Although at times the tone can seem ill-judged, Jon Stallworthy's poems are full of sincere thought about war
Jon Stallworthy was a poet with a personal chair of English literature at Oxford, who died last November, aged 79. War Poet is his final collection, which fortunately he saw published a little before his death. It was not a volume of new work, except for the title poem, but a collection of the poems he had written, at intervals during his life, about the wars of the 20th century.
He was always very preoccupied with war and its poetry. He wrote a biography of Wilfred Owen and edited his Complete Poems, and compiled The Oxford Book of War Poetry. But in his own poems, he hardly ever wrote directly about combat. In fact, one of the best items in this book is a biting satire on the poets at the big Albert Hall gathering in 1965 who blasted forth in verse about the Vietnam war without having been there:
The spotlights had you covered . . .
. . . Under
the muzzles of the microphones
You opened fire, and a phalanx
Of loudspeakers shook on the wall;
But all your cartridges were blanks
It might seem ironical, then, that he wrote so many poems about war himself. However his subject was not the actual fighting, but its tragic consequences. Tim Kendall of Exeter University, who has edited a recent anthology, Poetry of the First World War, has said that Stallworthy was “scrupulous about what a non-combatant is, and is not, entitled to describe . . . he pays his debts to the dead without ever lapsing into posture and self-importance.” Stallworthy served as a young officer in West Africa when he was doing National Service, and in one poem he acknowledges, laughingly, how pacific his own experience of the Army was. As duty officer, he has to wear a sword with his Sam Browne belt. What’s it for? he asks — and answers:
. . . Pulling down
thunderbox lids that nobody cleans
In the Royal West African Frontier Force latrines.
For his own war poems, he found good and moving subjects that meant a great deal to him. In “No Ordinary Sunday”, he describes what is clearly a personal memory of a remembrance service on a school playing field. After the service, as the boys “idled home”, ahead of them “marched the formations of the towering dead”. An ambitious poem called “The Anzac Sonata” is explicitly about his own New Zealand family. It contains a series of short versified vignettes of his uncle, Bill Howie, and what happened to him in the Great War — parading on his horse past his sister’s schoolroom as the Otago Mounted Rifles set off for war, surviving the slaughter at Gallipoli, dying of a fever at Gibraltar on the way home. Stallworthy intertwines these with evocations of Bill’s brother’s violin, its cadences now jubilant, now gently giving comfort, and hints of his sister’s lifelong memories and reveries of Bill. It all sweeps by with dream-like effect. But its story, heard at home, must have been one of the things that first forced his attention on war.
There is a short poem about the poet Edward Thomas’s fob watch, which was found on him when he was killed at the front. The man and the watch, he writes with touching precision and poignant wit, were always “face to face, hand in hand” — until “the last day and/the wordless heart to heart”. “War Poet”, the title poem, is a tragic one, about a wounded soldier-poet who, coming back to consciousness after a long period in hospital, finds that his girlfriend has married someone else.
Nevertheless, it must be said that Stallworthy’s poetic voice is not very forceful or concentrated. For instance, he often uses similes or metaphors that have some physical aptness to what he is describing, but no more. At the school memorial service “the bugler flexed his lips”; in another poem Wilfred Owen was killed beside a “goose-fleshed canal”. Such phrases scatter the reader’s thoughts rather than wrench him more thoroughly into the poem’s theme or mood. Or Stallworthy will end a sentence with one word at the beginning of a new line in a poem, which can have a powerful effect if the word is significant, but is feeble if it is not. In the Anzac poem, for example, we read of
the jubilant echo
that came to you sixty-five years
There is absolutely no significance in that “ago”. The sentence sinks, and the reader’s heart with it.
Stallworthy’s tone, also, often seems very ill-judged. When the wounded soldier imagines his faithless girlfriend’s wedding, he thinks “I should have sung/ for you but with my lyre unstrung/epithalamia were not/on hand.” In a poem about the man’s anguish, this flavouring of what seems like a little academic humour jars dreadfully.
All the same, there is pleasure in reading the poems. They are full of sincere thought about war, and Stallworthy has used a great deal of invention in imagining the stories that embody it. Everywhere you sense the presence of his natural compassion and decency. He can take a place, in his own quiet and responsible way, among the poets of war.