August Challenge #3: National Identity in Poetry

In our third August challenge of 2018, Damayanti Chatterjee, one of this year’s two Foyle Young Poets interns, asks young writers to think about their relationship with their country. She explores how poets of the Second World War interrogate national identity and challenges you to respond.

“What can the England of 1840 have in common with the England of 1940? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius

Poetry is often used to express strong feelings shared by everyone – so it’s no surprise that a significant topic in poetry is the relationship between one’s self and one’s country. In the last 200 years, the way that national identity is explored in British poetry has changed dramatically. Most poets in Victorian times declared straightforward patriotic feelings through their work; by contrast, since World War One and Two, poets have had a more ambivalent and complicated relationship with nationhood. For example, look at Rupert Burke’s The Soldier, or William Ernest Henley’s 19th century ‘Pro Rege Nostro’:

Ever the faith endures,
England, my England: –
“Take and break us: we are yours,
England, my own!
Life is good, and joy runs high
Between English earth and sky:
Death is death; but we shall die
To the Song on your bugles blown, England –
To the stars on your bugles blown!”

Here, patriotism is portrayed as a ‘faith’, associated with ‘song’, ‘bugles’ and ‘stars’. But the horrors of the First World War changed the public’s relationship with Britain forever, and poets such as Wilfred Owen began to express a more ambivalent relationship with the country, especially towards the duties required of its citizens. These poets left such an indelible change that poems such as Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ are still discussed widely in British classrooms:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Not even fifty years after Henley’s poem was published, national identity has utterly changed: patriotism is seen as merely a ‘Lie’ peddled to ‘children’ (like Henley) who naively embrace it.

At school we often learn how nationalism, very much alive at the start of the First World War, died its angry death by the end of it. However, this national transition from ‘England, my England’ to ‘Dulce et decorum est’ is not where the story ends: poets went on thinking about it during the world-changing events of 1939-1945, and are still exploring it today. Poems about nationhood are now explored beyond the realms of war poetry – they can discuss belonging, history and cultural change. We could think of poems about nationhood as a type of love poetry, professing affection towards the country you were born in, or even that introspective brand of poetry that explores self-identity.

In the work of British World War Two poets – who, unlike their World War One predecessors, are not classroom names – like Timothy Corsellis, Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis, we find a more muted, perhaps more mature relationship with patriotism. One that is not freshly scarred by resentment and anger in its first experience of modern warfare but has had time to come to terms with their country, their relationship with it and what it requires them to do.

A good example of this is Alun Lewis’ ‘All Day It Has Rained’, which he wrote whilst training as a soldier in Hampshire with the Royal Engineers. It concludes with this fond, nostalgic description of the British countryside:

And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard’s merry play,
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o’ Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song.

This is a quiet, reflective stanza, weaving innocence into memories of his time in the Hampshire countryside as ‘children’ engage in the ‘schoolyard’s merry play’. References to known local landmarks and villages such as the ‘Shoulder o’ Mutton’, ‘Steep’, and ‘Sheet’ evoke a homelike sense of definite familiarity that we can all recognise. The soft, hushing alliteration of the ‘shaggy patient dog’ who follows with through ‘Sheet and Steep and wooded scree’ adds to the quiet, reflective tone of this stanza as well as highlighting the names of little villages in the landscape of Hampshire and small, exceptionally common features of British countryside. This emphasis on these identifying features creates a space of shared knowledge between the writer’s words and his reader that creates an even greater sense of familiarity and home.

Lewis ends this nostalgic, affectionate stanza abruptly by introducing the war, contrasting ‘bullet’ with ‘song’. This sudden contrast mirrors how the Second World War interrupted the nation’s everyday lives. In fact, the whole stanza is a little more complex and melancholic than it might seem at first. The images Lewis uses are of childhood, but they are all memories, beyond the poet’s reach, rather than the images of the present. The reference to Edward Thomas, a poet who was killed in the First World War, is also somewhat mournful and shows how the memories, the loss and the horror of the First World War still hang inescapably over the country, even as World War Two rages on.

