British poetry anthologies of the Second World War: selection, mediation and cultural standing Philippa Lyon Abstract

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British poetry anthologies of the Second World War: selection, mediation and cultural standing
Philippa Lyon

The article presents an analysis of the marginal cultural positioning of Britsh Second World War poetry by contrast with that of the First World War. It considers this positioning in the context both of longstanding cultural interest in historical and dramatic representations of the 1939-45 war and the extensive post-war use of war poetry in British education and commemorative practices. Taking processes of editorial selection and organization as an additional layer of meaning-making to that of the poetry itself, it briefly identifies taxonomical groupings within the large and varied corpus of war poetry anthologies published during and after the Second World War. An account of the post-war reactions to and constructions of this work is given and the article concludes with the argument that such work represents a rich, important and under-appreciated resource for the understanding of Second World War literature and culture.


Second World War poetry; war representation; war culture; anthologies; war poetry; poetry in film.


Philippa Lyon researched literary and cultural analyses of Second World War poetry for her DPhil thesis and published a critical guide on Twentieth Century War Poetry (2005), as well as teaching English Literature in both continuing and higher education. She has been Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton since 2008, during which time her research interests and publications have diversified and developed. She has co-edited a history of the Brighton School of Art, organized an exhibition on the artist MacDonald Gill and her book Design Education: learning, teaching and researching through design has just been published by Gower.


Centre for Research and Development, Faculty of Arts, Grand Parade, University of Brighton, BN2 0JY

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This article draws on work from the author’s PhD thesis and subsequent research, which began with the question of why Second World War poetry tends to have been positioned as marginal and lower in quality than that of the First World War. This research developed into an examination of the definition, extent and nature of Second World War poetry through a concentration on the anthology format, which focussed the field of study and enabled both poetic and editorial preoccupations to be explored. The first section of this article, then, sets out and illustrates the premise of the argument that Second World War poetry is at the margins of contemporary cultural awareness, making reference to dominant conceptions of the ‘war poetry’ genre and representations of the two world wars still in circulation. The second section of the article offers in outline form a taxonomical analysis of a defined group of Second World War anthologies, as a means of opening up and highlighting elements of the literary and cultural-historical value of these works. Noting an unusual case of the popular cinematic mediation of a Second World War poem, the third section of the article describes some of the critical responses in the post-war period, and ends with a case for the re-appreciation of Second World War poetry.
Introduction: representations of war and constructions of war poetry

War poetry in contemporary British culture is often deeply connected with the recording and commemorating of war events and with the way particular wars are remembered and acknowledged. Andrew Motion, for example, (Poet Laureate 1999-2009) described travelling to France with his father, a D-Day veteran, in an article on the D-Day commemorations of 2004. Motion visited Keith Douglas’s grave and saw that a poppy and card bearing the inscription ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ had been placed there1. This is the title of one of Douglas’s best-known and most anthologised war poems, translating as ‘Forget me not’. The sight of this card on the grave leads Motion not only to reflect on his father’s experiences, but also on Douglas’s brief life and poetic career and the relationship between poetry and the Second World War: ‘That’s the authentic, cool Douglas note, in his poems as well as his prose, and it would have captured a time of the war that produced strikingly few good poems. Why so? Partly because the soldier-poets that survived were too busy fighting and driving forward into Germany’ (Motion 2004: 4). Motion’s musings gravitate towards what Douglas might have experienced and written about after the Normandy invasion, had he lived to be part of it. Douglas’s voice was needed in this phase of the war, Motion writes, as it was a period that ‘produced strikingly few good war poems’. It is a comment that reveals an underlying expectation not just in the contiguity of war and poetry, but in a relationship of causality: war begets poetry about war. Just as evident in this quotation is the interest in the poet’s biographical and artistic personality, ‘the authentic, cool Douglas note’. Whilst concern with a poet’s style or stamp of personality is a common preoccupation for those who mine the sedimentary layers of meaning in poetry professionally, there is an additional importance for the reader of war poetry. As Rawlinson (2000) points out, for the war poet figure ‘as it has been constructed since about 1914, cultural and moral authority is founded in an agent-centred and engaged perspective on combat’ (Rawlinson 2000:13). Whilst there is a range of critical approaches within the academic war poetry field, there is still a common perception that the authenticity of a war poet is marked by their involvement in active war service, particularly through their combat experiences. Another implied relationship of causality, then, is that ‘true’ war poets emerge from direct experience of war.

