The Great War was a watershed moment for poetry, when the censorship governing the polemic of prose was waived away for the protest of poesy. Perhaps the great and good thought that it was safe enough since nobody pays any attention to the self-obsessed diarising of dandies and waifs. Surely these verses would have such a short shelf-life that they shall not grow old. It was also a time for protest speech to grow up, to leave the sniping satire and mirthless moralising of old, and to embrace the gallows-humour of the absurd made all-too-real.
The Workshop this week celebrated the 100 years since the Armistice by enjoying the peacetime freedom that allows us to remember in our owns ways at our own times. Peter Francis was first over the top with an epic of vinegar vignettes of the many little tragedies, every bit as bitter as was called for. But Pat Francis broke ranks to listen to the birdsong of three types of in-between fowls, the third of which was us. Daphne Gloag has been keeping morale up by speaking a song of nature’s exhuberance (featuring birds again), while Anne Furneaux has been patrolling the cliffs of the Channel listening out for any gossip coming in with the tide. An overnight epiphany of peace has fallen over Michael Harris, as a silent night gives rise to his own heartsongs – and likewise coming out of his shell was Martin Choules, surveying the amassed carcasses of shedding spiders to rival any battlefield. Finally, the all-clear was sounded by an abstract Alan Chambers, looking deep into a painting and finding the free-forming Jazz Age to come.
Siegfried Sassoon had been a regular of a Tuesday night before hostilities, and was one of the fewer to return in the aftermath. He would often forgo reading one of his own to instead introduce the group to a little known Wilfred Owen who he felt deserved a wider audience, and who tragically would never be able to attend himself. But infact the name was not unknown to those Ealing residents who had the good fortune to be too old, or too lame, or too female to be called up. It transpired that Lieutenant Owen had actually popped in the Spring of 1918 while waiting to be sent back to the Front, and whose first-hand reportage was all the more poignant for attempting to keep to a rank and file of regular rhyme and rhythm, only to find the whole thing falling apart as soon as it comes face to face with grim realities. And then he was gone, becoming one of his own doomed youths.
But Ziggy Sassoon kept coming for years, even though most of the later pieces he brought could never live up to his war poems, fully aware that the monster had in the end brought him such life. For him, the vibrant noise of the guns was drowned out as soon as everybody sang.