To Wilfred Owen

on the centenary of his death

Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery.

An ordinary man, you spoke of death
outright. For years you’d lazed along the path,
luxurious, dense, of youthdom. It was crossed
by a dark angel. Not with news of Christ

nor yet of devilhood did that word come
to scorch all with the indestructible doom
of Man, for whom it seemed heaven lay to hand.
When you saw those wings, nothing was left behind.

A man-boy still, dreaming of truth and beauty,
you scoured the heart to yield a drop of pity,
the pity of War. A path that had beguiled
let show, at times, a floor of beaten gold.


Was it by chance
a literary seed, a harbinger
of a new time, a speck
of coming-to-be, a vagary of the air
took root in you?
How many more
dallied with words, to miss the inspiration?
Only on two
awareness fell, of a forked tongue in the wind,
a corkscrew of the mind, a lie
to be conspired with and contained,
concocted fresh
in the stinging leaf of a line.
Only on two
did the blow fall, to stun the word within
in the mothering arms of a poem, to grow
in a new time
to the bud of an altered crop,
that fatal sickness gone.
A first perception leapt, a savage thrust
of earth, to leave its mark on the face of a field,
the crooked flower, the twisted corn;
but deeper with it came
a truer growth, a child of sun and rain.
A literary seed
took hold, a worm bedevilling the brain . . .
and a new beauty spoke
in a new time again.


Who was the other
to conceive of a new hell of experience
and play out a Great War of the mind
in the trick of a poem?

Listen stranger to the tread
of one who travelled near the dead
listen as a death-pulse beats
down certain half-deserted streets . . .

skirting a precipice, aching, aching to fall
blind Tiresias dreaming a scattered-gold city
in shards, blown history-high
to turn again returning
into waste ground, a song of loss
in the voice of mythic birds
Ol’ Possum hiding with God
in the nave of a church, a deliverance
from the stigmata of evil
to the heart of the fire and the rose
and throughout the long stony journey
of streets at dusk, of stations of the cross at night
such beauty, such living beauty

what whispers of the West down centuries
are gathered here, what images are these
what grace, what vertu, what enlightenment
what ghosts are doing the rounds
in the Dark Tower, that space of little ease . . .

and in the prayer in the church, what quick light steps
of a mind travelling home, an accuracy
that’s owed to words, on its way, as if under cover
joyously turning the key . . .

Stranger as you pass along
the matchless ways of a mind in song,
mark the music. There was a bomb
the air absorbed and sheltered you from.


Not the War
but a throb in the brain of the time
that broke out in a globe-cracking fever
of sweat and blood and brawling nerves
not once, not twice, but in a tumult of isms,
a swamp of intelligence, a fug of codes
a faster and faster delirium
a risk of the time itself, to destroy the species
on its great way

The poet of the mind made play for thirty years
with a verse-mirror, a narrative of distress . . .
the poet of the fact, for one.


On a first trip to the underworld
you gathered a bouquet of wildflowers
to lay at the graves of those who died as cattle.
It was an anthem of sound and light.

There was the time you answered a fellow-poet’s
request to be of more cheer with an “apology”:
a lightning-bolt of soldiers’ warmth at the Front
to sear even the countenance of Death.

The worst nightmare is that of the truth.
Life is the merest scrap, thrown in a wagon.
What is it that shouts down a monstrous lie?
It is not the death but the dying.

Poet, how do you find beauty in this filth?
A fierce love glowers
at the insensibility
of those at home who turn their heads away.

A fierce vision burns
an image of trench warfare
onto the retina. Scuttling many-legged insects –
one dies. The writer’s head is lopped away.

Fiercest of all is a yearning
to be one with the root of the race.
To note its endurance, discover
a greater vision, a greater love.

One poem has the pity of war
in a tableau of futility.
A young body, as of the planet gone wrong,
in a simplicity of sun and snow.

Deeper than all, and dearer
when all has been lost and found
in a wonder of words, a passion of deeds
is the strange meeting with the self.


From poesy and a Keatsian ideal,
the ardencies of youth, a lapping tide
of fresh awareness on an undisturbed journey,
in a light varying breeze
of sudden thoughts and of soft silences,
slowly, as land went by
you woke. Always a singing voice,
a clarity of the air, had echoed in
the cabin of your musings: a troubadour
of dreams lay in the offing, an Orphean voice
to herald marvels when it came to shore,
to stroll a forest path and charm the stones.

You woke.


A labyrinthine wasteland of mud
over a blood-river of Hell

a patch of dulled earth fed
by the bones of men and horses

its time in leaf transformed
to a forest of barbed-wire

filled night and day with a wild-life of voices
the bark of the gun, the gas-shell’s cry

the banter of soldiers, and the thoughts of soldiers . . .


You listened.
And as you wrote, a forked tongue in the wind
spoke untruth, and a forked tongue in your verse
flickered, to smell it out, and give reply.
As you made your poems
a new force pierced the element: sharp, oblique,
a nail driven at an angle, a new quicksound
pierced the mind. As if it knew
of a hidden venom sac, a flickering sense
struck home. So in your very words
you intimated pain, tracing the edge
of a new beauty.


Your para-rhyme
was not used always: in a few of the finest
of your immortal pieces it was unneeded.
But there is one
in which the sting is drawn, Futility.
And other innovations can be noted
of a great mind. Wilfred, if you had lived
the time itself would have been made more strong.
That voice, in balance with the other poet’s,
would have allowed the mind to breathe more freely.
For poetry would have sung out to the ages
with that of other “greats”, and left its cue
to see and come to terms with suffering.


You died.
A store of beauty lies beneath the world.
And I, a scribbler of some fifty years,
give thanks for that one year. For it has been
a signal to an insignificant voice
to enter such light music as it can.


Stranger what is it that warms you
under the sun? That still informs you
of your certainties? Remember
the far-off heat of a World War ember . . .


There is a skill
in human hands of making fire.
A blaze of Art
revisits time, to take a hidden heat
and burn off rot, and counter death itself.
The incandescent beauty of its flame
holds nations.

Lost without it,
with it to hand we can expand our vision,
transform a corner of the natural range,
and life itself is other.


Till with the word
awareness came,
new greeds, an appetite for self-destruction.
Young ordinary man who took the word
and turned it into flame and fell
almost upon the War’s last day – to whom
today the world pays homage – what have you left?


Only a handful of poems adrift on the darkness

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