RADICALISING THE CONTEMPORARY WAR LYRIC
  • Susie Campbell

I have spent much of the last year thinking about war and poetry. I was privileged to be poet-in-residence for the 2017/18 Mellon Sawyer Post-War commemoration series jointly hosted by Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford. The series brought together academics, artists, war veterans and survivors to engage with key questions about how we mark and respond to war, how commemoration can lead to repair and reconciliation, and what forms of commemoration are appropriate for now and the future. Perhaps the most important question that emerged was: who is remembered, and for what purpose? And, by extension, who or what is forgotten? This commemoration series may have formally concluded, but of course these questions continue to be some of the most highly pertinent global issues we currently face, not least that of the covert and overt international involvements (investments) of a number of powerful countries in today’s biggest conflict areas and the mass movement of millions of dispossessed people around the world as a result. What then is the work of poetry in engaging with such issues?

Grappling with this last question, I found myself, as a poet based in the UK, confronting what I consider to be a breakdown in my own country’s commemorative practice, manifested in its paralysis in the face of a refugee crisis on its front door step while simultaneously declaring ‘Lest We Forget’ in its national First World War celebrations. The UK’s positioning of itself culturally as a ‘post-war country’ whose main duty is to remind itself to look back and remember is a denial of its ongoing financial, political and military involvement in current war and conflict around the globe. Once again, this led me to question the challenge confronting poetry and my own role as a poet of commemoration.

Much of our best-loved war poetry, certainly in the UK, takes lyric form: the great war sonnets, elegies and outcries of Brooke, Sassoon and Owen. Not all: David Jones’ great book-length war poem In Parenthesis (2014) takes a more complex and compound form, but the war lyric still tends to dominate in any commemorative celebrations. Indeed, some of my friends, on hearing that I was poet-in-residence for a post-war commemoration series, wrote encouragingly to say they were looking forward to reading my ‘war poems’, seeming to suggest that they were expecting a number of my own personal responses to war. Certainly the subject matter preoccupying me has been private and public memory, the emergence of certain marginalised voices and narratives, and how, in this context of war, to give voice to my own personal grief at losing my mother just before my role as poet-in-residence started. This would indeed seem to be lyric terrain. However, the immersive experience of the residency, listening to people with wide and varied first-hand experience of conflict, genocide and the current refugee emergency, suggested to me that what I have labelled a crisis in the UK’s national commemorative practice is connected with a tendency to construct simplified or unified narratives by suppressing certain experiences and voices, leaving us unable to make any ethical connection between our national acts of remembrance and our current involvement in international wars. In short, it is related to a reductive understanding of memory and the role of language. So the last thing I wanted to do was to respond as poet-in-residence with a series of lyric moments that could dangerously replicate that problem—one privileged viewpoint, one voice, one transcendent emotional response.

Many contemporary critics have problematised any simple use of the lyric form in current poetry. Marjorie Perloff, for example, contends that it is no longer viable for the lyric simply to record ‘sensitive’ responses to a generalised outer world. The contemporary lyric must, she argues, engage with cultural determinations or performances of identity, and interrogate its own relationship with the ‘audience’ or reader, as well as with issues of how its discourse—its thoughts and feelings—are constructed within language. Jeffrey Walker is another who critiques the paradigm of the romantic lyric, if transported uncritically into the modern world, as connoting an unproblematic inwardness and subjectivity, a monovocality and transparency—and puts forward the provocation that ‘a rhetorically restricted paradigm for the lyric is, in principle, a paradigm for minor poetry’ (Walker 1998: 37).

But what of those poets who, like myself, are still driven at times by the lyric impulse? Are there any strategies available to re-purpose the lyric and make it fit for more radical intentions? The emergence of a contemporary lyric tendency towards experimentation, opacity and so-called difficulty is perhaps the answer. This has not been universally welcomed. At a recent international symposium on the Contemporary Lyric,[1] one of the sessions posed the challenge: why, through the last century, has the anglophone lyric tended to be oblique in utterance and cryptically significant? The answer proposed by this paper is that it has become the work of the contemporary lyric, and indeed of all poetry as language art, to problematise any assumption that language, identity and poetic expression can be ‘natural’ or translucent, or transcend socially constructed categories of gender, race and class. This work is paramount, I argue, when it comes to the contemporary war lyric responding to a crisis, due in part to the investment in a notion of memory and language as translucent, universal and transcendent.

