Poem

The so-called 'war poets' have a central place in Anglophone literature and memory of the First World War. The enduring appeal of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves tends to obscure the global dimensions of First World War poetry and the important social function of poetry for amateur writers one hundred years ago.

In early twentieth-century Europe, writing verse was part and parcel of the education and pastimes of the more or less educated classes. Rhyming couplets or quatrains were produced at almost every social occasion, to comment on matters of the heart or political events. Newspapers carried poetry, as did postcards, letters, leaflets, and magazines. The amount of poetry produced during the cataclysm of the First World War is staggering. The German anthologist Julius Bab calculated that in Germany alone during the first month of the conflict, around 50,000 poems a day were written. The German Booksellers catalogue for the years 1915-1919 mentioned more than one thousand volumes in the category ‘World War: Poems’. A bibliography compiled in 1921 by Birmingham’s Public Library included around 1,200 English, 200 French, and 69 Italian volumes, alongside material in Czech, Danish, Gaelic, and Latin. Jean Vic’s 1927 bibliography mentioned 250 French titles, half of them different to the ones on the Birmingham list. More recent bibliographic efforts refer to more than 2,200 English writers (a quarter of them women) writing verse about the war, and 980 French and 654 German volumes of Great War poetry.

A small proportion of these poems was produced by soldiers or officers on active duty; mothers, lovers, nurses, priests, diplomats, journalists, and politicians also contributed. They dealt with their own feelings of excitement, bewilderment, and bereavement but a substantial amount of poems could be labelled as blatant propaganda. Most of the poetry written in this period can best be understood as the early 20th Century counterpart to Twitter or Facebook. Using every stock phrase or rhyme available, people and institutions would vent their anger, fear, or love.

Poetry had an actively public role; it functioned almost as a form of journalism - a way to mark and memorialise contemporary events. A volume of poetry could be the size of a novel, comprising several hundred pages of poems dealing with specific generals, battles, ruined cities, and martyred heroes. The French poet Paul Fort’s Poèmes de France. Bulletin Lyrique de la Guerre (1914-1915) captures these elements; patriotism, journalism, and poetry go hand in hand. Neutral nations were not really that different from belligerent ones in this respect. In Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland too, poets and public intellectuals used poetry as almost op-eds, trying to form the public’s opinion. A substantial amount of war poetry was also nationalist in scope and ambition, as some Arab, Irish, Flemish, Latvian, and Polish poets promoted the idea of nationhood for their own people.

Beyond the volumes of poetry produced by writers who are largely forgotten today, the best poets of the day also participated in this frenzy of poetic activity: Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Louis Aragon (in French); Georg Trakl and August Stramm (in German); Gabriele D’Annunzio, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Umberto Saba (in Italian); and Alexander Blok, Velimir Chlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky (in Russian) all wrote poetry, based on their own war experiences. Fernando Pessoa, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anna Akhmatova, Emile Verhaeren, Anatol Stern, Wallace Stevens, Endre Ady, Paul van Ostaijen, Edith Södergran, Herman Gorter, Rabindranath Tagore, William Butler Yeats, Hafiz Ibrahim, Samuel Mqhayi, and many other prominent poets from around the world wrote about the war, as civilians, patriots, or political activists. Together they left the world a poetic legacy and sources still very much waiting to be discovered and investigated.

Geert Buelens