What is War Poetry? An introduction by Paul O’Prey

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Poets have written about the experience of war since the Greeks, but the young soldier poets of the First World War established war poetry as a literary genre. Their combined voice has become one of the defining texts of Twentieth Century Europe.

In 1914 hundreds of young men in uniform took to writing poetry as a way of striving to express extreme emotion at the very edge of experience. The work of a handful of these, such as Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon, has endured to become what Andrew Motion has called ‘a sacred national text’.

Although ‘war poet’ tends traditionally to refer to active combatants, war poetry has been written by many ‘civilians’ caught up in conflict in other ways: Cesar Vallejo and WH Auden in the Spanish Civil War, Margaret Postgate Cole and Rose Macaulay in the First World War, James Fenton in Cambodia.

In the global, ‘total war’ of 1939-45, that saw the holocaust, the blitz and Hiroshima, virtually no poet was untouched by the experience of war. The same was true for the civil conflicts and revolutions in Spain and Eastern Europe. That does not mean, however, that every poet responded to war by writing directly about it. For some, the proper response of a poet was one of consciously (conscientiously) keeping silent.

War poetry is not necessarily ‘anti-war’. It is, however, about the very large questions of life: identity, innocence, guilt, loyalty, courage, compassion, humanity, duty, desire, death. Its response to these questions, and its relation of immediate personal experience to moments of national and international crisis, gives war poetry an extra-literary importance. Owen wrote that even Shakespeare seems ‘vapid’ after Sassoon: ‘not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects’.

War poetry is currently studied in every school in Britain. It has become part of the mythology of nationhood, and an expression of both historical consciousness and political conscience. The way we read – and perhaps revere – war poetry, says something about what we are, and what we want to be, as a nation.

Please click on the name of a poet listed on the right to read a biography written for this website by an expert on that poet. Many of the biographies also contain links to other information on the web about a poet. More biographies are being added to the website regularly. Biographies are listed by by war or conflict. To read a summary about the war poetry of a particular war or conflict, click on one of the conflict headings on the right of this page. These summaries are also written by experts and for this website. Other biographies or information on war poets not listed on this page may be available — use the ‘Search here’ box on the top right hand corner of this page left to specify what you want and press ‘Go’. To search outside this web site, use Google. If you would like to suggest a biography be written for this website about a particular poet, or to write an expert biography yourself to be added to these pages, please contact editor@warpoets.org.

Suggested Reading:

The Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Poetry and War: An Introductory Reader, by Simon Featherstone (Routledge, 1994)