Cross-border poetry reflects on First World War

Summary

A new multilingual anthology of Great War poetry called We Werden Honderd Jaar Ouder has just been published. It contains more than 100 German, English, French and Dutch poems, which are provided in their original language as well as in Dutch. We spoke to compiler and translator Chris Spriet.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

As a teacher of English I developed a series of seminars on war poetry. While at first this focused on the “classics”, it grew to include lesser-known poets and specific themes (the loss of belief in God, executions, conscientious objectors etc). Meanwhile I had started contributing to the newsletter of the Friends of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.

I would select an original war poem and translate or make my own rendering of it, and add a short comment. Eventually this came to the attention of Davidsfonds, who asked whether I would be interested in compiling an anthology of war-related poems.

What were your selection criteria?

I had three main objectives. I wanted to avoid including too many overly avant-garde poems, so that the poems would be sufficiently accessible by everyone. And I wanted to achieve a balance between the languages represented. The majority are of course in the languages of the three major warring nations: France, Germany and the UK. But I also included some Dutch and Flemish poets, one Italian and even an Indian poet. And finally I wanted to incorporate different styles, from the more patriotic poems in classical, rhyming construction to the more reflective poems in free verse and more experimental styles.

Have you chosen mainly the well-known war poets?

I deliberately limited the share that these get in my compilation and broadened the scope to include lesser known poets, female poets and even anonymous poets. Some are by ordinary privates without the slightest poetic pretensions. The fact that their poems are totally devoid of literary aspirations makes their message all the more urgent and imminent. I also included poems that had been written for the Wipers Times, which was a soldiers’ magazine distributed in the Ypres Salient for the benefit of the “ordinary Tommy”, and for the Liller Kriegszeitung, which was published in Lille for the German 4th Army. 

Is this the first time some of them have appeared in print?

Quite likely. This is particularly true of the German poems that were critical of the official national line. Even during the Nazi regime they were considered degenerate and were completely forbidden. Only very recently did they rise to the surface again.

As the war progressed, sarcasm and boredom, compassion and comradeship crept in

- Chris Spriet

I also include the French poem “Elles” by Henriette Sauret, who ponders what to her is the injustice of the fate of women during warfare. Her original had 20 lines removed by the censor. And I take pride in giving a voice to such literary giants as Claudel, Cocteau, Eluard and even the painter De Vlaminck and sculptor Zadkine.

Do you see an evolution in the type of poetry written during the war?

Poems written during the initial stages of the war reflect the soldiers’ belief that they were in for “a summer’s war”, which they expected to be over by Christmas 1914. The overall feeling was that the war was an adventure not to be missed, and that it was a sweet and honourable duty to sacrifice your life for king and country. As the war progressed, sentiments such as sarcasm and boredom, compassion and comradeship crept in. Finally these expressions merged with the theme of “re-creation” – which later would emerge in the completely new poetry of the Imagists and the Modernists.  

What surprised you most about the poems you researched and selected?

What struck me deeply is the extent to which some survivors of the war were beset by an incurable sense of nostalgia. Having survived, but lost the “intensities of hope and fear” as Edmund Blunden put it, they were never to re-experience such intensity of feeling during their later lives. Many found this very hard to deal with. They ended up getting lost in an utter sense of isolation. Blunden never ceased to repeat how he missed those days of “way back when”: “I ought to have remained there with my (fallen) comrades.” As far as I am concerned, Blunden sets the standard for much of the post-war poetry that reflects on the consequences of the war. I was therefore delighted when his daughter Margi agreed to write a gripping memoir in my anthology about spending her childhood years and youth in a family with a traumatised father.

 

What impresses you most about First World War poetry?

One element is the overwhelming communicative appeal of many poems, which has braved the times and remains unimpaired to the present day. 

War poetry does have a tale to tell, even 100 years on

- Chris Spriet

It was also a deeply moving experience for me to find out that, even though some poets represented “enemy sides”, the feelings they expressed were virtually equal to what was felt on the other side. This increased my awareness of just how universal war poetry was and remains to the present day. War poetry does have a tale to tell, even 100 years on.

Who painted the stunning illustrations in the book?

Wim Opbrouck, who has done a great job to bring some of the poems to life. He selected snippets from my translations and expressed his feelings and emotions in a series of watercolours. His paintings from the book will be on display in Langemark town hall in West Flanders until 3 November.

Cross-border poetry reflects on First World War

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