International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices: An Interview with Connie Ruzich

8 February 2020

Connie Ruzich is a professor of English at Robert Morris University; her Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania. Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. She is the editor of International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she runs the popular blog Behind Their Lines, which discusses poetry of the Great War. Her essay “Distanced, disembodied, and detached: Women’s poetry of the First World War” appears in An International Rediscovery of World War One: Distant Fronts (Routledge, 2020), and she contributed “Language and Identity: Introduction,” to be published in Multilingual Environments in the Great War (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2021). You can follow her on Twitter @wherrypilgrim.

This interview was conducted by Edel Hanley (University College Cork).

TMR: Firstly, could you tell us a little about yourself and where your interest in First World War poetry began? 

Connie Ruzich: I first encountered the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as an undergraduate English major, and for many years I included their poetry, as well as the work of Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, and other British soldier-poets, in my university courses. Then in 2014, I was granted a U.K. Fulbright Scholar award at the University of Exeter to research the ways in which poetry was being used in British commemorations of the First World War. I explored university libraries and visited second-hand bookshops, where I discovered war poetry that had been out-of-print for many years. I found poems that were widely known and read during the war, many of which were well-reviewed at the time, but they had been forgotten. These one-hundred-year-old volumes of war poetry were often dirty and tattered, but they were rich and alive with the authentic voices of a century ago, and so I began to collect lost poems, research them, and share my findings on my blog, Behind Their Lines. I also researched war poetry written outside the UK, and in the writings of French, German, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, American, Australian, Canadian, and Russian poets (among others), I discovered a richer and more complex conversation about the war than I had previously known.

TMR: International Poetry of the First World War incorporates writings from both combatants and noncombatants. I’m curious to hear what you think noncombatant poetry reveals to us about the experience of war that trench poetry cannot?

Connie Ruzich: War poetry written by non-combatants problematises the very definition of war; it forces us to re-examine the question of what constitutes war writing. Today’s popular understandings of the conflict often narrow the war to the trenches of the Western Front; non-combatants’ war poetry helps us to recover a broader picture of the experience of total war and a more nuanced understanding of what it meant to live through such a war. For example, Edmond Rostand’s “Burning Beehives” rages against the German invasion of a French village; Dorothy Parker’s “Penelope” describes the invisibility of women’s war sacrifices; Bernard Samuel Gilbert’s “Gone to the War” acknowledges that not all soldiers were missed or grieved; Rose Macaulay’s “Spreading Manure” shares the tedious exertions of a Land Army girl; and Fredegond Shove’s “The Farmer, 1917” valorises the decision of a conscientious objector. 

TMR: It’s interesting that you include men’s civilian poetry as part of the Noncombatants section of the anthology. What helped you to make the decision to place men’s and women’s civilian poems alongside each other here?

Connie Ruzich: Poets speak to other poems and other poets, and so my research attempts to place poems in conversation with one another. This anthology does not segregate the poetry of soldiers from that of non-combatants; I have not arranged poems according to the nationality of the authors, and I have intermingled men’s and women’s poems of the war. In the section “Noncombatants,” the inclusion of poems written by both men and women exposes a range of emotions and experiences that defies easy categorization. For example, C.H.B. Kitchin’s “Somme Film, 1916” criticises munition makers for their support of the war, while Grace Isabel Colbron’s “Bethlehem Steel” argues that corporations not only supported the war effort, but were economic beneficiaries with a vested interest in continuing the conflict. Additionally, civilian men wrote elegies that resonate with women’s poems of mourning. I also included women’s poetry in the section “Soldiers’ Lives” because medical and support workers were close enough to the front lines of battle to be bombed; women lived in towns that were overrun and obliterated; and women bore witness to new technologies of war, the assault on the environment, and the suffering of the wounded.

TMR: The anthology includes poetry written after the Armistice of November 1918 was signed. What do those poems tell us of how poets, as well as the wider public, were coming to see their lived experience of war by the early postwar period? 

Connie Ruzich: The aftermath poems reveal the complex realities that follow a world-changing event. Some poets wrote optimistically of a world that could be made anew; some saw the future as forever dimmed by emptiness and suffering, while others cynically condemned both the war and the peace-making efforts. These are poems of an uncertain and undetermined remembrance: who were the winners and losers? If there is a common thread that runs through the poetry of the war’s aftermath, it may be the realisation that the war did not end on Nov. 11, 1918, but continued to be waged in the wounded minds and bodies of the survivors and in the political and social upheavals that followed.

TMR: I love that you incorporated the voices of Irish poets writing about the First World War in this anthology as I’m from County Cork, Ireland. What do you think Irish poets had to say in terms of war given the fact they were living through another conflict in the same period, with the Easter Rising (1916) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23)?

Connie Ruzich: Divided loyalties and ambivalence about the conflict were central to the Irish experience of the First World War. One of the unanticipated discoveries of my research was that Irish poetry of the war echoes the attitudes and aspirations of others who also hoped that the war might assist them in gaining recognition, independence, and/or full rights of citizenship, such as African-Americans, Bretons, and those from India.

TMR: As well as bearing witness to different wartime experiences, do you think the anthology helps us to remember the First World War in the 2020s?

Connie Ruzich: In “Just Memory: War and the Ethics of Remembrance,” Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.[1] Nguyen’s claim reminds us that the ways in which wars are remembered may be highly contentious, and that efforts to shape the memories and significance of war are a struggle for power, identity, and meaning (as is evident in current debates about Confederate monuments and their appropriate place in American discourse and culture). Poetry has long been used as part of the attempt to reframe the First World War and to situate it within larger cultural narratives, and Toni Morrison’s insights on canon formation are relevant to this discussion: “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.”[2] Recovering neglected poems of the war with an international focus may assist in dismantling boundaries and barriers to our understanding of the First World War, as well as in challenging what Samuel Hynes calls “The Myth of the War,” an imagined version of the conflict that developed as the war progressed and that was further shaped in the years following the Armistice. Hynes argues that this constructed version of reality presents the war as “a set of abrupt disjunctions—between generations, between fighting soldiers and those who controlled their lives, between the present and the past.”[3] Jay Winter further develops this idea, asserting that “the rupture of 1914–1918 was much less complete than previous scholars have suggested,” and that there existed instead an “overlap of languages and approaches between the old and the new, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’, the conservative and the iconoclastic.”[4] The poems in International Poetry of the First World War demonstrate that there was no single representative experience of the Great War, nor was there a typical literary response to the conflict. The diversity of voices and experiences represented in the anthology help us to remember the complexity of the time, the people, and the poetry of the First World War.

TMR: Lastly, what’s next on the horizon for you?

Connie Ruzich: I have a folder full of ideas to explore that I discovered while working on the anthology, including projects such as word studies (examining the French and American uses of the word “Liberty,” a word that is rarely found in British war writing) and a focused, contrastive study of poets from different countries who explore similar themes. Currently, I’m working on a paper for the Modern Language Association Conference* that examines the ways in which American centenary commemorations of the First World War have used selections of war poetry to reframe the war, create a shared narrative of heroism and sacrifice, and present an idealised view of American intervention in global conflicts. 


Sources:

[1] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Just Memory: War and the Ethics of Remembrance,” American Literary History, vol. 25, no. 1, p. 144.

[2] Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 28, 1989, p. 8.

[3] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined, Atheneum, 1991, p. xii.

[4] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Cambridge UP, 2014, p. 3.

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started