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What Makes A Great War Poem?

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As the War Poetry for Today competition submissions come flooding in, the team behind critically acclaimed Regeneration caught up with the poetry competition’s judging panel to find out what they think makes a good war poem…

Judging the War Poetry for Today project is a tough task as we have had so many wonderful submissions and more are flooding in every day. However, poet Jacqui Rowe, First World War Poetry Digitial Archive founder Stuart Lee and Napier University Literature Professor Alistair McCleery are up for the challenge and even have some words of wisdom for our poetry hopefuls.

What makes a good war poem?

Stuart: A good war poem is one that transcends the conflict it originates from, presenting us with an emotional engagement that will be timeless.
Jacqui: A good war poem shouldn’t tell me what to think; in particular, I, along with most other readers, know that war can be hell, so I don’t need to be told that. For me, good war poems pick out the human side of war, and not just the anguish but the mundane and the uplifting as well.
Alistair: A good war poem, like all good poems I think, challenges the reader or listener on imaginative, intellectual and emotional levels to varying degrees. In particular, it communicates in a way that helps the reader/listener build their own response prompted by the poet’s text.

Who is your favourite poet and why?

Alistair: Wordsworth – this may seem an odd and to some extent anachronistic choice. Wordsworth has written some of the worst as well as some of the best poetry in English.
Jacqui: Guillaume Apollinaire. I was bowled over when I first read them in French – they’re so different from any English poetry of the First World War. He was able to see the beauty in even harrowing situations and his poems often transcend the awfulness with striking images.
Stuart: David Jones. On each re-read of ‘In Parenthesis’ I discover something new.

How important is the use of poetry to describe war?

Stuart: It is as important as any medium. Some people view poetry with distrust as it is deemed the reserve of a certain type/class of person from a particular background, but we must remember that at one time poetry was written for and by the masses.
Alistair: I don’t think poetry describes war – certainly not in the way, say, a film does – but it does communicate aspects of war in a manner other forms do not because of its ability to engage the reader on those imaginative, intellectual and emotional levels.
Jacqui: Much of our modern view of the First World War is shaped by the poetry of the time, which has been important in conveying what the actual experience of being there was like, something which good poetry does better than factual historical chronicling.

What can poets do to improve their work?

Stuart: Practice, read other poets, and don’t forget their audience.
Alistair: Learn from other poets they admire but only to the point where they find their own distinctive voice.
Jacqui: Read your poem out loud to yourself and check, honestly, that it sounds natural in your own voice. If you stumble over any words or phrases, check them to make sure you’re not distorting them, perhaps to fit in with a rhyme scheme, or altering the word order to make it sound ‘poetic’. Keep reading it aloud as you revise it. If it sounds right in your own voice it will sound authentic, which is what you’re looking for.

Sassoon or Owen? and why?

Alistair: Owen – partly because of the forcefulness of his writing and partly because Sassoon, unlike Owen, always seems to be more detached in his writing.
Stuart: Owen, the pupil bettered the master and his poetry is applicable now to the wars we witness in the 21st century, and will be for future conflicts.
Jacqui: Owen, I think, was the greater poet because he was developing and experimenting as he wrote. But I think Sassoon is more interesting as a person.


Find out more about the War Poetry for Today competition and how to enter here. All submissions are published online at Theatre Cloud with the winning poems being announced at Blackpool Grand Theatre on the last week of the tour.

Find out about the 5-star drama Regeneration here which comes to the Grand Theatre from Tuesday 25 to Saturday 29 November

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