Lewis portrays Britain fondly, but his presentation is complicated by melancholy and loss. It is not the eager patriotism of Henley or Burke; nor is it the bitter fury of Owen and other First World War poets who resented the slaughter this patriotism has caused.  It is perhaps more honest and earnest than the first, and more healed than the second. It is a quieter picture of both fond attachment but also deep grief; of a country that has come to terms with the sacrifices were made in the name of country but regrets the loss and wants more, wants better – perhaps emblematic of the ‘Land of Lost Content’ (in A.E. Housman’s words) that Britain had become in this part of the 20th century.

Another exploration of national identity that I find particularly subtle is John Jarmain’s ‘El Alamein’. What catches my attention most in this poem is the poet’s awareness that that he is living through a pivotal event in British history. The poem as a whole considers how Jarmain and the other soldiers are privy to a history that no-one else in Britain will ever really know: ‘none but us has known that land’. However, rather than bitterness, there is a greater sense of acceptance in Jarmain’s poem. Whereas for Owen and other First World War poets, this disconnect between the soldiers’ lived reality and the perception of war at home caused bitter poetry, by the Second World War perhaps the horrors of war were better understood even at home.

artist's impression of battle at El Alamein
Museum at El Alamein. Photo credit: Heather Cowper.

In the national story, the battle at El Alamein will be ‘the garland for [their] brow’; ‘their fleck of glory’. Whilst these images of honour, victory and commemoration might seem similar to the patriotism of Victorian poetry, the tone of this passage, and the overall poem, is far from jingoistic: Jarmain shows baldly that only those who were not there might see the name El Alamein as a mark of pride or honour. The poem ends in a hollow sense of healing and an image of peace in the flowers that Jarmain uses as a repeating motif in the poem.

The poetry of the Second World War captures a nuanced, thoughtful attitude to patriotism in war. I find the ambivalence and peace of these poets’ relationship to their country is far closer to how we would portray nationhood today than the poetry of the First World War and Victorian era, despite being closer in years to the latter.

Both Lewis and Jarmain use strong imagery in their poetry to conjure up feelings of peace and familiarity but contrast them with a lingering sense of sadness – Lewis with connotations of the past and Jarmain with by highlighting the division between the soldiers and the rest of the country. How could you use images and references like they do to create a conflicting, nuanced story?

The challenge

My challenge is to write a poem exploring the concept of national identity, responding to how it is presented in the work of poets of the Second World War such as Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich or Timothy Corsellis. Your poem will then be entered into the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018.

You could write about the conundrum of national identity that was felt by the country in the first half of the 20th century, where this identity required duties that had devastating effects. Alun Lewis began the war as a pacifist. Timothy Corsellis did as well, only being moved to join the RAF after the Fall of France in 1940. How could you present this conflict of duties that many young people would have felt when their country called in 1939?

Looking back at the poems we’ve read, you could write a poem about your country today borrowing a jingoistic, or disillusioned, or horrified, or ambivalent tone. You could also write about the Second World War, or about a particular important moment like ‘El Alamein’ in one of these voices.

Perhaps you could explore what role patriotism and national identity play in our lives now. Do we really know what we’re talking about when we commemorate historical events? As Jarmain implied in his poem ‘El Alamein’, we were not there and we had no part to play. How do you feel about the way patriotism and our attitudes to it have evolved over the last 200 years?

Do you think there is a place for patriotism in your country today? The political events of the last few years have spilled into almost every corner of society. How do you feel about your country? Try writing about something that has happened to you recently, or perhaps something you overheard or saw, that you think could reflect people’s relationship to patriotism today.

You could be even more introspective than this, and write about what home means to you, and what it is that lingers in your mind as a place of familiarity and memory, as Alun Lewis wrote about Hampshire on a wet, quiet Sunday in training. What would you describe, if you were to describe ‘home’? List 10 place names, or objects, or colours that conjure ‘home’, like ‘Shoulder o’ Mutton’ or ‘chestnuts’ in Lewis’ poem. Write a poem weaving these words in, and let them project their images of home and familiarity without needing to explain them, as Lewis did in his writing. Can you use contrasting images, or contrasting sounds through some alliteration to show how your home, or your country is interrupted by the world?

