stramm, who appeared in The Storm from 1914 onwards. August Stramm was on the verge of abandoning both his playwriting and his poetry when Herwarth Walden agreed to publish his highly abstract verses in his journal. Kurt Moser's monograph on the aesthetic theories and abstract poetry of Der Sturm during the years 1910-1930 discusses, without a clear resolution, the controversial question of whether August Stramm embraced both Walden's Futurist formal and ideological agenda (1983, 92). If so, then the very avant-garde movement ideologically repellent to the English soldier-poets would have nourished the most extreme poetic experiment by a German trench poet. This particular question about the relationship of art, war, and politics is so complex that it might be difficult for all but the most advanced undergraduates to sort out the stakes involved. But I believe some guidance can make this a fruitful discussion. Judging from the poems themselves, I find in Stramm's poetry none of the infatuations with technology, energy, and violence found in Futurism and Vorticism. Instead, his breaking of language and poetic form produced a deconstruction of syntactic and semantic language that itself performatively expresses the "new reality" of World War I as the end of language signifying the end of the world.
(White 1979, 62-63; my translation, from "Haidenkampf")
Here a war poem bleeds. This and other poems by Stramm, can help students understand that sometimes poetic form itself, rather than graphic content, can convey the most powerful impression of war's destructiveness.
As I have described it, this course on the British and German Poetry of World War I works best as an upper-division Junior or Senior Seminar or perhaps a class for Honors students. But I believe it may work at different levels, depending on the degree of specificity offered by the course materials, and by the nature of the assignments that give students an opportunity to work out their own demonstrations and explorations of the material. For example, for a Freshman or Sophomore class the discussions of the print media in England and Germany, and their role in limiting or fostering combat poetry or anti-war poetry, could be kept relatively general, with only the major point of the thesis highlighted. In such a class I would stress the point that reception matters to poets, including poets in the field with their urgent need to be heard. Opportunities for publication therefore play an important role in the production of anti-war or protest literature at a time of great patriotic fervor. This point can be made even without presenting detailed discussions of the differences between the Modernists and the Georgians, or the oppositional role of the German avant-garde journals. But even for beginning students, recognition that the cultural landscape and cultural institutions, rather than inherent national character or inclination, determine the kind of poetry soldier-poets may produce seems important preparation for the kind of culture criticism they will encounter in their more advanced classes. Assignments in such lower-division classes should probably aim at comparisons of the poems themselves. My-earlier suggestion, that Charles Hamilton Sorley's "When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead" can be paired with Georg Trakl's "Grodek," suggests one such exercise. For another example, students might be asked to compare two poems with graphic depictions of soldier injury-such as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" and Wilhelm Klemm's "Clearing Station" poems, which describe the wounds of soldiers in a field hospital--and discuss their different poetic techniques. A more sophisticated assignment might ask them to look at Gaudier-Brzeska's piece in the June 1915 war issue of Blast and compare it with some of Stramm's poems that appeared in Der Sturm. The assignment could ask them to discuss the differences between avant-garde journals and their avant-garde contents in the two countries. The anthology that I would recommend for Freshman and Sophomore classes on British and German World War I Poetry is Robert Giddings's The War Poets (1988). This handsome volume looks like a coffee table book, but it is so much more. It presents a year-by-year array of World War I poetry--an arrangement that suggests another interesting classroom exercise. Students could be asked to compare poems written in different countries in the same year and dilate their differences. Such an assignment would also illustrate to them how dramatically war poetry changed during the progress of the war. Giddings's anthology also offers contextualizing commentary as well as paintings, cartoons, photographs, and sketches that give the war a vivid cultural representation. Giddings also gives brief biographical sketches of an international array of war poets at the end, along with a helpful index. While it does not include all the German poems I would want to discuss, The War Poets offers a number of them, including Trakl and Stramm. Availability may be a difficulty. The hardback version appeared in 1988 and remains available for $24.95--a worthwhile expenditure given both the usefulness and the attractive appearance of the volume. But the 1990 paperback unfortunately appears to be out of print. Another readily available anthology with an excellent array of British and Continental poetry is Jon Silkin's First World War Poetry (1981) published by Penguin.
For Juniors and Seniors, this course can offer an advanced introduction to the cultural production of poetry and to a more expansive approach to World War I literature than that offered in Anglo-American Modernism survey courses. When I teach this course as an upper-division seminar, I generally require a single but ambitious assignment in the form of a formal research paper. This not only satisfies my university's upper-division Writing requirement, but also allows me to give students valuable training in producing a formal 18-22 page paper suitable to be submitted as a Writing Sample if they apply to graduate school. This assignment is carefully structured in a series of stages, including a paper prospectus and annotated bibliography, an advising session where students discuss their thesis and their outline with me, a paper draft, and a revision. I ask for at least ten scholarly or critical sources and citations using the MLA Style Sheet. In the last few class sessions, students present abstracts of their papers to the class, and they are encouraged to bring in hand-outs, images, and other materials to illustrate their work. Although the course itself focuses on British and German poetry, I generally give students wide latitude on their paper topics. I have received papers that successfully explored British and German war propaganda, for example, or differences in American and French war films illustrated by a comparison of the 1930 Lewis Milestone film of All Quiet on the Western Front and Jean Renoir's 1937 Grand Illusion. While these topics clearly veer off the specific focus of the course, they nonetheless encourage students to explore the cultural contexts of representations of World War I, besides strengthening their research, analytical, and writing skills. My latitude on paper topics also acknowledges to classes that the course's tight focus on English and German combat poetry restricts our vision to male experiences at the front. (10) This specificity leaves aside the civilian experiences of the home front, (11) the writings and especially the poetry of women, (12) and such important and fascinating issues as the experience of, say, Irish or African-American soldiers in World War I, (13) who fought on behalf of governments with oppressive policies toward their people. Since students are unlikely to take more than one World War I course during their college careers, I want to give them fairly wide parameters in their exploration of the general topic. My hope is that the experience of looking at the poetry of both sides of a major military conflict will enlarge their humanistic outlook and widen their aesthetic sensibility as they respond to the wars that will inevitably erupt and confront them in their own lifetimes in the twenty-first century.
The exploration the author depicts as the reasoning to teach the trench poetry of Britain and Germany side by side is well founded but not necessarily a positive idea. The aspects have merit but serve to compare two cultures that value different ideals. While that does serve some use, it can also be detrimental to the reading of some of the poetry. When teaching the poetry side by side, the student will consistently be viewing the poetry as a comparison as oppose to a stand alone piece ...
This solution explores the idea of teaching British and German trench poety side by side. The attached is an article discussing the aspect of teaching these two styles together.