The work of experimental poets to denaturalise the form is exemplified by—and in many cases influenced by—the prose lyrics of Gertrude Stein, ironically published in 1914 just as World War 1 was starting. Stein’s Tender Buttons decentres and destabilises the form, opening the way for the avant-garde lyric. ‘Act so that there is no use in a centre’, is the opening sentence of Stein’s extended poem ‘Rooms’, the third section of Tender Buttons. This is one of a cluster of poems in Tender Buttons concerned with surface and centre, or that posit forms of organisation that do not require a centre. ‘Rooms’ proceeds to take its own advice: progressing, retreating and circling around a scattering of random objects, and returning repeatedly to reflect on what the lack of a centre might mean to its own organisation. Stein writes, ‘The whole arrangement is established. The end of which is that there is a suggestion, a suggestion that there can be a different whiteness to the wall’. This ‘suggestion’ and a ‘different whiteness’ are shown to be of value in Tender Buttons as the structure and form of ‘Rooms’ enact this decentering, producing poetry that is opaque, ambiguous and open-ended. There is no linear narrative, no apparent thematic or didactic link from paragraph to paragraph. Semantics and syntax are put under pressure as the lack of centre means that anything can be connected to anything else, regardless of the rules of either logic or grammar:

A little lingering lion and a Chinese chair, all the handsome cheese which is stone, all of it and a choice, a choice of a blotter. If it is difficult to do it one way there is no place of similar trouble. (Stein 1914)

The ‘lingering’ and the ‘lion’, the ‘Chinese chair’, the ‘cheese’ and the ‘choice’ are connected only by alliteration and consonance, and their position in the sentence; ‘stone’, ‘blotter’, ‘no’ and ‘trouble’ are connected by near-assonance. The syntax is equally decentred: sentences lack verbs and clear subjects or objects. ‘Lingering’ is vividly but bizarrely attached as an adjective to ‘lion’, apparently because of its alliterative connection. The only verb (‘is’) appears to equate cheese and stone. Such chaotic freedom may be experienced as terrifying or liberating. ‘Rooms’ invites us to find it energising, responding to the initial challenge to ‘act as though there’s no use in a centre’ with the aesthetic discovery that we are now inhabiting a wider imaginative universe: ‘a wide place stranger’, a place where ‘a wideness makes an active center’, and where colours and language are prismatically fragmented so that we can see a ‘different whiteness’. While it would be highly problematic to position Stein as a radical war poet, her exploration of what it means to make poetry out of a discourse whose centre has been activated has opened the door to the work of contemporary experimental poets seeking forms for resistance; poets such as Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen and others; poets whose interests in language are linked to concerns with gender, race, class and indeed conflict. Claudia Rankine, for example, cites Stein as a major influence on her own work in which she ‘experimented with ways to keep the text open’ (Rankine 2006), while Anne Carson quotes Stein’s ‘act so there’s no use in a centre’ in her 2004 Paris Review interview.

So what has all this meant for my own work, struggling to reconcile a lyric impulse with an awareness of the problematised nature of the form and its relationship with the very crisis I am trying to confront? It has necessitated the use of many of the strategies of denaturalisation, the ambiguity, ambivalence and open utterance, that have divided opinion over the contemporary lyric.

My opening strategy has been to approach the production of a number of poems about war, memory and loss as though they were one long piece, divided into a series of shorter pieces so that each revisits, re-uses and reframes the images and language introduced at the beginning. Called Tenter, after the frame on which cloth is worked, this sequence suggests no one piece is the final position; each is contingent and revised by what comes next. The longest individual section of Tenter is a piece titled ‘Et Aelfgyva’,[2] which combines epic tendencies with lyric. In this piece, ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’ as the narrative of an overlooked chorus overtakes that of the main characters. This piece narrates the production of the Bayeux Tapestry, a seminal piece of war art that tells the story (or a version of the story) of the Norman Conquest of England. What little we know of the manufacture of the so-called Tapestry suggests that it was made in English workshops by anonymous female workers who followed the linear and simplified pattern of the story they were given but used the borders of the Tapestry to hint at alternative interpretations:


Hic apprehendit Wido Harold.  shears at waist & us overseen by Old Badb.  piss

& bark & ash.  Nuntii Willelmi.  by rushlight mixing to ensure he stands out.  Hic

venit nuntius ad Wilgelmum ducem.  his hammer hand is heavy.  we lay monstrous

paws beneath his seat.  a sword carelessly couching his W slices ducem in two &

here the Kentish hind stands in stainless wool.  our invisible hands.  this English

art to tell of our own defeat.    Kentish women trusted with his great victory.  & 

already no-one remembers which is the right story.    Even Odo Catspaw.     &

though the design is given & we must follow.   the border is ours and what’s left

over.  (From ‘Et Aelfgyva’, Tenter)

 

In this poem, each phrase is stitched firmly into place with its own full stop. Other pieces in Tenter arrive on the page in a fractured or disintegrating form with the ‘gap’ between memory and experience represented by white space, or by an open-ended or unfinished syntax. Other texts and discourses are collaged into some of these pieces, creating a dialogic tension between different voices.

