A Way with Words

Bill Man­hire de­scribes his writ­ing day.

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Bill Man­hire

It’s of­ten said that po­etry is born, as Wordsworth wrote, from the ­spon­ta­neous over­flow of pow­er­ful feel­ings. But some­times a com­mis­sion comes along and pushes you be­yond your com­fort zone. If all goes well, you learn things and sur­prise your­self. That was my hope when the Fierce Light project got in touch. I was one of half a dozen po­ets from com­bat­ant na­tions in­vited to write about the Bat­tle of the Somme. Our po­ems might even be made into short films.

Ini­tially, I was scep­ti­cal. Wasn’t all the World War I cen­te­nary stuff a bit dodgy – a cel­e­bra­tion of sac­ri­fice rather than a felt com­mem­o­ra­tion? I’d even writ­ten a short poem that hinted at my reser­va­tions, en­ti­tled My World War I Poem:

In­side each trench, the sound of prayer. In­side each prayer, the sound of dig­ging.

I was also pretty ig­no­rant. My ­know­ledge of WWI mostly came from Wilfred Owen and Black­ad­der. The com­mis­sion­ing brief en­cour­aged po­ets to ven­ture be­yond the Somme. “Are there con­tem­po­rary forces, barely ­com­pre­hen­si­ble but be­com­ing clearer, that might ben­e­fit from the fierce light of art?” In the end, per­haps the big­gest chal­lenge would be to con­nect the world as it was to the world as it is.

At first I wasn’t sure where to fo­cus, but I knew I wanted some­thing more than mud and ca­su­alty fig­ures. So I read a lot. There’s plenty of fine his­tor­i­cal writ­ing avail­able. An­drew Mac­don­ald’s On My

Way to the Somme was es­pe­cially valu­able. But there are some equally fine nar­ra­tives from New Zealan­ders who were there on the West­ern Front. They clus­ter at the be­gin­ning of the al­pha­bet: Alexan­der Aitken, Archibald Bax­ter, Or­mond Burton.

There was lots to learn. For ex­am­ple, I hadn’t known that tanks were used for the first time at the Somme – the New Zealand Di­vi­sion had four of them. I cer­tainly hadn’t known that the Maori word for France was Wiwi.

I also turned to the diaries and let­ters of men who saw ac­tion. Lan­guage seemed to be a con­stant prob­lem. How could you find words even half­way ad­e­quate to de­scribe the hor­rors you were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing? How could you write home to loved ones with­out soft­en­ing what you saw?

So my prob­lem – what to write, how to write – was hardly a new one. At one stage I thought I might try com­pos­ing some new sol­diers’ songs. It’s been said that one rea­son New Zealand forces were called “the Silent Di­vi­sion” is that they didn’t sing when march­ing. But I gave that idea away fairly quickly. Ev­ery­thing kept ­turn­ing into bad Leonard Co­hen:

I dug be­yond the rimu

I dug be­yond the pine and the nails they nailed through Jesus’ hands they also nailed through mine

I had been struck in the course of my read­ing by just how many of New ­Zealand’s dead are miss­ing. There are ­sev­eral hun­dred in­di­vid­ual graves in France and Bel­gium where the head­stone in­scrip­tion sim­ply reads: “A New Zealand Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God”.

I knew that I couldn’t re­cover any of those names. But per­haps I could give a few of those dead men a few words to say: some­thing about where they came from, per­haps; or some­thing about how they died. Some­thing to make them a lit­tle more present.

The poem I wrote was in 14 small parts, and I called it Known unto God.

And even­tu­ally I man­aged to find my way to “the world as it is”. I found space not just for 100-year-old tanks but also for New Zealand’s Un­known War­rior and the prob­lems he had for a time with 21st-century skate­board­ers. And I found my end­ing in the con­tem­po­rary Mediter­ranean, where large num­bers of peo­ple con­tinue to die as a con­se­quence of war – with­out names, with­out any sort of head­stone. The last speaker of my poem – a child – is one of those many ca­su­al­ties.

See an an­i­ma­tion of Known unto God at tinyurl.com/NZLMan­hire. The poem ap­pears in Bill Man­hire’s forth­com­ing book Some Things to Place in a Cof­fin (Vic­to­ria Univer­sity Press).

My know­ledge of WWI mostly came from Wilfred Owen and Black­ad­der.

Bill Man­hire: “what to write, how to write” a war poem was not a new prob­lem.

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