Our experience and understanding of war poetry, as of other genres of poetry, is selected, packaged and mediated. An audiobook anthology, Best of Second World War Poetry (2005), incorporating over 100 poems written by servicemen and women, was published and promoted by a bookseller as ‘a unique testament to the brutal experience of war’ (Alibris 2011). To this statement was added a quotation from Denis Healey, describing the anthology as ‘history with a thousand eyes’ (Alibris 2011)2. This comment implicitly proposes a conflation: the poems are not just historically relevant, they are a literary embodiment of ‘history’. The ‘thousand eyes’ image also metaphorically references a well-established cultural construction of the Second World War as a mass, popular phenomenon. If the First World War, in popular imagination, is trench warfare, a war of land and mud, remote and incompetent leaders and pitiful slaughter, then the Second World War is participation, shared danger, a civilian as much as a forces’ conflict. Paul Fussell in Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (1989) contrasts the representative visual iconography and discourses of the two world wars, noting a preoccupation in Second World War culture with soldierly slang, grousing against authority and resentment of petty minded officialdom. The Second World War is often represented in terms of democratic and quotidian preoccupations; through the views and experiences of the many, a notion notably foregrounded and critically examined by Angus Calder in The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 (1992). It is this critical and popular idea of the war as essentially an experience of the many that finds an echo in Healey’s image of the multitude of eyes.
Collections of Second World War poetry have been published in the post-war period, with a scattering of new anthologies appearing over the last 20 years: from Hudson and Cheshire’s Poetry of the Second World War (1990), five anthologies edited by Victor Selwyn including The Voice of War. Poems of the Second World War: The Oasis Collection (1996)3, to Graham’s Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology (1998) and Haughton’s Poetry of the Second World War (2004). In addition, critical analyses of Second World War literature such as those by Gill Plain (1996, 1997, 2005, 2008), Simon Featherstone (1995), Adam Piette (1995) and Mark Rawlinson (2000) have demonstrated a continued presence of specialist scholarly interest and activity in the field. The niche that Second World War poetry occupies within the poetry publishing sector and in the scholarly war literature community contrasts strongly, however, with the powerful attraction the Second World War holds as a subject for dramatists, documentary-makers and historians. In 1999, the then German Culture Minister, Michael Naumann, remarked ruefully that the British seemed still to be obsessed with the Second World War, and that, in fact, ‘There is only one nation in the world that has decided to make the Second World War a sort of spiritual core of its national self, understanding and pride.’ (Young 1999: 16). Considering the quantity of Second World War documentary and fictional material available over a decade after Naumann’s comment, such as can be seen scheduled on popular history-oriented television channels, the point still stands today. Yet the status and impact of different art forms that explore and represent the war vary greatly. Whilst Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998) became a popular (albeit contentious) cultural reference point in exploring a particular military operation and experience of combat, for example, it would be very difficult to claim that the publication of any new anthology of Second World War poetry has sparked similar ‘watercooler’ interest. Despite broad-based and popular British fascination with the Second World War, efforts by editors and publishers to select, reorganise and represent the poetry by theme in order to reach wider contemporary readerships do not seem to have raised its profile.
Some contemporary war poetry anthologies are particularly interesting in the way they reveal the methodological and ideological problems of selection and mediation. In Hollis and Keegan’s 101 Poems Against War (2003), for example, the unambiguously pacifist editorial stance attempts to constitute the entire poetic offering (taken from several wars) as an articulation of protest: ‘This extraordinary anthology gathers together the most startling poems against war ever written…’ as the book jacket promotional text expresses it. Yet a relatively small number of the poems contained within this anthology display a primary concern with evoking the misery, waste or immorality of war. In particular, Second World War poet Sorley Maclean’s ironic, anti-Nazi poem ‘Death Valley’ fits uneasily beneath this banner, and Second World War poems such as those by Keith Douglas’s ‘How to Kill’ and Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ are, at best, offbeat companions to the more polemical pacifist poems. Douglas’s work displays a fascination with the ‘sorcery’ of the act of killing and observations of the moment and processes of death. To depict