Tag Archives: Robyn Marsack

The Shepherd’s Farewell: John Greening on Edmund Blunden

12 Feb

In January the Carcanet Blog (http://carcanetblog.blogspot.co.uk/) posted an article on Edmund Blunden by John Greening, who will be appearing at StAnza 2014 as part of our Words Under Fire theme responding to the WW1 centenary. The article is reproduced here with their permission.

Book cover from Carcanet Press

Book cover from Carcanet Press

On 20 January it will be forty years since Edmund Blunden died in the Suffolk village of Long Melford. At the time, although Undertones of War was still popular, and the man was widely loved (a Festschrift for his 65th birthday had included a contribution from the Prime Minister), there did not seem to be much future for his poems.

Here was a war poetry that had never quite left Pound’s ‘dim land of peace’. It was comfortable with syntactical inversion, ‘poetic’ diction, literary allusion. It described nature. Blunden wrote of shepherds as others might mention bus conductors. He assumed readers knew the difference between an ash and an elm, could recognise a coppice, had heard of a hame, a garth. 1974 was the year of High Windows. Traditional pastoral was now either Larkin’s ‘I just think it will happen, soon’ or Ted Hughes’s ice-cream guzzling Crow. In fact, Hughes admired Blunden; and Larkin had just given him prominence in his Oxford anthology. But the fashion now was for an elevated colloquialism (1974 also saw Carol Ann Duffy’s début) and Blunden sounded like ‘one of the crew/That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were’, an echo from the world war before last.

Even in 1914, when the Christ’s Hospital schoolboy’s first book was privately printed, the work might have struck readers as old-fashioned. Of course, he would not be the first Edmund to have sounded quaint to his peers: for a poet’s voice to be heard beyond his or her century, there are less superficial requirements, and even as we catch notes from Edward Young or William Collins, something radically modern flickers beneath the surface of Blunden. Nor was he oblivious to Modernism; when he was given a first edition of Ulysses, he found himself impressed and influenced by it. His enthusiasm for the fractured bell-notes of Ivor Gurney (not to mention his championing of John Clare) reminds us that if he was ‘out of key with his time’, it was because he was ahead of it.

Second Lieutenant Blunden’s poetry was, however, traditional enough to please his Colonel in the Royal Sussex Regiment, who took young ‘Rabbit’ aside from the trenches in 1916 to congratulate him on a review in the Times Literary Supplement. And it is the poet’s experience of war—unspoken sometimes, perhaps even unconscious, but seldom absent—that is the preservative in his poems. There is that famous ‘parapet’ in ‘The Midnight Skaters’, or his pike (since swallowed, alas, by Ted Hughes’s), lurking in a ‘sandbank’ HQ ‘with stony gorgon eyes’. Even what appears the most innocuous piece of pastoral turns to allegory. ‘The Barn’ tells of a curse on an apparently prosperous farm, and features a hail-storm that sounds like an artillery attack. The labourer who experiences ‘the hideous flash’ in ‘The Scythe Struck by Lightning’ might well have been standing near Thiepval.

Of the familiar war poets, Owen and Sassoon did not need to be ‘concerned with poetry’, emerging as they did from nineteenth-century tradition. Rosenberg’s modernist aesthetic might be thought more challenging, yet his poems carry in their lineation clear instructions on how they should be read. Edward Thomas, too, was self-evidently ‘different’, and it did not require much readjustment to interpret his plain style as a new way of expressing an established melancholy. It has taken longer to come to terms with Ivor Gurney, but he too has found a readership. Now, a hundred years after that first publication, four decades since his old runner from Passchendaele threw a wreath of poppies on to his coffin, we need to find a better way of reading Edmund Blunden. Perhaps someone should stand up (as happened for Robert Frost) and tell us he is not a complacent pastoralist; he is terrifying.

John Greening’s recent Oxford Poets collection To the War Poets includes a verse letter to Edmund Blunden. He is currently editing a new edition of Undertones of War for OUP.

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Edinburgh and Glasgow Preview Events for StAnza 2014

22 Jan

Gerda StevensonFor those of you who like to hold it in your hands, to flick through poetry and take a spoonful of events with each cup of coffee, the StAnza brochure for 2014 is almost ready and will be available fresh from the printers at this year’s programme previews.

The first of these free public events takes place at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW on Wednesday 29th January at 6pm, and as ever we’re very grateful to the NLS for their support. There will be short readings from two of this year’s festival poets, Diana Hendry and Gerda Stevenson. All this, plus some music from Edinburgh’s own John Sampson, who will be accompanying Carol Ann Duffy at her events in March, and a round-up of some of the festival highlights. It promises to be a delightful hour of entertainment and if you’re in the Edinburgh area, be sure not to miss it. It’s a free event but please book a seat by calling 0131 623 3734 or via the NLS web page at http://www.nls.uk/events/booking.

The following week the StAnza Roadshow rolls into Glasgow. We’re thrilled that the Tell it slant poetry bookshop at 134 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6ST will be hosting a preview event for us in collaboration with St Mungo’s Mirrorball, as part of an evening of poetry. The StAnza preview will take place on Thursday 6th February at 6.30pm lasting half an hour, with taster readings from some of the Glasgow poets on this year’s programme, Alexander Hutchison and Kathrine Sowerby, and some spoken word from Colin McGuire.

Then there’s the chance to take a short walk up Rose Street for Mirrorball’s Seamus Heaney celebration hosted by the Director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Robyn Marsack. She will be in conversation with award winning novelist and short story writer Bernard MacLaverty on his personal reflections of the life of the Nobel Prize winning poet, including a reading of some of his own favourite pieces by the great man, starting at 7.30, Glasgow Art Club, 185 Bath Street, Glasgow.

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