Humans have been writing about war for a long time.
Ever since we’ve been writing, actually. Homer was the author of some of the most vivid scenes of battle ever penned, and since Homer was writing from an oral tradition, it’s safe to assume that tales of war have been around since humans started telling stories (or fighting wars – it would be pleasant to think the stories came first).
The tradition continues to this day, and those who heard Ruth Padel and New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, Vincent O’Sullivan, in the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts event, War in Writing, will know that it is a subject that has never lost its power to confront. As the event’s chair, Peter Rose – editor of the Australian Book Review said, war has an ‘irresistible draw’ for writers.
Padel and O’Sullivan both read poetry and Padel an extract from her novel, set in World War II Crete, amidst a rolling discussion on war as a subject. The first poem Padel shared, ‘Peter the Funny One’, was particularly apt for the session, since its subject was an artist’s response to war. A playful take on idealism versus truth, it followed Peter Breughel’s works from peasant frivolity to the art he made after living through the Thirty Years War. Throughout the poem a voice begs Breughel show, ‘the world we live in’, a request that is only satisfied with ‘The Triumph of Death’, a 1560s religious painting that presents an almost documentary scene of carnage.
Padel’s second poem, ‘Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth’ was shortlisted for the 2014 T S Eliot Prize and it rolls together the Judean creation story, modern Israel, the gentle hands of a carpenter carving an Oud and the bloody end of this labour when ‘the soldiers came for his genetic code’. It shows creativity as a healing force amidst carnage:
I took a class in carpentry and put away the bridal rug.
We started over
with a child’s oud bought on eBay.
Vincent O’Sullivan has recently been working on the lyrics for works by the New Zealand composer Ross Harris. He explained that war is not the subject matter that naturally draws him, and that he is ambivalent about the ‘dress up factor’ of war commemorations (‘don’t put yourself to so much trouble’ reads a line of one of his poems) and the myths that surround them. Were our nations really forged in the crucible of Gallipoli? Maybe not when New Zealanders in the 1970s still referred to Britain as ‘home’. Nonetheless he accepted the commission to write a poem for New Zealand’s unknown soldier, as well as writing the libretto for Harris’s opera, Brass Poppies, a Requiem for the Fallen and Notes from the Front, a song cycle based on the famous mathematician Aitken and the violin he smuggled from front line to front line.
There are, explained O’Sullivan, constraints of writing for music (for instance a slippery sentence of s’s, is very hard on a singer) and, above all, lyrics must reinforce a score not ‘peel away from it’. The Agnus Dei from the requiem, for example, takes simple phrases describing soldiers’ experiences and structures them as a chant with the traditional agnus dei (lamb of god – don’t forget that sacrifice is a strong motif here) refrain.
The simplicity of O’Sullivan’s war writing is its most forceful quality. Picture this: A soldier sees a hare moving through no man’s land. All around is death and the animal moves through a ‘corpse infested’ ditch’. It is an anecdote that becomes the heart of the war experience: it conveys a yearning for home; a yearning for the past; and all around is death, so this visitor from nature is the real invader. And if nature has become the alien, then doesn’t that just illustrate the malevolence of the human-made battle landscape?
One particularly interesting audience question was why Second World War poets were not as famous as those from the First. It wasn’t, explained O’Sullivan, that they didn’t exist. But the First World War poets were writing the most direct confronting poetry since Homer, so they have became famous. The Second World War also did not have the same ‘face-to-face brutality’ of the first.
An hour of deep, reflective poetry, prose and discussion from two much respected writers whose work and observations on writing war were sensitive and, like the Oud in Padel’s poem, lovingly crafted.
Ruth Padel’s latest collection of poetry, Learning to make an Oud in Nazareth was released in 2014. The Opera, Brass Poppies, of which O’Sullivan is the Librettist will be performed at the next New Zealand Arts Festival.
Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London