Marking not only the centenary of the Great War, but acknowledging that conflict – be it global, civil or religious war – has been a constant for the last century, Neil Astley’s major new Bloodaxe anthology takes us from the trenches to post-millennial terrorism.
As a discourse on both people’s inhumanity and the struggle to retain humanity in terrifying and desperate circumstances, The Hundred Years’ War is best read in sequence – though at nearly 600 pages this presents a daunting challenge. Daunting, but rewarding.
Opening with a 100-page selection from the Great War that eclipses the recent Faber 1914: Poetry Remembers anthology, the expected works by Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg are supplemented with French, Italian, German and Russian perspectives: poems by Albert-Paul Granier, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Wilhelm Klemm and Aleksandr Blok are hugely powerful and will deservedly find a larger readership. In particular, the twelve no-punches-pulled lines of Klemm’s ‘Clearing-Station’ are an unflinching distillation of his subject.
Poems on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War (Machado’s ‘The Crime was in Granada’, a threnody to the murdered Lorca, is a poignant inclusion) take us up to World War Two. Of the English poems in this section, the weary pragmatism of Keith Douglas and the brutal directness of Randall Jarrell are startlingly distinct voices. Pieces by Brecht, Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert and Miklós Radnóti widen the demographic and deliver unforgettable images and eye-witness accounts.
World War Two accounts for almost a quarter of the book. Smaller sections follow on the Korean War (William Childress, Keith Wilson and Thomas McGrath provide American viewpoints, but the weight of this section is borne by Ko Un) and the Cold War.
Vietnam, The Troubles, and the continuing Israel/Palestine/Lebanon situation offer a broader spectrum of work. The excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘A State of Siege’, a piece written more than a decade ago, could have been shaped from this week’s news coverage. Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15′, in which she rails against the throwaway term “stray bullet” sets up a forceful precedent for Brian Turner’s ‘Here, Bullet’ later in the anthology. Turner, of course, writes from the perspective of a US soldier serving in Iraq. Ditto Kevin Powers. Their pieces dominate the Iraq Wars section, although Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef is well represented. Still, the book isn’t about us-and-them dynamics and Astley keeps what Owen called “the pity of war” foremost in mind for the majority of his selections.
The Hundred Years’ War is balanced, sober and reflective. Astley provides a general introduction as well as introductions to each section. Annotations on the poets’ lives and personal experiences of war are informative and unobtrusive. This could easily become the keystone war poetry anthology for this generation.