This was not the first time I had used this technique. I had been inspired previously by a suggestion made by critic Susan Vandenberg (1998) that the palimpsest is a relevant model for the contemporary lyric. She looks at Susan Howe’s poetry through this frame, to argue that erasure and ‘writing over’ allow for a lyric subjectivity that is historical, communal, contextualised and traceable. This was important to me when I was writing an extended poem about my grandmother’s drowning, its impact on me and some of the issues raised by both of these things. Again I was presented with an important lyric opportunity. But as I explored the event, the place it happened and the documentary evidence for it, the formal ability of the lyric to deal with what emerged came under pressure. The poem became not only a palimpsest—layers of other discourse pushing through the surface of the poem—but visually and narratively incomplete. This reflected my experience of trying and failing to reconstruct what had happened from inquest reports, as well as my failure to explore the river, now almost impassable in places due to urban sprawl. By extension, these failures exposed the partial nature of anything recovered in memory and language, and those dangerous, creative, volatile spaces that are then left for the imaginative leaps and synapses of both reader and poet:

 

after fourteen days the body is stained                red mud seeps into your shoes 

face downwards with the legs under the front of a barge        shyly beneath the

brim of a felt hat                                          blurred by the clumsy photographer

 

you find her absence       restless, unburied This Inquest taken for our Sovereign

Lord the King           she left no note                         the autopsy is an utterance

men document carefully     policing the water                None of these words are

 

hers               unfastening the stories you’ve told       in silver and dazzling floods

self-punishment as silence      self-punishment as silence        self-punishment as

silence                           You turn to face upstream                      swallow  it down

(extract from Campbell, Navigations, 2018)

 

I returned to this ‘unfastened’ form in one of my war pieces, a companion piece to Navigations which attempts to engage with the PTSD suffered by my grandfather Leslie and the domestic abuse to which it led:

 

those whose stitching has been ripped apart     these dismemberments     missing

hands or severed legs     heads like turnips rolling from a saddlebag     a

handstitched ball kicked out of play     for Gunner Leslie rapture  he had looked

into the mouth of Death     it spoke in ancient tongues and smacked of holiness

 

                                                                 perrie merrie dixi domine

 

it blew him up an epiphany     we that are alive and remain shall be caught up

together with them in the clouds     to meet a god in the air     not the sleepy  old

God but a Lordful of  blast-wind and organ-rupture     and the wife’s head

slammed against the door   for going to the pictures        on a Saturday morning

 

                                                               petrum partrum paradisi tempore

(Campbell 2018, extract from ‘Wound’, Tenter)

 

Towards the end of the series of war pieces that make up Tenter, there is a more personal lyric moment, but it relies on what has gone before, using many of these strategies to do its work:  

 

A hill beneath and a filled-in door. This bench, its damp wooden flowers. A dead

tree stripped clean and time fucking stops. You reach a corner of you are there.

 

You are there.

 

An edge of grief you can park in an empty tongue. The fields are empty.

 

                                                                That’s near enough.

 

(Extract from ‘Hush’, Tenter)

 

That’s near enough. The radicalised contemporary lyric does not claim to tell the whole story or to recover a generalised outer world or total memory or to express an unproblematic subjectivity. However, it does, I hope, still provide a valid form for an active exploration of the complexity of contextualised, multiple subjectivities and the necessary tensions between personal and public grief, and the need to engage more interrogatively with both past and the present conflicts.

 

[1] Contemporary Lyric: Absent Presences, the Secret and the Unsayable. Symposium hosted by University of Reading, 26 June 2018

[2] Et Aelfgyva is featured elsewhere in this Axon Capsule.

Works cited: 

Campbell, Susie 2018 ‘Navigations’, Long Poem Magazine Nineteen (Spring)

Campbell, Susie (forthcoming 2020) Tenter, Falmouth: Guillemot Press

Carson, Anne 2004, ‘The art of poetry No. 88: interviewed by Will Aitken’, The Paris Review 171 (Fall)

Jones, David 2014 In Parenthesis, London: Faber & Faber

Perloff, Marjorie 1998 ‘A response’, in Mark Jeffreys (ed), New Definitions of Lyric, New York: Garland Press, 252–56

Rankine, Claudia 2006, ‘Interview by Jennifer Flescher and Robert N Caspar’, jubilat 12

Stein, Gertrude 1914 Tender Buttons, New York: Claire Marie

Vandenborg, Susan 1998 ‘The communal lyric: Palimpsest in the corpus of Susan Howe’, in Mark Jeffreys (ed), New Definitions of Lyric, New York: Garland Press, 99–126

Walker, Jeffrey 1998 ‘The view of Halicarnassus: Aristotelianism and the rhetoric of epideictic song’, in Mark Jeffreys (ed), New Definitions of Lyric, New York: Garland Press, 17–48