Reality of war

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
POETRY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Edited by Desmond Graham
Pimlico, #163;10.

It is not often that a new book arrives in school which has the potential to change students' lives, but this is such a book. It first came out in hardback in 1995; now it is issued in a beautifully produced paperback edition at an (almost) affordable price. It is well worth making the effort to acquire, either for book boxes or to incorporate into schemes of work for GCSE or A-level, perhaps in association with the history and RE departments.

What sets this volume apart is its inclusiveness, both across nations and over time. The whole experience of the Second World War is encapsulated, from the weary recognition that the warmongers were on the march again, through the fighting, the death-camps and the horrors of Hiroshima to the exultation of having come through, and the guilt of having survived.

This is a sensitive and subtle collection, and even in translation there is some strikingly beautiful poetry, with brief biographical notes to help the reader position the writers in their time. Something extraordinary rises out of these pages - not only familiar tales of tyranny and terror, but also, again and again, voices of dignity and tenderness in the midst of ignominy.

Poets and perpetrators alike are dead, but the poems speak on. This is literature at its most powerful, and most chastening.

Sarah Matthews Sarah Matthews is former head of English at Chipping Norton school, Oxfordshire

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