Poetically Speaking: National Poetry Day 2014

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK.  It is a celebration of all things poetry and events are taking place up and down the country to mark the occasion.  The theme for this year’s day is ‘Remember’

GUNN-Sir-James-The-Eve-of-the-Battle-of-the-Somme

The beautiful painting ‘The Eve of Battle of the Somme’ by Sir Herbert James Gunn was used as inspiration for a poem called ‘The Big Push’ writtenby Scottish Poet John Glenday.  Together these mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.  The picture is such as innocent picture of young men at play and gives no indication of the horror that would come the very next day.  This is the poem it inspired.

The Big Push

after Sir Herbert James Gunn ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’

Would you believe it, there’s a bloke out there singing
When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day’.
His audience, a sixty-pounder crew, stand round bleeding
from the ears. The Boche are all but finished, apparently –

I heard they’re packing old clock parts into trench mortars
now, for want of iron scrap. Some wag quips that next time he’s
sentry and hears the plop of a minnenwerfer tumbling over,
he’ll not blow the alarm, he’ll shout: ‘Time, gentlemen, please…

We laugh and for one heartbeat forget to be afraid. Bravery
and cowardice are just two workings of the same fear
moving us in different ways. The 8th East Surreys
have been given footballs to kick and follow at Zero Hour;

it’s to persuade them from the trenches lest their nerve fail
as they advance on Montaubon. I’ve watched men
hitch up their collars and trudge forward as if shrapnel
and lead were no worse than a shower of winter rain.

This afternoon a few of us went swimming in the mill dam
behind Camp. Just for a while to have no weight, to go drifting
clear of thought and world, was utter bliss. A skylark climbed
high over the torn fields on its impossible thread of song:

like an unbodied joy.” I don’t know why, but it reminded
me of the day we took over from the French along the Somme;
it was so tranquil, so picturesque, the German trenchworks crowded
with swathes of tiny, brilliant flowers none of us could name.

I believe if the dead come back at all they’ll come back green
to grow from the broken earth and drink the gathered water
and all the things they suffered will mean no more to them
than the setting-in of the ordinary dark, or a change of weather.

John Glenday

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