Monday, December 8, 2014

Geoffrey Hill, Wilfred Owen, Pity and Great War poetry as indoctrination

Thankfully that “rancorous old sod”, his words, not mine, is at it again performing measured acts of literary criticism in a public arena. For which we should all give thanks.

There have been discussions on this blog about the poetry of the Great War. I am deeply suspicious of the reasons for its popularity in schools and constantly bemused by some of the uses to which it is put. So it’s interesting to hear Hill’s take on the subject. His lecture should be compulsory listening for every English teacher about to launch into that unit on “Great War Poetry”.

These notes from the lecture of 2nd December.

(I apologize for any typing errors. I have not attempted a full summary, merely picked out some of the bits that interest me. Towards the end of the Lecture, Hill discusses Isaac Rosenberg, comparing his poetry and ways of thinking through and in poetry to Owen’s. I have not included this as it would seem at a tangent without its complete context. There is an argument running through the lecture about the social and political consequences of the cult of Wilfrid Owen and fraternal pity which I will not ruin by summary.
Unless otherwise noted what follows is as near as I can get to quotations. )

On the use of this poetry in schools and Universities:

At the root of school and university indoctrination in the rhetoric of Great War poetry there resides a dangerous sentimental fallacy: A belief that the work of Sassoon and Owen…That their work represents the central common and indisputable truth of the Great War of 1914-1918 in which treatment, significant items of testamentary personal witness are taken as if they were total objective evidence and finality of historical fact.  In reality such a conclusion is not rationally possible.
On Wilfred Owen and Pity

There is a fair amount of sardonic anger in the poems and letters of Wilfrid Owen….he is as a maker of beautiful enduring entities out of words who was highly intelligent…

But that preface, that preface. That preface has a hell of a lot to answer for. I wish that it had not been written, or that having been written it had been lost.
Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. (Owen)

Where art is concerned one should never trust the sincere. These three short sentences amount to an intellectual and emotional self-betrayal, on Owens’s part, and a betrayal of all that should be strong and enduring in English poetry, British poetry, in whatever century, certainly in the 20th and certainly in the first years of the 21st.  

If you seriously profess poetry, as Owen most certainly did, the poetry can never be in the pity, the pity can only be truly registered in the poetry. Those twenty- three fatal words have achieved the unhappy role of appearing to issue a peremptory countermand against everything that is intelligent in English poetry and in critical discussion of poetry written in English for the past half century. That is to say since the first performance of the War Requiem [in Coventry Cathedral in 1962] released to the public the useful notion of vicarious mourning as the most innocuous response to wide spread public malpractice. 

(His reading of two of Owen’s poems (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ then makes his point about Owen as poet, and makes clear what he is objecting to. He prefaces these readings):

You must not imagine that in criticizing these poets that I am in some way feeling superior to them. I say it is the normal condition of writing at any kind of demanding pitch that you are not going to be able to do it a hundred percent of the time and the recognition of this is not in any way a diminution of one’s profound admiration of their achievement.

(And finally as a throw away line, almost…)

One of the greatest perplexities we face, as readers and critics of poetry, of whatever period, is that what we bring to the discussion is inevitably a mingle mangle of technical detail…where it is possible though to a limited extent to be precise…to be precise….. but we embroil it all with smatterings of sociology,  history and personal experience. Personal experience, the application of this latter contribution is usually ?evil? and is therefore to be regretted that personal taste is all that most people are prepared to bring into the arena of literary critical debate; “Well I like it, I think it’s good, it reminds me of…”

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