Issue 13

Autumn 2014


The Hundred Years’ War, Midland Creative Projects, Details at:

Neil Astley (ed), The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems, Bloodaxe Books, 608 pp, £12.99

Annually, Midland Creative Projects build a show performing a selection of poems from the latest Bloodaxe anthology. With unsurprising appropriateness, given the centenary of the start of World War One, the anthology and the show for 2014 and into 2015, is The Hundred Years’ War. 

The title is clever of course, though perhaps somewhat arbitrary, in that all the wars since 1914 have not been part of one large conflict, except insofar as human society is permanently tearing itself apart – and historically World War One is more rationally seen as a continuation of previous European wars, especially the war of 1870, than a starting point. 

Be that as it may, the collection is a powerful one. Merely documenting (some of) the conflicts of the last hundred years is itself a salutory list: it includes wars you may not remember or even be aware of. Moreover, the definition of ‘war’ here is somewhat open (conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Cold War are included for example) and also somewhat ethnocentric, in that it ignores wars such as the Sino-Japanese conflict (1937), the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 to 2009), at least four wars between India and Pakistan and all the various African conflicts, such as the civil wars in Chad (intermittently from 1965 to 2005), Angolan Wars (1961 to 2002) or the wars in the Congo and Nigeria. 

In fact, the list of such wars not included is depressingly long, meaning the selection of wars represented in the volume is a little strange, primarily limited to those involving the UK, the USA or the UN. Perhaps this is a function of anthologising poems in English, but it seems more likely it’s related to the audience Bloodaxe thinks likely to buy the book – the uncomfortable liberal intellectual of Western Europe and North America.

 I’m not reviewing the book here. I went to the last Hundred Years’ War show of 2014, in late November, and felt it deserved review here, even though we’re not generally concerned with drama as such (apart from the continual drama of editorial life, of course, histrionic as it often is).

The show recites forty poems from the anthology. I think any performance which holds an audience of over 60 people for 90 minutes of poetry, and keeps their attention throughout, to that number of poems, has to be hugely applauded. Forty poems in one evening? Forty very serious poems? There aren’t many poets who can manage this. Even readings by the Duffys and Armitages of the world rarely exceed an hour, or probably much more than fifteen poems, and these must be interspersed with anecdote and commentary to keep the audience primed.

Midland Creative Projects have hit on a winning formula. Three performers enacting, rather than merely reciting, these poems - from memory, of course (impressive in itself to poets like me who can’t even remember their own poetry). However, they present in an actorly manner, rather than in that common “poets’ voice”, which in itself intrinsically changes the rendition.

Therein lies the success and simultaneously the problem with this approach to poetry performance. It is an entertaining, engaging, involving, enlightening show and I urge you to see it, because you will enjoy it. But it uses poetry, rather than merely presenting it. It wants poetry to entertain, and putting aside those important questions about how and why war can be a source of an entertaining night out, because it elevates that entertainment factor in poetry it may, perhaps, misrepresent, the poems.

Well, ‘misrepresent’ is an ill-chosen word. I don’t think there’s anything in this show, or last year’s equivalent (which I also enjoyed) which deliberately sets out to alter the chosen poems or distort or abuse them. The company do want audiences to enjoy the poems but they want that to happen through some form of legitimate engagement , that the audience can respond to intellectually and viscerally, so they’re looking for an interpretation of each poem which can be acted out on stage. In other words, they’re offering specific interpretations of each text.

This issue of interpretation is, of course, a complex one. Even on the page we know poems can yield dozens, perhaps hundreds of ways of reading. Some poets will feel their own way of reading is definitive, whereas others may feel their own performance is merely one of the many possible. If you ask other poets to read your poems, you can be surprised by how different their interpretations may be. 

But these stage performers want interpretations which grab their audience, pin them to their seat or draw them to its edge. They’ve chosen, therefore poems which are readily taken on board, readily understood, readily felt. The show contains a range of experiences of war but pretty much all of them are easy to recognise, easy to appreciate and readily taken to heart. There’s little that might be interpreted as pro-war and, where there is, it is ironic. So, whilst we’re given the many horrors of war, and some of the complex feelings it arouses, they’re essentially hegemonic, with little dissent to the anti-war view and the discomfort the audience feel comes from empathy with the voice in the poem, not from disturbance of the audience’s own perspectives. We come away feeling “thank god that’s not us”, and “isn’t war a terrible and terrifying thing”. We don’t come away wondering if we could be complicit, if we would even wield a gun for our ideals, if some terrorists might have a point. In other words, it can be a difficult emotional experience, but not one that questions anything implicit in our way of life.

Interpretations are inherent in the way the poems are delivered. Some are essentially recited, others treated a little more like script and acted to. The set is minimal, so does not distract from the words, and the very occasional use of props is generally symbolic, used primarily to reinforce some image or implication of a poem. However, there’s often a sound track – perhaps some distant music, or the sound of a train departing, an explosion, a battlefield. I can see that dramatisation is served by such aural effects but I’m not sure they serve the poetry. 

In fact, I thought there was a tension between keeping the audience engaged and giving the poems room to breathe. Each little performance has its power and resonance as a piece of drama, but the poem becomes a skeleton upon which gestures, posture, regional accent, sound effects or dramatic interactions can be hung. Two poems, not written as dialogue, are delivered as such. One, Grass (an excellent choice for both opening and closing) is presented by all three speakers as a round, meaning that it’s effect is choral rather than verbal – actually quite powerful, and making the point that grass is the only victor on the battlefield, but nothing in the writing anticipates this. In some poems, the non-speaking performers may react to the words, thereby telling the audience how to receive the text: though, to be fair, most of the poems are presented as monologues with the non-speakers suitably quiescent. One poem ends with an actor strapping a bag of explosives on and rushing out to act as a suicide bomber, rather unnecessarily underlining the force of the poem. 

In other words, the poetry has first been selected for approachability and effect, and then been given dramatic treatment to make a more compelling stage experience than could be achieved merely be recital. So I find myself in two places in its audience. As a member of the public, paying for an evenings stimulating entertainment, I think this an excellent idea, carefully crafted, well thought out, subtly and intelligently delivered, and like to engross quite a wide theatre-going or literary audience. As a poet, I found the treatment of some poems either seemed to narrow the possibilities of the text, or focused on a specific interpretation, leaving out such things as ambiguities and paying little attention to poetic characteristics such as inherent musicality. The rhythms of speech tend to outweigh poetic craft, so the poems chosen are generally the most “natural” rather than anything more “poetic”. 

The biggest strength of the event, though, is in bringing poetry to the wider attention. Of the forty poems, I was only familiar with two, and the company have very sensibly avoided using the most familiar of war poems – no Dulce et Decorum Est, for example (though it is in the anthology). I came away immediately wanting to review the texts of many of the poems new to me, and, as Bloodaxe will be pleased to hear, wanting to own the volume. It is a massive volume, a very good selection and has inspired an excellent performance, well worth taking the time for when it renews in 2015. 

Noel Williams