13 April 2017

Review: 'Tumult & Tears,' Poetry from Women in WWI

Book review: 'Tumult & Tears: An Anthology of Women's First World War Poetry' by Vivien Newman

With the confluence of National Poetry Month and the centennial of the America's entry into World War I, readers are more likely to encounter "Great War" narratives beyond the usual touchstone horrors of trench warfare, gas attacks, and lost generations.

In the popular mind, World War I is particularly likely to also be associated with poetry. The works and names of such poets as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon are still regularly studied and celebrated. Some of the poems speak of glory, nostalgia, and patriotism, but more are likely to contrast such sentiments with images of shocking battlefield realities.

For many, their consumption and appreciateion of war poetry ends there, in the trenches. Indeed, novice writers and reviewers too often fall back into rhetorical ditches such as "war poetry died after World War I," and "it's too bad that war poetry isn't as popular as it was during World War I." In my opinion, such themes should be retired along with other journalistic story-crutches and English 101 clichés, such as "why no one reads poetry," "why poetry is going extinct," and "poetry is dead."

(For the record, war poetry isn't dead. It isn't even wounded. See this Red Bull Rising link for a list of 21st century war poets, or this new Time Now blog link for a great round-up of individual poems available to read on-line.)

In "Tumult & Tears," social historian Vivien Newman estimates that, out of 2,000 British war poets whose work was published during World War I, nearly a quarter were women. She expands and enriches our understanding of that war, and its resulting poetic tradition, by surveying the words and experiences of those ignored by the usual canonical field pieces.

The 224-page trade paperback presents a far-flung and accessible selection of poetry, organized by themes of women's changing roles in war, religion, uniformed service, nature, and grief. Where possible, Newman includes biographical sketches of each poet cited, providing personal context in addition to the social and political.

Newman's scholarship often delivers cascades of insight and epiphany. Take, for example, the concept of woman as mourner: That wives, girlfriends, and mothers might grieve for lost soldiers is no surprise. Newman introduces examples of others, however, just as valid in their experiences of grief. Consider the unrequited lover, the mistress, the nurse, the nanny. These are complicated, complicating voices. Not all are polished, but each is worthy of note. Each is a potential revelation to readers. As Newman writes in her introduction:
From the outset, my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the War for the poet—and by extension other the women, rather than the intrinsic literary 'value' of the poem. Another, equally important aim was to give readers a sense of the sweep of the poetry, both in subject matter and also poetic 'skill'. Some of the poems included are undeniably little more than ditties—albeit heartfelt ones; a few are amongst the finest in the English language.
In considering the many ways in which women engaged themselves in war, Newman explores topics such as knitting socks for the troops, rationing foodstuffs for the family, and manufacturing munitions. Women who served in uniformed included Red Cross workers, volunteer nurses, cooks, scullery and ward maids. They included Women's Land Army, ambulance drivers, and Women's Auxiliary Army Corps ("WAAC") members. All are quoted and represented here.

Regular readers of the Red Bull Rising blog will not be surprised that the poems I found most resonant were those that offered both insight and humor. There is plenty of parody in these pages, particularly those evoking Rudyard Kipling's "If". In her poem "Some WAAC," for example, E.M. Murray writes:
If you can drive from nine o'clock till seven
     Every day of the long week and still live on;
If you can keep you temper until even,
     You deseve a putty medal nobly won!
If you can put up with each hardship,
     The weather, the passenger, you car,
And still keep bright—well all that I can say is:
     'You're a topper absolutely, nothing bar.'

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