Saturday, July 02, 2016

`The War That Was Called Great'

While reading about the Battle of the Somme I kept stumbling upon the name of a poet who was born four years after the Armistice. I have read little of Vernon Scannell’s poetry and none of his prose. He was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1922, the son of a Great War veteran, and enlisted in the Army “as a lark” in 1940, and became a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His biographer, James Andrew Taylor, describes Scannell as a “serial deserter” who fought in North Africa, took part in the D-Day invasion and was severely wounded while fighting in Normandy. He was frequently arrested and spent time in both military prisons and mental hospitals. Scannell was a boxer and sometimes fought professionally. He often wrote about both World Wars. In “Naming the Names,” his speaker visits a cemetery for the Great War dead, where their names outlive “time’s lithophagous flames”:

“The Somme, like guns’ far thunder,
Ominous, yet with a sigh,
Passchendaele, Mons and Wipers,
Graveyards where multitudes lie.”

In “A Binyon Opinion” (Views and Distances, 2000), his refutation of Laurence Binyon’s hollow “For the Fallen,” Scannell writes:

“I was there, at Wipers and the Somme.
I left one leg at some place near Cambrai
And counted myself lucky, not like Tom,
My pal, what I won’t see till Judgement Day.”

No war is identified in his villanelle “Casualty—Mental Ward”:

“Something has gone wrong inside my head.
The sappers have left mines and wire behind,
I hold long conversations with the dead.”

One of his better-known poems is “The Great War,” which begins:

“Whenever war is spoken of
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind.”

In Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell (Oxford University Press, 2013), James Andrew Taylor concludes of an impossible man and poet:

“He had, like most people, a complex mix of faults and virtues—violent bully, loyal friend, scholar, drunk, inspiring teacher, sexual predator, and passionate lover. To love him was never easy—a telling phrase he used in one of his deceptively light-hearted poems. Lives and relationships are complicated, few more so than Scannell’s—but that a man should be so long and loyally loved by those whom he has hurt surely says much about him, and about them as well. He could be romantic, generous, kind, cruel, deceitful, and bitingly honest, both in his life and in his poetry.”

1 comment:

Bob said...

In reading the various commemorations this week I came across this short poem by an Australian poet, Vance Palmer -- I think it's quite fine: