BLUNDEN – NEW PERSPECTIVES
By Philip Underwood
It’s not often that new perspectives are shed on WW1 poets. But, at two launches of the latest selection of Blunden’s poetry at Glasgow University, and at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last week, it was his survival that was celebrated – and the cost.
Robyn Marsack, a Writing Fellow at Glasgow University, asks the question whether we can ever draw a line, even one hundred years after the event, and say ‘it’s over’. Speaking with Blunden’s daughter Margi, at the event, Robyn Marsack concludes that Blunden ‘offers us his perceptions, consolations, devastations as a poet of remembrance whose witness needs re-evaluation; whose poems throw their long shadows and moments of illumination far beyond this centenary year of 2018.’
Some 130 of Blunden’s most representative poems are presented in a sympathetic format. Read in conjunction with the insightful introduction and thought provoking post-script, Robyn provides the reader with Blunden’s unique perspective as a fighting soldier/survivor. In particular, how war pervades the mind of the survivor for life; how war becomes a condition of mind, which poses the question of the link between memory and identity and how the two coexist.
Questions from the floor pointed out, in particular, the effect on Blunden, and other former soldiers, of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), and their need to, as Blunden put it, “Go over the ground again” in attempts to lay the ghosts. One particular example cited the case of a former soldier from the Falklands conflict. His visit back after 30 years to the scene of trauma and death of his close friend, his slow descent from the ridge through one defensive position to another, provided him with the means to confront his ghosts, and so help to begin to ameliorate his survivor guilt.
But for Blunden his subliminal memories would never let go of him, no matter how many times he returned to the battlefields.
Through his poetry and prose, something of his essence emerged into the room, providing an emotional connection with the audience. This was strongly evidenced in Robyn’s reading from ‘Aftertones’ to be found in her selection of Blunden’s war prose ‘Fall in, Ghosts’. When Blunden had returned to France after the Armistice, he writes of the difficulty of the abrupt change from a long war to silence:
“I scanned the eastern darkness as though, if I looked hard enough, the familiar line of lights would be playing there. The silent darkness was in some way worse than those assistants of vengeance. I wanted them. Youth had been subdued to what it worked in.”
And so it proved, the silent darkness was to inhabit his sleeping moments, and in later life to overwhelm his creative defences.
Margi Blunden’s personal poem ‘Survivor’ was read as the conclusion to the event. It is worth re-reading here:
I’ve caught up with you.
Years past I had no questions,
let the whole thing remain
in the spent wood, the trampled
chalk, the mangled village,
the river unusually yellow.
I heard the names you spoke.
The men – Tice, Collyer, Doogan.
Your friends, your dear friends.
The places – Festubert, Ancre,
Thiepval, Pop, Ypres, St Omer –
not understanding anything except
wondering why your angry voice
should spring from one so mild,
your skin so soft should weep
at night, and your body startle
to the childish cries we made
when running in and out.
Margi Blunden, 2011