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Poetry of the Second World War by Edward…

Poetry of the Second World War

by Edward Hudson

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When we think of war poetry, we think of the First World War. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, In Flanders fields the poppies blow and Dulce et decorum est. And we think of World War One for good reason: because the other seismic conflict of the 20th century – the Second World War – did not seem to produce anything like the same quality. Though gun calibres increased during the interregnum, the calibre of poetry (arguably) did not.

Edward Hudson, who selected the poems for this Poetry of the Second World War anthology, does not seem to be trying to revise this perception, and it is also beyond the remit of this review to speculate as to why it is the case. (Perhaps the real question is: why do we allow poetry to dominate our perceptions of the First World War in a way we do not allow for the Second?) Rather, Hudson is dutifully presenting to us a selection from the later conflict. And whilst there is nothing on the same level as Owen, Sassoon or McCrae (the biggest name here is Bertolt Brecht), there are still some fantastic poems like 'Short Leave' by O. C. Chave and 'High Flight' by John Magee (readers may recognise the latter poem from its invocation in a famous speech by Ronald Reagan after the 1986 Challenger disaster).

That said, while there are quite a few fine poems in Hudson's selection, I didn't feel like I'd been properly immersed in all the poetry World War Two had to offer. Introduced, perhaps, but not immersed. (Off the top of my head, I know W. H. Auden wrote a few poems about the war, and Hudson also fails to include Leo Marks' justly-famous 'The Life That I Have'.) I believe that poetry anthologies should make an effort to guide the reader through their selections by linking them thematically or chronologically, and/or providing introductions, biographies and annotations, rather than just publishing a bunch of them without comment. (The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War, edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, is, to my mind, the best example of this considerate approach.) Hudson's illustrations, whilst good, seemed like stock war photos – many of them I've often seen before – and his short biographies at the end of the book are incomplete, lacking entries for a number of the poets selected.

All told, whilst Hudson makes a commendable effort to provide a diverse selection (German and Russian war poets find themselves represented) I don't feel like this is the definitive anthology of Second World War poetry. It is, nevertheless, a worthwhile one.

Favourites include: 'Foreign Commission' by Norman Hampson, 'High Flight' by John Magee, 'The Fury of Aerial Bombardment' by Richard Eberhart, 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' by Randall Jarrell, 'Short Leave' by O. C. Chave, 'Plastic Airman' by Wrenne Jarman, 'Squadding' by Jack Lindsay, 'The Battle' by Louis Simpson, 'First Snow in Alsace' by Richard Wilbur, 'Blitz Babies' by Pimien Pancanka, 'Identity Disc' by Maksim Tank and 'Second Autumn' by Patrick Savage. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
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