Is it even possible to conjure up one image that we would all perceive to be emblematic of Britain, as Lewis tried to do in the final stanza of his poem? Timothy Corsellis grew up in leafy, suburban London and then the countryside. Alun Lewis was born in the Cynon Valley in South Wales. Sidney Keyes grew up in industrial Dartford in Kent. If these poets all had to describe the Britain they knew, would any of their images be the same?

If you feel like you’d rather respond to this challenge with an essay rather than a poem, feel free! You can enter an essay into the Timothy Corsellis Young Critics Prize, for short essays of 500-1,500 words exploring which three poets (out of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich or Timothy Corsellis) are most likely to be read in twenty years’ time, and why.  If you’re looking for inspiration, why not read last year’s winning essay, ‘The Second World War Poetry of Alun Lewis, Keith Douglas and Henry Reed: Envisioning the War Poet Anew’ by Yasmin Samrai.

Good luck in the challenge!

Prizes

Please note that any poems or essays entered into August challenge #3 will automatically be entered into the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2018. In this year’s Corsellis Prize there will be first, second and third prize winners for poems, and also for essays. First prize winners will receive £100 book tokens; second and third prize winners will win £50 book tokens. All winners will receive poetry books and posters, and publication on Young Poets Network. The first prize poem will be published in The Poetry Society’s quarterly paper Poetry News. The first prize essay will be published on The Poetry Society’s website.

The judges for both the poetry and essay prize will be Professor Fran Brearton (for the War Poets Association), a leading authority on war poetry and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast; Karen Leeder, FRSA, poet and professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford; Llewela Selfridge on behalf of the Imperial War Museum in London; and Judith Palmer, Director of The Poetry Society.

How to enter

This challenge is open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send a poem written down, or a performance poem as a video or as an audio file. Send as many poems as you like. The deadline for all entries is midnight, Sunday 16 September 2018.

If you are sending a written version of your entry, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending an image, video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Please send as many poems as you like for the Poetry Prize. Include a short commentary (up to 300 words) explaining the way in which your poem(s) is/are a response to the life or work of the WWII poet/s. Please send one essay per entrant for the Young Critics Prize, between 500 and 1,500 words long (the word count includes quotations). You are very welcome to enter both Prizes – we would love to hear your voice in poetry and prose.

Send your entries to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country), you live in and the subject line ‘August challenge #3’.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 10 September 2018 you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form if you haven’t already; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws. 

If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line of your email. If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, please include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the body of the email. You can sign up yourself for free here.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you, and to hold your data in a secure manner so we can contact you about the results of this challenge. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

Damayanti Chatterjee is a 19-year-old student who was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2015 as well as being a SLAMbassadors winner in the same year. She dabbles with spoken word and page poetry as well as occasionally writing longer pieces and co-running the arts collective XTRA.art, which seeks to bring the world to emerging artists and bring emerging artists out into the world. Alongside indulging in her side-interests of taking long walks by bodies of water and politics this summer, she is excited to set this August challenge!

2 thoughts on “August Challenge #3: National Identity in Poetry

    1. Dear Balogun,

      Thanks for your comment! If you’d like to submit an essay, this can be in whatever style you choose, so long as it explores which three poets (out of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich or Timothy Corsellis) are most likely to be read in twenty years’ time, and why. If you’re looking for inspiration, why not read last year’s Timothy Corsellis Prize winning essay, ‘The Second World War Poetry of Alun Lewis, Keith Douglas and Henry Reed: Envisioning the War Poet Anew’ by Yasmin Samrai. You can find this here: http://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/workshop/the-timothy-corsellis-prize-2018/

      Poems, on the other hand, can respond to any of these poets or their lives in any way – especially re. national identity in this case! It’s up to you whether you enter a poem or an essay or both – we’d love to receive an entry by you any way.

      Best wishes and best of luck,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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