Perhaps because of my age and upbringing, I have a particular fascination with the First World War. Or perhaps it was because I saw a high school production of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ in my formative years. Whatever it is, I find myself drawn to the bitter gloominess of novels like A. J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and, for younger readers, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. So this was a natural for me to pick up from the review table, and I think it does a decent job of portraying the era to a generation (and a nation) that has little interest in it.
This collection of powerful WWI poetry, “adapted” (which seems to mean arranged and illustrated – the poems are not edited) by graphic artists, is intended as an introduction to both the Trench poets and, to a lesser extent, to the Great War itself. The selection of poetry is solid but not particularly adventurous – no women, no nationalities outside Britain and Ireland, – and focuses mostly on well-known names such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. Though to be fair, ‘well-known’ in this context is probably overstating the poets’ reputations considerably. The theme of the majority of the poems is spelt out in Patrick MacGill’s prose piece The Great Push: “Why have millions of men come here from all corners of Europe to hack and slay one another?”
The illustrations, from a wide range of European and North American cartoonists, are all black and white, and range in style from straightforward playing back of the words (All the Hills and Vales Along, Repression of War Experience), to more interpretative impressions (all of Wilfred Owen’s four poems), though few stray beyond images of helmeted Tommies in the trenches. Do the illustrations add to the poetry? At best they elucidate the mood and meaning of the words, and, at worst, don’t get in the way. Hunt Emerson’s gonzo cartoons accompanying bawdy soldiers’ songs give some welcome counterpoint to the otherwise bleak and downbeat atmosphere.
Backmatter includes helpful notes from the artists about their interpretations, as well as some explanations of words and particular images, brief bios of the poets and the comics contributors and further reading suggestions.
Though this is the centennial of the outbreak of WWI, it is not a war which most Americans, much less teens, feel a connection with, so this illustrated volume of great poetry could provide a way in for some readers.