Author Paul O'Prey speaks to Centenary News about his new First World War poetry anthology

Posted on on 08 July 2014
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Centenary News' Books Editor, Eleanor Baggley, speaks to Paul O'Prey about his recent publication, First World War Poems from the Front.

It turns out there are many things Paul O’Prey and I agree on when it comes to war poetry, but the hope that Mary Borden finally gets the popularity she deserves is perhaps the thing we most emphatically agree upon.

In his new anthology of war poetry, O’Prey has tried to ‘reflect the whole experience’ of war by including contributions from both men and women.

I would say he is successful and the contrast of, for example, Mary Borden’s poetry with Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves shines new light on the First World War as experienced by men and women alike.

Poetry anthologies can easily be lost amongst the crowd, particularly in this Centenary year, but First World War Poems from the Front is not so easily forgotten. O’Prey wanted a ‘more rounded view’ of the war; he wants to dispel those myths which suggest that war poetry is all overly ‘anti-war and sentimental’ because it is far from being either.

The question of why war poetry is still read, studied and remembered today is one that is much considered and debated. O’Prey thinks it is the ‘authentic experience’ that is depicted without being ‘explained away’ and how the depth of the ‘compassion and humanity transcend the violence’.

Certainly this anthology strives to reflect that authenticity by highlighting the multitude of voices that came out of the war. This includes female voices. Mary Borden, Vera Brittain and May Cannan are all represented here as they are three women who 'stood out by the strength of their voices'.

‘You can’t even count how many soldiers wrote poetry’, O’Prey tells me, or count how many strove to shine an ‘unofficial light’ (in Graves' words). Whilst some soldiers went to war to become poets, O’Prey suggests Owen and Sassoon are among this group, ‘others found it a release, a way of communicating and sharing with their families’. Some families even displayed the poetry on their mantelpieces.

Using poetry as a release means many of the poems are very lyrical and very personal. ‘The lyricism and use of natural images demonstrates a response to the highly mechanised war these men were fighting.’

I asked O’Prey if he thinks the poems can be described as raw because of their sense of immediacy and the fact that many are only in draft form. He agreed and suggested that ‘it is important for the authentic experience that these poems are not polished’. Whether it is authentic is actually ‘more important than it being well written’.

Taking the case of Rupert Brooke, there is a certain level of distrust surrounding his works because they are too polished and too measured. It is only when he writes the fragmentary poem ‘I strayed about the deck’ that we really get a sense of what he felt rather than some ‘great statement he was trying to make’.

O’Prey’s passion for the poetry of war was evident in our conversation. It is also evident in the anthology. This is a rare collection which simultaneously gives us the male and female perspective of the front line experience.

Images courtesy of Paul O'Prey