100 Years On- Why the War Poets Still Matter

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Next month marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. The 28th July should be a time for reflection, to feel sadness for the death and suffering, to remember the pledge of “never again,” and to look for the reasons that still wars are fought, and still so many die.

A number of poets wrote of their experiences during World War I, some died. These poems written from the battlefields bring us into the horror of war, we are not just observing through news reports but are there with all our senses, feeling inside what they feel too.

Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous of the war poets. He died only a week before the Armistice was signed. In Dulce et Decorum Est he writes of a gas attack, a man dying, “white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” and grimly reminds us of a common saying during war, “Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.”) This poem destroys any romantic ideas about war and glory; it is horrifying, painful and very, very sad.

Siegfried Sassoon, who met Owen in a war hospital and offered him advice and encouragement with his poems, did not shy away from the shocking reality of war either. He survived and years later was still traumatised, as poems like The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still, written in 1962, show. It demonstrates the pain and futility of death suffered by both sides in war. His most famous poem, Everyone Sang, written in 1919 in response to the Armistice is hauntingly beautiful, a mix of optimism and sadness.

The 100 year anniversary should be commemorated, at least in part, with the reading of poems from the war. Lest we forget.

A list of war poets and their biographies can be found at http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/biogs99.htm with links to some of their poems.

In Celebration of Maya Angelou

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Poet, memoirist, civil rights activist, “Phenomenal Woman,” and many other things, Dr Maya Angelou will be turning 86 on the fourth of April. She has lived a full and varied life so far, which is documented in her seven volumes of memoirs.

I first heard of Angelou when I studied the first volume of her memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for my English Literature A Level. Here she speaks of her childhood, where her experiences are painful, heart-warming, shocking and funny, and her personality shines through every word. The quality of her writing is such that, despite the huge differences between us, I lived every moment of the book with her, living in “the Store” in Arkansas, dancing at a Mexican fiesta and much, much more.

But it was when my teacher showed the class video clips of Angelou performing her poetry that I really appreciated how great she is. She spoke with a passion and vitality that made me truly understand poetry for the first time. At school and college we had studied Keats, Shelley, Owen and Yeats, all great poets, but all dead men whose words rested silently on the page. Angelou, however, brought her words to life with a power that showed poetry is life.

Dr Maya Angelou is an amazingly talented and inspirational woman who deserves so much celebration and admiration.

To find out more about her read her books and visit her website. In the media section you can see her recite “And Still I Rise.”

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