Weekly Reflection 2nd – 8th August 2009

Posted on: Sunday 9th August 2009

Poetic truth?

The death of the world’s oldest man, Henry Allingham, at the age of 113 ends the nation’s living link with combatants of the First World War (Henry saw the battle of Jutland in 1916). His funeral with full military honours this last week was both a local and a national event.

To mark the occasion the new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem, ‘Last Post’, which was broadcast on the Today programme on Radio 4 on the morning of the funeral and has subsequently been printed in a number of national newspapers. For all the popularizing of poetry achieved by her predecessor, his actual poems for national days were – I felt – in the main a little disappointing (but then the wedding of a minor royal or the arbitrariness of the Millennium celebrations were scarcely inspiring subjects!). So it was with low expectations that I turned up the wireless and listened to the first example of the craft of the new Laureate. But ‘Last Post’ was stunning – a perfect example of what poetry for national events can be and do: capturing the essence of the moment, and around it weaving history, ideas, echoes and allusions so that the present is transformed and given new depth. Google ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Last Post’ and see what I mean.

‘Last Post’ plays with an idea from the writings of World War One victim Wilfred Owen whose most famous poem laments the fate of the fallen and protests against both the inhumanity of war and the perpetuation of the ‘old lie’ that ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. In her poem, the nameless poet (Owen?) – through the power of poetry – ‘tells it backwards’ and rewinds the terrible events so that the millions of the fallen find themselves avoiding annihilation in the trenches and return to the possibilities of lives redeemed: “crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food /You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile. / If poetry could truly tell it backwards,/then it would.”

A good poem has a ‘sacramental’ quality – but even the most powerful poem can only reshape perceptions and play with ideas. That which is truly sacramental does much more: it both informs our perceptions of past and present but also serves as guarantor that the future is shaped by the purposes of a loving God and assures us that redemption is not simply a poetic idea, but – in Christ – a promise.

Fr Alan Gyle, Vicar