Cold Stars Lighting

" ...cold stars lighting... " Poetry and World War One
Thursday 15 May • St Giles in the Fields • London

UK government education minister Michael Gove, writer Max Hastings and others have tried to debunk the poetry of writers such as Wilfred Owen for undermining the view of the war as a 'noble' and 'just' cause. On 15 May 2014, a packed audience at London's St Giles-in-the-Fields - "the poets' church" - saw writers and musicians reclaim First World War poetry from the revisionists who would have us believe that the deaths of 20 million people was "worth it".

Readings by:
Michael Rosen, Blake Morrison, AL Kennedy Samuel West, George Szirtes
Music by:
Matthew Crampton, Nette Robinson and the Lyric Ensemble
Review by: Steve Kendall. See below.

Review by Steve Kendall

My grandmother's brother died, on the 20th November 1917, just after the start of the Russian Revolution; just as the forces that would end the war were establishing themselves, after the 3rd Battle of Ypres.

That death was part of the emotional landscape within which I grew up and remains so, when I go with my family to Ypres, to see his name on the wall at Tyne Cot.

It is still real, this history and in this anniversary year, the hurt, the sense of loss and the grief are still real for those of us who come later. It matters whose version of those events we embrace.

Gathering in the poets' church, St Giles in the Fields, on 15th May, International Conscientious Objector's Day, activists, poets and musicians spoke to us, read to us, sang to us, played to us - reasserting the truth and continuing relevance of the so-called 'poets' view' of the war. This intermingling of perspectives, traditions and forms was a particularly strong feature of the evening.

For me, Home Lads Home sung by Matthew Crampton, accompanied on the accordion by Mark Winstanley, was especially affecting. This poem by Cicely Fox Smith, set to music by Sarah Morgan, is full of longing for the lost pre-war world, for fallen comrades and their fallen horses, transplanted from rural Hampshire to the Flanders trenches.

Michael Rosen, the former Children's Laureate, read us poems highlighting children as victims of war. In a poem by Tessa Hooley, A War Film, a mother, bathing her son, is gripped by the terror of her child being 'taken away to war, tortured, torn, slain'. He read us a poem by a German soldier, Albert Lichtenstein, and, because, as he said, 'pacifism has to be international'; he read it in English and in German. In English and in French, he read us Human Rights by the French anti-war poet, Marcel Martinet, in which 'bombs from planes kill bunches of children, women and men, calmly asleep'.

George Szirtes read us his poem Scrap Songs in which he provides an account of 'the First World War for children' where the simplicity of the language and the narrative progressively undermines itself as the tale darkens.

A L Kennedy's view of war was shaped by her grandmother's memories. She reminded us that we are here to 'not forget'. Blake Morrison read us Wilfred Owen's poem Futility,.and The Lyric Ensemble mingled voice, piano and saxophone under the great stained-glass window of St Giles' telling us 'that the singing will never be done'. Sam West closed with a fragment by Wilfred Owen, where 'in his eyes the cold stars lighting' echoed Futility's ' clays of a cold star'.

It was a rich, many-threaded evening, drawn together at its end by a finale of all the poets. As Matthew Crampton reminded us, "We have still got a lot of remembering to do, until we get things clear."