Douglas, in the words of the anthology title, as ‘against’ war, underplays the pragmatism and emotional and analytical distance of his poetry, in which, for example, a dead soldier is calmly surveyed as both the lost lover and successfully dispatched enemy. Thomas’s poem, in dealing with the death of a child, is concerned far more with its philosophical significance and with general cultural responses both to childhood and to death, than in presenting a case against war. Indeed, the rootedness of the poem in the conditions of war is not explicit: it can only be construed metonymically. The choice of these Second World War poems in the anthology illustrates a tension between the post-1960s liberal construction of the war poetry genre as broadly anti-war and an interest in poems that elude easy moral or ideological categorisation.
The significance of the Second World War’s marginal and often uneasy positioning can be appreciated better when contrasted with the fortunes of First World War poetry, an oeuvre deeply woven into British culture, including through compulsory curricula, genealogical activity, memorial objects and commemorative practices. For many years Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon have continued to have a presence as war poets in school English Literature texts, and Armistice Day commemorations regularly draw on First World War poems, with ‘For the Fallen’ by Lawrence Binyon (written in 1914) being a particular favourite. Current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was commissioned by the BBC to write a poem in honour of the last British First World War survivors, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch (‘Last Post’, 2009a). Duffy subsequently invited her ‘fellow poets, to bear witness, each in their own way, to these matters of war’ (Duffy, 2009b: 2) and several of the resulting poems quoted or reprised the familiar tropes and images from First World War poetry. At a time when the majority of civilians in the wealthier Western nations are arguably very removed from the realities of war, detached as Haider has argued in this journal (2010) from war’s scope, viscerality and relentlessness, contemporary poets such as Duffy have attempted to use the deep respect accorded the First World War to challenge the prevalence of distanced, even narcoleptic attitudes to war. The history of the changing status and significance of war memorials also tends to privilege the First World War; very few new memorials were built following the Second World War and in many cases, the names and dates of the Second World War dead were added on to existing First World War plaques. In the last two to three decades, memorials have frequently become a focus for reinscription as public sites of grief and remembrance, as examined by Switzer (2010), yet within the realm of changing ritual practices for the expression of loss, it tends to be the 1914-18 war which functions as the Ur-conflict. In 1985, for example, Second World War poets were excluded from a ‘war poet’ memorial unveiled in Westminster Abbey (Bergonzi 1996).
First World War poets and their work have formed the subject of feature films in their own right: the 1993 feature film Regeneration, for example, was based on the eponymous fictional work by Pat Barker that explored the figures of Sassoon and Owen, their relationship to each other, the war and the poetry that appeared in different ways to consume them. There are First World War poems and poets that have become symbolic far beyond their historical moment, with Owen often mobilised as a symbol of the ‘pity of war’. This was a phrase he himself famously coined in a Preface found posthumously among his papers and used for the 1921 collection Poems by Wilfred Owen. Owen became a figurehead for the need to understand and identify with the human suffering beneath military rhetoric, an image underscored by the use of a romantic and thoughtful portrait photograph in uniform in collections of his poems4. Whilst the poetry of the Second World War has been the subject of considerable scholarly and specialist interest, this work does not seem to have led to the poetry being accessed more widely or resonating more strongly. The issue from which this article emerges, then, is this ‘problem’ of Second World War poetry and its marginal cultural standing. The critical thought on this falls into different categories: one view is that, bar a small number of excellent poets, the poetry has not provided sufficient quality to sustain interest (Shires 1985). Another view is that this tendency to seek a small canon of ‘quality’ Second World War poets itself rests on problematic assumptions about war poetry being a genre shaped by the First World War and its literary output (Walter 1997; Lyon 2005 a & b)5. As the next section will explore, a fuller literary-historical contextual account shows that not only was a great deal of Second World War poetry written and published but that it played a significant role in wartime culture. In literary and cultural historical terms, this body of work represents a substantive and meaningful dimension of the British artistic response to the events of 1939-45.
The anthology form and war poetry in Britain during 1939-45

