Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

Sara Pisak, Opinion Editor

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Just having celebrated Veterans Day, the month of November also celebrates “Military Family Month.”

In addition to remembering those who have served our country, it is also of vital importance to appreciate the sacrifices of the families of active and veteran service members. To commemorate “Military Family Month,” I would like to review a recently complied and published text entitled Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology  edited by Tim Kendall.

I stumbled across this book in a small mom and pop bookstore on a weekend drive and I am sure glad I did as I have never experienced anything similar to this text. The anthology, which was just recently available to the public, works to cohesively house poetic works by not only solider poets but also those who contributed to the war effort. A reader can possibly be familiar with “Great War Poets” such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and Ivor Gurney. These five poets are often included in academic Norton or Heath published anthologies that are the go to for English majors everywhere.

These larger Heath anthologies are how I became familiar with the works of these five Great War Poets. Although already having a sense of familiarity with many of the poets selected for inclusion, I have never seen a grouping of First World War poetry this concise. Poetry of the First World War packs the informational and emotional punch of a larger anthology without the bulk.

The succinct setup of Poetry of the First World War works to fully bring the maximum amount of emotion, information and readability. Each new section of works is prefaced by biographical information of the selected author. Tim Kendall, editor, then places the works and author’s biography into cultural and historical context as it relates to the First World War. Kendall is able to achieve biographical, cultural, historical and literary significance in an average of three pages per selected author. Kendall challenges misconceptions regarding the authors included as well as contemplates the works’ receptions without being overloaded, rushed or overlooked. This quick moving informational section allows the reader the gift of direct access to the authors’ sentimental works which follows.

Poetry of the First World War is also unique in that Kendall has included women poets who contributed or have been affected by the war. Readers are graced with the works of May Sinclair, Mary Borden and Margaret Postgate Cole, who are authors that have not been included in other war themed anthologies. The inclusion of these otherwise marginalized women and Great War Poets allows this anthology to offer several varying points of view as to the idealistic or horrific war views, the bitterness war provokes and the unnecessary destruction of life during wartime. Allowing these poetic perspectives at times to compliment and to contradict each other is what makes Poetry of the First World War not only a great read but a complete and decisive anthology.

Adding to the diversity of Poetry of the First World War is Kendall’s inclusion of poems from the First World War which have never been published until their inclusion in his anthology. This diversity of work continues to bring out elements of which poems written during wartime strive to invoke. It is not only great writing but the break in uniformity which allow sentiment to shine above all else.

Breaking uniformity allows a reader to cry when reading Mary Bowden’s work “Unidentified” in which a soldier “waits for death-/ He knows-/ He watches it approach.” It also allows a reader to question the purpose of war while Sassoon’s vivid landscape images from trench to trench wash over the reader. Without this diversity, Poetry of the First World War would simply be lacking sentiment and dimensionality, two elements this anthology is not lacking.

I feel it is only right to conclude this review in the same manner in which the anthology also terminates. Kendall selected to conclude his anthology with “Music Hall” and “Trench Songs” sung and composed by soldiers during the First World War. A reader cannot help to be flooded with compassion when reading the lyrics to “I Want to Go Home.” Kendall informs “I Want to Go Home” was sung by poet Ivor Gurney’s regiment during heavy bombardment. Gurney states, “it is not a brave song, [..] but brave men sing it.” The trench music adds genuine emotion as these songs were song by not only gifted poets but also sung by the everyday soldier who employed these songs to lift their spirits.

As a reader closes the final page after reading the last trench song, they cannot help but notice the sentiments expressed as far back as a 100 years ago are much more current than one realizes and they have Poetry of the First World War to thank for opening their eyes.

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