Considering the Poppy

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Poet Simon Armitage was speaking at Salts Mill, Saltaire, yesterday, ahead of his BBC2 programme The Great War –  An Elegy: A Culture Show Special (broadcast Saturday 8 November 2014).

Armitage has written seven specially-commissioned poems about World War I for the programme: one poem for every 100,000 of more than 700,000 British soldiers who lost their lives between 1914-1918.

His stories focus on the lesser-known personal battles of grief, and loss, and war.

From telling the story of a young nurse visiting Normandy beaches on her days off, to a soldier who dug his way out of a German prison camp with nothing but bare hands and makeshift tools, to Amy Beechey, a mother who lost five of her seven sons sent to war, Armitage’s new verse carries the soft, haunting echoes of Sassoon, Gurney, and Owen. So engrained are these poems of death and destruction in the national literary consciousness, it’s hard to imagine writing First World War poetry that doesn’t somehow carry their mournful voice along with it. Armitage calls the war poets the social media experts of their day: they were the antithesis of jingoistic patriotism, their messages were subversive, they told the truth.

But these seven new poems are distinctly the work of Simon Armitage and so their alliterative, onomatopoeic qualities mean that they are just waiting to be read aloud. Armitage did so in his usual convivial style, interspersing his readings to the sold-out audience with sneak-preview clips from the beautifully-shot BBC2 programme.

Listening to In Avondale, you can hear the deafening, repetitive tap on the letterbox as yet another son is brought home in an envelope and Amy Beechey’s hope dies once again.

Raw war wounds, savage assonance, and relentless death, breaking against the soft waves of love, tears, and white cotton handkerchiefs, make Sea Sketch a particularly poignant piece. Written from the standpoint of young British nurse Edie Appleton, serving in a French military hospital and writing home to her mother on her day off, the poem was read evocatively by Edie’s great nephew, Dick Robinson.

Armitage’s collection of works asks us to consider the poppy: the national symbol of collective remembrance for the war dead. He said: “As the anniversary of World War One loomed on the horizon, I began to feel bound by duty and tradition to write poetry that would mark this most ghastly centenary, now that the conflict itself is lost to living memory.”

His new work is a fitting tribute.

Considering the Poppy (2014) is published with wood engravings by Chris Daunt in a beautifully bound edition by www.finepresspoetry.com

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