The anthology, as a conglomeration of poems selected and mediated by a supervisory or editorial figure, offered extensive opportunities for meaning-making in wartime. A very large corpus of war poems emerged during the Second World War. This can be defined in historical terms as written in the period 1939-1945, although much of this poetry was published after 1945 and much was re-selected, reorganised and republished in post-war anthologies up to the present. This corpus is also defined thematically: the poetry included within it alludes to, describes or metaphorically explores war conditions, experiences and ideology. Many were put together with overt editorial agendas in mind, exposing some of the values and aims underlying the business of poetry publishing and poetry selling during the war. Extensive scholarly work recording and categorising the poetry of both world wars has been published and provides rich bibliographical data for any researcher in the field (Reilly 1978; Reilly 1986), including lists of edited war poetry anthologies. For the purposes of this research, the focus is a subset of approximately 90 anthologies, based on Reilly’s work (1986) but taking into account a number of works published subsequent to her bibliography.

During 1939-45 poetry was, in content, form and production, greatly shaped by the exigencies of wartime life, and was much in demand. Yet publishers faced the challenges of paper rationing as large quantities of paper were diverted into War Office use for official publications, and as Arthur Calder-Marshall described it in The Book Front ‘Authors themselves were in short supply. The majority were serving with the fighting or civil services. The number and quality of British books declined.’ (Calder-Marshall 1947: 31). Poetry anthologies were particularly popular, although part of the reason for this appears likely to have been practical. As paper rationing measures stopped the production of new literary magazines and saw the collapse of a number of established ones, anthologies circumvented the worst constraints, especially with careful typography and layouts (Beaujou 1940). The poetry anthology’s popularity does not seem to have emerged solely due to a need for efficient use of paper, however. Publishers and editors noted a cultural appetite for the contemporary and a consequent apathy towards, or even rejection of pre-war literature. Author, poet and typographer Sean Jennett noted in ‘The Price of Books’ that many books ‘that would have been sold out within a few days if they had appeared now, remain on stock with the publisher only, it seems, because they were published before the war’ (Jennett 1945: 10). Commenting more specifically on the anthology as a format, Derek Stanford argued that it ‘helped to define the climate of the time. The appearance of each one seemed to indicate fresh paths opening in the literary landscape’ (Stanford 1977: 81). The anthology could be seen as of the moment, immediately relevant and identified with certain common war experiences or domains.
Some poets expressed a sense of defeat or depression about the war and its impact on culture and art; being called up or enduring the attacks on the home front were, for them, crushing to the creative spirit. Charles Wrey Gardiner, poet, editor and founder of Grey Walls Press, wryly observed that ‘when you hear the drone of the flying bomb [it] does not give much time for noting the sad whirl of changing times’ (Gardiner 1946: 127). For others, poetry and war were mutually beneficial companions, even given the demands of active service or perhaps precisely because of these demands. Some talked of the way the condensed, concise nature of poetic expression lent itself to the restless, broken patterns of wartime life, the intermittent drama alternating with boredom, or even the potential speed and immediacy of the poetic form. For the American editor Oscar Williams, for example, ‘The poets who are physically engaged in war bring us more vital news than can the headlines’ (Williams 1943: iii).
Politically, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and the Soviet attacks on Poland and Finland had profoundly unsettled allegiances and assumptions that had taken hold on the Left in the Thirties. If anti-fascism had, as Spender described, been a key unifying factor for the Left particularly in relation to the Spanish Civil War (1946), this had since become substantially more complex. Whilst poets, authors and critics reacted to these political shifts in different ways, the belief in poetry as an art form of special and national significance in wartime continued to be articulated. For Orwell, for example, the war presented the opportunity for a realisable Socialism based on a faith in the tolerance and fairness of the British people. This, he argued, was evidenced in the British attachment to memories of disasters and retreats; their implicit preference for the anti-heroic mode in war poetry: ‘The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry charging in the wrong direction.’ (Orwell 1982: 42). In citing Tennyson and ignoring the long and popular tradition of militaristic and even jingoistic British verse, Orwell was being selective, yet he prefigured the strain of anti-war poetry criticism that was to emerge more vocally in the 1960s. For others, war required the relationship between literary expression and political engagement to be restated, resulting in preoccupations with, for example, the ballad as a form with more political potential and vitality, and as closer to the people6.
