Wars of nerves

11 November 2009

xmasdinner

Although he’s no longer the Laureate Andrew Motion has marked Remembrance Day this year with a very public poem, ‘An Equal Voice‘, which used ‘found lines’ about shellshock and post traumatic stress to bring this particular (and distinctively distressing) experience to mind, shared to some degree by all survivors of war. As he wrote in the introduction:

This is a “found” poem, a stitching together of the voices of shellshocked people. Their words have been taken from a variety of sources, from the first world war to the present, and are presented in the poem in roughly chronological order. There’s a fragment of Siegfried Sassoon in there, but most are from unknown soldiers.

As he acknowledges he has also drawn on Ben Shephard’s history of military psychiatry, A War of Nerves, and the title is taken from a quote from Shephard’s book:

“We hear more from doctors than patients. However hard he tries, the historian cannot even the account, cannot give the patients an equal voice, because most of them chose not to recount their experiences.”

Oddly, Shephard’s response was that the poem was plagiarism, which surprised me, coming from the author of a fine (and undeservedly out of print) book. It’s not. But perhaps the history of the objet trouvé hasn’t yet collided with the history of the military.

The whole poem is technically quite interesting – 6 fourteen line stanzas. I’ve reproduced the first one here and recommend reading the whole thing, which was published last Saturday in the Guardian Review and builds, memorably, towards a conclusion.

From An Equal Voice

War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble.

Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust

reports, blueprints one day and the next –

with the help of a broken-down motor car

and a few gallons of petrol – marching men

with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes,

horses straining and plunging at the guns,

little clay-pits opening beneath each step,

and piles of bloody clothes and leggings

outside the canvas door of a field hospital.

At the end of the week there is no telling

whether you spent Tuesday going over

the specifications for a possible laundry

or skirting the edges of hell in an automobile.

The picture is from Canadian Content, and shows soldiers cooking a Xmas goose at the front in 1914. It is used with thanks.

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