Pity and terror

5th May 1995 at 01:00
POETRY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR: AN INTERNATIONAL ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Desmond Graham. Chatto and Windus #163;18.99. 0701162996.

Alan Brownjohn reads an anthology of Second World War poems from many nations.

Desmond Graham's anthology attempts a world-wide span of the verse written about this broadest of all conflicts. The hope is that readers grasp "how human responses and experiences echo each other across boundaries of culture and state." Thus Germans, Italians and Japanese appear, as well as British, American and Russian poets. Civilian writers suffering obscurely in air-raids and prison camps accompany soldier-poets who saw famous battlefields.

Graham casts a wide net. The greatest poets of the war - among them Randall Jarrell, Primo Levi and Tadeusz Rozewicz - are here. But so are many less familiar names, some of them discoveries, whose work lessens the effect of the best if the book is read continuously. War poetry anthologies, above all, should not be too overwhelmingly insistent.

What should be a memorable, ground-breaking anthology falls awkwardly short of its best ambitions. The problem is a cluttered, careless and unhelpful presentation, inside a handsome-looking volume.

The carelessness is damaging. Since this book might be used for literary and historical reference, errors become important. Numerous typographical ones will be obvious. But many readers won't realise that Henry Reed's poem "Naming of Parts" contains here three mistakes of transcription; that at least three poets listed as apparently alive died years ago; even worse,several translations ascribed to the eminent scholar and poet, Michael Hamburger, are not in fact his. The scanty biographical notes fail to provide even a fraction of what readers might wish to learn about the poets.

Fortunately the poems themselves survive this cursoriness, proving that, in range of subject-matter and emotional force, they equal the best that came out of the First World War. Graham arranges his material chronologically (not without confusion, because war poems often look back in anger or sorrow, or forward in fear), from initial apprehension to rejoicing at final, ambiguous victory.

Waiting for something - anything - to happen gains a frightening vividness in Alun Lewis's transit camp in "All Day It Has Rained . . ." or on Alan Ross's "Mess Deck": "The light is watery, like the light of the sea-bed; Marooned in it, stealthy as fishes, we may even be dead."

Unexpected poets like Wallace Stevens, Stevie Smith and the Scot, Robert Garioch, have more to say about war than one imagined; here Graham has chosen intriguingly, with an unconventional eye.

Americans like James Dickie and John Ciardi write notably about action in war, but the sheer imagination and pity evident in Eastern European poets like J nos Pilinsky and Ioan Alexandru make all except the best of the Anglo-Saxons seem tight-lipped or tentative (with Keith Douglas, unpleasantly satisfied with his observations).

Throughout, Jewish experience of the war and the Holocaust contributes a thread of special, searing horror and anguish: the "diary" poems of the Hungarian Mikl"s Radn"ti, found when his body was exhumed in 1945, provide some of the most poignantly terrifying testimony of all. Genuine, unforced affirmation is rarely found among all the chaos and suffering. But the Pole Tadeusz Rozewicz, affirming in the midst of war that no life is ever negligible, comes defiantly close to it: "that old womanwho leads a goat on a stringis needed moreis worth morethan the seven wonders of the worldanyone who thinks or feelsshe is not neededis a mass murderer".

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