There are four interpretive categories that can be applied to the Second World War anthologies: Wartime, Forces, Serial And Manifesto7. These groupings relate to the approaches taken to editorial construction and mediation, together with sample analyses of selected poetry. The point here is not to limit or tidy up a large and diverse body of work but rather to offer a framework through which it can be approached and understood. Anthologies of the first category, for example, can be seen to reflect a strongly social concern with the impact of war, including on civilian life, and to signal through anthology titles a variety of nuanced relationships of contingency and dependency between poetry and war. Thus: Diemer and Reynolds’s Some Poems in Wartime (1941), J Mitford Varcoe’s London 1940: And Other War Verse (1945) and M. J. Tambimuttu’s Poetry in Wartime. These anthologies showed a consciousness of war poetry’s standing as a genre and gestured to particular constituencies of poets, gathering together women poets, ‘younger’ poets or poets from a specific university as contributors (illustrated by Ledward, P. and Strang, C., Poems of This War, by Younger Poets [1942] and Roscoe’s Poems by Contemporary Women [1942]). ‘Wartime’ anthologies, then, displayed an awareness and interest in the defining character of the war, its impact not only on living conditions and patterns of thought but also on writing and publishing. These anthologies tended to register paradoxical or complex views of the war: Patric Dickinson, for example, in the introduction to his Soldiers’ Verse (1945) wrote of the war as both catastrophic and banal in nature. This anthology, which drew on a wide range of poetry with a war theme, also displayed the contradictory nature of contemporary demands on war poetry and the war poet, first signalling its importance, and then approvingly quoting Yeats’s infamous 1930s comment about war poetry, ‘I think it better that in times like these/ A poet’s tongue be silent’ (Yeats 1936: v).
The ‘Forces’ category of anthologies concentrated on poems by members of the armed forces, thus aligning most closely with the popular notion of war poetry referred to in the first section of this article and continuing a ‘soldier poet’ tradition that can be traced back to the First World War. ‘Forces’ anthologies offered service perspectives, displaying strong preoccupations with the interrelationship between military duty, suffering and art. Many titles firmly declaimed their military identity and values: Poems from the Forces, More Poems from the Forces (Rhys 1941; Rhys 1943), Poems from India (Currey and Gibson 1945), Poems from the Desert (Eighth Army 1944). The editorial approaches evident within these anthologies asserted or assumed that war poems written by soldiers had a distinctive value by contrast with those written by civilians. Constructions and critiques of heroism, self-aware, reflective and mocking voices and a confident refusal to regurgitate government-sponsored patriotic rhetoric were all common features of these works. Such publications were closely linked to particular theatres of war or military units, such as in the 1944 Eighth Army anthology Poems from the Desert, the result of a poetry competition written in and about the Western Desert, run by the Army’s Education Officer following the El Alamein victory at the end of 1942. The introduction to this work, in a foreshadowing of Motion’s comment at the beginning of this piece, articulated a clear expectation on the part of the Eighth Army Education Officer that soldiers would want to write poetry about the war, and that many were doing so already.
The ‘Serial’ category refers to the phenomenon of often long-running poetry publication serials that suddenly found it impossible to resist or avoid dealing with wartime issues, such as Thomas Moult’s Best Poems (having had its inaugural issue in 1922, the volumes published in 1939, 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1944 showed the editor’s struggle to adapt his selection methods and ethos to ‘fit’ wartime better). The ‘Manifesto’ category of works, by contrast, saw their explicit purpose as developing a new philosophy or view of civilisation, of claiming a challenging poetic space quite other to that in which wartime events were journalistically recorded, expressed or commemorated. These last anthologies include, for example, The New Apocalypse with an introduction by J. F. Hendry (1939), The White Horseman edited by Hendry and Henry Treece (1941) and The Crown and Sickle, also edited by Hendry and Treece (1944). Such works declaimed that civilisation was in fundamental crisis and made urgent demands for paradigm shifts in cultural understanding. Often influenced by psychological or psychoanalytical as much as political thought, these anthologies emphasised the idea of the ‘organic’ and the deep linking of the unconscious with the conscious mind as critical and radical issues for society.

