Wednesday, 15 February 2017

I've Known Trenches

When I think back to my first experience of World War One poetry, I think about my time as a drama student at the age of fourteen. I used to attend a weekly drama class in which we'd put on shows, perfect monologues, create sketches and perform songs. One evening, we were tasked to make a short scene based on the action of a poem. The poem was called 'Dulce et Decorum Est', and it's a poem that, fittingly, has haunted me ever since I encountered it. I remember the five of us working on the scene misreading the poem at the time, and believing that somebody actual stumbled and drowned in a large body of water.

Now, writing an 8000-word dissertation on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, I only look back on this memory and smile at it. There's a kind of poetic irony at how little the poem meant to me once the class was over - I didn't give a second thought to it. Now, whenever I hear somebody begin reading the first words of that final stanza, I get this feeling inside my chest that I can't quite describe. It makes me want to act, want to move, want to write.

My experience of the First World War goes back further though. In 2010, I went on a trip to France and Belgium with my school to see the battlefields of the war. Yes, we walked through the trenches that had been trodden by actual British soldiers who had fought there. Some of the places I saw were Arras, Ypres and Thiepval (above). The graves, like Flanders Fields goes, went "row on row", and didn't seem to stop. A frightening army of white. I gawped up at the columns of names etched upon the stone walls and couldn't understand how so many people lost their lives to a cause that hardly seemed justified. I didn't know of Owen or Siegfried Sassoon at that point, and whenever I look back on the photographs I regret not cherishing the experience more than I did.

A few years later my Mom made me read Pat Barker's Regeneration. It's the story of Craiglockhart Hospital - a real place - which treated shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War. The book follows a number of patients, including war poets Owen and Sassoon, and I absolutely fell in love with the novel. I was only happy to be told that I'd study it again in A-level and have since read and reread the book multiple times, constantly underlining and adding post-it notes where I can squeeze more in.

A-level was really where I fell in love with the poetry of the First World War. I discovered Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, among others. It was also where I first heard about the Surrealist movement which is currently a huge interest of mine. The day we got to study 'Dulce', our teacher asked if any of us had read it before. I remembered it from that day in drama class, and thought myself a kind of expert. But I think the only way you understand what Owen is really trying to say is if you take out a microscope and really dissect what he's trying to do, especially in the context of a modern war. It is something I'm only just beginning to understand inside my dissertation, and something that has taken me this long to grab hold of.

The best moment was then actually meeting Pat Barker, the author of the book that started my obsession with the war poets. It's funny to see me coming so far - from that girl who didn't have a clue what she was doing as she wondered among mazes of white graves with a camera, to the person now who went all the way to Scarborough to find the plaque dedicated to him on the hotel wall where he wrote 'Disabled'. I like to think that what I didn't find in France, I found back here on my home soil in finding that.

Presently, among spending a year studying the literature, I've experienced and learnt so much about the culture of the First World War. I went to a Dadaist recreation of the Somme on it's anniversary, and saw some of Paul Nash's artwork in the York Art Gallery. Its commemoration during these four years is one that I am truly grateful to be a part of, both because it gives me a framework for my argument, but also because I reminds me what I'm writing this for, and reignites that first love I had for it.

I adore my journey of discovering Wilfred Owen, and I tell it with both a sense of nostalgia but also knowingly looking towards the future. Whilst it seems like at the moment I'm heading very quickly into the next step of my career, my past experiences with his work seem to be expanding further back in the same way. Everywhere I look, I have been bracketed my his work and his person, whether I know it or not. It reminds me of the men in 'Dulce' caught in the suspension of a gas attack - cursing forward through the sludge, but also looking back at the Five Nines that drop softly behind me.

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