Whilst mapping and interpreting such a body of work is clearly problematic, the categories outlined above are intended to offer some illumination of the editorial textures and contours within this poetic landscape. Anthologists and poets were concerned to comment upon the material conditions and experiences of the war but often in a way that decentred the idea of heroic combat: they focussed on the dullness, the absence of motivation even in the face of ‘necessary’ war and the banalities of forces’ life, as in one of the more frequent choices in post-war anthologies, Alun Lewis’s ‘All Day It Has Rained’. They also analysed war as a cultural phenomenon, grappling with its many contradictions and dissecting the political and philosophical underpinnings of conflict. A number of poets articulated a loss of confidence in liberal ideas of progress in counterpoint to the notion that victory in the war was likely to lead to a fairer Britain. In this context of moral and spiritual embattlement, many poets also probed uneasily into the nature of selfhood in wartime, not only observing how identity bowed and fractured under the conditions of war but displaying doubts about the basis of their own poetic and personal authority. At the same time, it is possible to see that some poets attempted to sustain more stable poetic voices or personae, from which they could convey the fragility and chaos of the external world.

1945 and after: ‘as dead as other journalism’?

In 1945, the Anthony Asquith directed-film The Way to the Stars was released. The film relates events on a British air base as members of the air force train, depart on missions, count those who don’t return, socialise and woo local women. Flight Lieutenant David Archdale, a heroic figure in the film, writes poetry. When he dies in battle, a poem written by him is discovered, and his grieving widow asks their mutual friend Peter Penrose to read it out to her:

For Johnny
Do not despair

For Johnny-head-in-air

He sleeps as sound

As Johnny underground

Fetch out no shroud

For Johnny-in-the-cloud;

And keep your tears

For him in after years.

Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,

To keep your head,

And see his children fed.

(Wollman 1950: 112-3)
The poem was written by poet John Pudney in 1941 during an air raid on London (Pudney 1978, 76). It was published in the News Chronicle and subsequently read on the radio, seeming to capture popular sentiment about the significance of the air force, air combat and loss more generally in the 1939-45 war. Pudney had been a BBC radio producer and scriptwriter and during the war was recruited to write Government propaganda about air crews. The poem provides a powerful focus of consolation in the film and such was its impact that Johnny in the Clouds, a slightly adapted quotation from the poem, became a second, unofficial title for the film. Based on Flare Path, a stage play by Terrence Rattigan, The Way to the Stars was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to boost morale and strengthen Anglo-American relations. The film featured another of Pudney’s poems, ‘Missing’, and was hugely popular after its release8.
In the poem there is an interplay between the dominant reassuring, stoic wartime ideology (the injunction to ‘keep your head’ and ‘see his children fed’), a representation of the pilot as a glamorous figure and the reference to the pilot’s constant vulnerability to bodily harm or death. The poem is read in the film by Penrose, who is a provider-figure rather than an ingénue, hesitating on the brink of taking up a place in the domestic realm as well as the air base. Yet pilots as a ‘type’ are simultaneously, paradoxically evoked as heroic and otherworldly. The body of flight literature from Saint-Exupery to T E Lawrence and Richard Hillery offers quite distinct constructions of the pilot (Rawlinson 2005): from the earth-bound brother, son or husband who becomes a self-realised hero in uniform, to the idealised, mythic aerial figure, deliberately anonymous. In the ‘For Johnny’ poem in The Way to the Stars, mediated as it is through Asquith’s directorial vision, Mills’s acting style and the propagandist intent of the film’s makers, tensions between competing explorations of the pilot’s experience and significance are evident, yet this romantic cinematic narrative achieved enormous morale-boosting, popular appeal.
In the 15 years following the end of the war, few other poems or poets of the Second World War reached similar levels of familiarity or popularity and Pudney himself commented with bemusement at its continued prominence: “it all belongs to another life” (1975, 76). Literal and symbolic rebuilding efforts and conditions of continued hardship mitigated against the desire for reminiscence or a celebration of wartime art. Experiences of the war were still being processed, including the realisation of the scale of the Holocaust. The doubt about whether it was possible to express trauma and violence on this scale through art was articulated most famously in Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1967, 34). For some literary figures, the issue was not so much the moral, political or philosophical impossibility of art after the Holocaust, but the conditional and historically limited nature of literature written to address very specific war conditions. By the Fifties, Kathleen Raine was referring to the idea of the witness or reporter-poet who wrote: ‘poems descriptive of events in place and time as such, mostly from the war years, that seem now as dead as any other journalism’ (Raine 1956, xiv). Alan Ross commented that: ‘The war was on too huge a scale for any writer to avoid war poetry. […] When the war ended, there was a kind of numbness, an inarticulateness about what was really going on’ (Ross 1950, 923). War poetry, they suggested, had emerged as a type of necessary response to events: its significance and value as ‘art’ lapsed as the peace-time readership moved through a period of post-hoc shock and fatigue.
Second World War poetry was, therefore, located quite quickly as meaningful primarily in relation to its precise circumstances, that is, to the ‘live’ experience of war, whilst selected First World War poets were accorded universal status. Anthony Thwaite in his Contemporary English Poetry (1957) wrote, alongside an analysis of the wartime poetry of David Gascoyne, Sidney Keyes, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis and Drummond Allison, that ‘the implicit feeling amongst most poets seemed to be that Wilfred Owen had said everything worth saying about war itself’ (Thwaite 1959, 122). Thwaite and several later critics (for example, Shires, 1985) focussed on a small canon of 1939-45 war poets ‘proper’, viewing only a few as worthy of serious literary attention and the ‘war poet’ status. This approach has not been entirely without its counter-voices, however. Maurice Wollman’s anthology Poems of the War Years put forward the view that radical and transformational effects had been brought about by war: ‘The War destroyed much that had impaired and clogged English poetry of recent years. … Diminished were the hesitancies, the fumblings, the incertitudes; the poet now more frequently faced reality, grim though it might be, and accepted it, in the ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul, with fortitude..’ (1950, xxiv – xxv). Yet it was often the First World War that was depicted as lending itself to poetry as a form whilst the ‘dispersed and changeable’ nature of the Second World War, it was argued, was more conducive to narrative (Grant 1948, 66). In the mid-1960s, with the emergence of a newly pacifist-oriented social and political protest culture, a more politicized interest in the value of Second World War poetry to literature and culture emerged, alongside a liberal-progressive use of it in education; yet it remained, in popular terms, a very marginal dimension of the representation and understanding of the war.
The success of The Way to the Stars, and the Pudney poem it deploys draws in part on the First World War tradition of the soldier poet: the romantic literary figure who dies in battle, perhaps as a hero, leaving behind poetry that is seen as traversing that difficult route between military and civilian experience and understanding. Yet, as discussed earlier, darker issues are alluded to in both film and poem. Post-war critics have represented Second World War poetry as inclined towards reportage, a mode supposedly in keeping with a justified and necessary war that did not call for a radical new forms and images, a depiction that belies the more introverted, fractured and metaphysical dimensions of the work. War is understood through powerful processes of representation, which involve many layers of selection, mediation and interpretation. Despite the post-First World War tendency to look for familiar metaphors and tropes within war poetry, and to see poems as fitting within an overall coherent narrative of the war, preferably chiselled from the authentic experience of the poet, the richness, scepticism, romanticism and bleakness to be found in much Second World War poetry does not need to be, and often cannot be, constructed or contained in this way. It is this very heterogeneity, the multiplicity of significant domains of wartime experience, the military and domestic contexts equally unsettled and official rhetoric and reasoning questioned or dislodged, that Second World War poetry offers to the literary and cultural history of the war.

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1 Keith Douglas (1920-44) served as an officer in North Africa and then in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He is one of the more frequently anthologized and discussed poets of the Second World War. ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ was published 1943.

2 Healey’s comment is quoted by online bookseller Alibris in the promotional text for the Best of Second World War Poetry audiobook (2005).

3 The Salamander Oasis Trust was established after the Second World War. Its aim was to collect, edit and publish poems written by servicemen during the 1939-1945 War. Selwyn’s five anthologies emerged from the work of this Trust.

4 This can be seen, for example, in the cover of the 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen.

5 Lyon’s 2005 publications (a & b) both consider the idea of the ‘war poet’ and the formation of the war poetry genre in the twentieth century in some detail.

6 Simon Featherstone offers an important critical appreciation of Scottish poets Sorley Maclean and Hamish Henderson, looking at their Second World War poetry and their use of the heroic tradition (Featherstone 1995: 82-87).

7 These category descriptors are elaborated extensively, together with analysis of sample anthologies and poems, in Lyon (2005a).

8 In his autobiography Thank Goodness for Cake, John Pudney described how ‘For Johnny’ “lived on into my middle age with some persistence. Strangers quote it at me at unexpected moment – a commissionaire opening a door, a garage receptionist with tears in her eyes, a North Sea trawlerman, a girl in the Embassy at Athens.” (1978, 76).

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