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Guillaume Apollinaire to Sarojini Naidu: the war poets you don’t study at school

Despite the “cosmopolitan sympathies” of the poets, memorial events in the UK today are dominated by British writers. But there are many other literary voices from the battle for the trenches.

The angry nightingale: poet Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Poetry has become the centre of a propaganda battle over the meaning of the First World War, with different sides favouring those poets whose political sympathies reflect their own. Prime Minister David Cameron recently chose to intone Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” for a charity album recording. Brooke’s vision of “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” espouses the “British values” of honour, loyalty and patriotism of which most Conservatives approve (indeed, Michael Gove wants to see them promoted in schools). Yet, of course, much British war poetry was anti-nationalist in tone. Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Night Attack”, for instance, describes a dead German soldier as “Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say./No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace”. Similarly, Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” parodies the British high command by addressing a rodent running through no-man’s-land:


Droll rat, they would shoot you
    if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German— . . .


Despite the “cosmopolitan sympathies” of the poets, memorial events in the UK today are dominated by British writers. The same is true of discussion in our national media, as well as much of the verse published in anthologies. Oxford University Press’s Poetry of the First World War features only two poets who were not born in the British Isles (Kipling and Mary Borden), and its online repository, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, features none. Such a limited range does a great disservice to the war poets: our media, publishers and politicians have reinforced a nationalistic agenda that runs counter to the poets’ message. Although we are unfamiliar with it, much of the war poetry from France, Germany, Russia and elsewhere is of equal quality to (and, in some cases, even better than) that produced by British writers.

The most prominent European war poet was Guillaume Apollinaire, a naturalised Frenchman of Polish descent who died of influenza at the end of the war. His collection Calligrammes stands as a landmark achievement in the development of literary modernism. The book’s title refers to Apollinaire’s visual poetry, which attempted to achieve with words what Picasso and others had been doing in fine art. His poem “Du coton dans les oreilles” (“Cotton in Your Ears”) begins by re-creating the explosion of artillery shells typographically, the words tumbling upwards on the page.

Apollinaire felt that the war represented a new era, one that would require an original language. As he writes in “Victoire”: “. . . the old languages are so close to death/It’s really from habit and cowardice/That we still use them for poetry”. His visual style was an attempt at a new language, and one could argue that this experimentation has had a more lasting literary influence than the conventional, ornate poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Laurence Binyon or Robert Graves.

It is not surprising that avant-garde work doesn’t often feature in public commemorations. Yet Apollinaire also wrote more accessible poems, filled with emotion and longing. In “Dans l’abri-caverne” (“In the Dugout”), he addresses his lover Madeleine Pagès: “Most days I console myself for loneliness and all kinds of horrors/By imagining your beauty”. Thwarted sexual desire does not feature very highly in British war poetry, but for him it was one of the main torments of life in the trenches. His frustration reaches its height in “Fusée” (“Flare”), in which he writes that even “the wide rump” of his horse reminds him of Madeleine.

Though his descriptions of the war’s modernity could seem celebratory, Apollinaire did not shy away from the more horrifying aspects of the conflict. In “Merveille de la guerre” (“Wonder of War”), he marvels “that so much fire was needed to roast human flesh” and evokes the front-line soldiers’ hunger as he recalls the “taste” left in the air, “which by God is not unpleasant”.

Critics suggest that European war poetry is unpopular because writers in Germany and France got caught up in the patriotic fervour of 1914. This is only partly true: Continental poets portrayed a range of feelings towards the conflict. Another naturalised Frenchman, Blaise Cendrars, supported the fighting but also wrote “La guerre au Luxembourg” (1916), a poem about children in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Cendrars, who lost his right arm on the Western Front, describes children playing soldiers in a way that implies his lasting trauma:


Then they raise the dead
Everyone wants to be dead
Or at least wounded                RED
Cut cut
Cut off the arm cut off the head WHITE
They give everything
Red Cross                                        BLUE

Lyrical iconoclast: a pencil sketch of Apollinaire by Picasso captures a kindred rebel modernist

One writer whose politics undoubtedly damaged his reputation was Stefan George, a mystic whose writings were taken up by the Nazis. Although undoubtedly racist he was no Nazi, moving to Switzerland in 1933 when they came to power, and his poetry even inspired Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. Despite George’s
nationalist reputation, in “Der Krieg”, written in 1917, he denounced the patriotic spirit that had led to the war:


Here whining women, old and
    sated burghers
Are more at fault than bayonets and guns
Of adversaries, for our sons’ and
Dismembered bodies, for their
glassy eyes!


Later in the poem, a German patriot tries to stir up xenophobic sentiment by asking: “Have you no eye for sacrifice unmeasured,/For strength of unity?” To which the poet gives the pithy response: “These also flourish/Across the border”.

Another important German anti-war poet was Alfred Lichtenstein, who died on the Somme in 1914 (perhaps the first of the war poets to be killed). His satirical dramatic monologue “A Lieutenant General Sings” is written from the perspective of a German division commander who wishes “that there were an endless war/With bloody, howling winds” because, as he puts it, “Ordinary life/Has no charm for me”. Lichtenstein encapsulates a feeling of soldiers on both sides: that it was their bloodthirsty leaders who were the real enemy.

We often see the First World War as an Anglo-Saxon affair but many thousands of non-white combatants also took part. They included recruits from India, who went to Europe and the Middle East to fight for the British empire. Some, such as Sir Nizamat Jung Bahadur, wrote patriotic poems in support. In “To England” (1914), he addres­ses the motherland:


Thine equal justice, mercy, grace
Have made a distant alien race
A part of thee!

Although Jung’s poetry isn’t terribly good, it does remind us that this was a colonial conflict. Sarojini Naidu, on the other hand, was a poet of exceptional quality. Known as “the Nightingale of India”, Naidu was a politician as well as a poet: a lifelong fighter for independence who became the first female state governor in her country. Her best-known poem is “The Gift of India” (1915), which describes the dead:


Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave,
broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown
down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of
Flanders and France . . .


The anger is clear: India has given her best sons to fight for Britain and received nothing in return. It would not have surprised Naidu to learn that the Indian contribution to the war effort remains overlooked today.

Poets continued to write about the war long after 1918. A fine example is Sterling Brown. Not a soldier himself, Brown wrote “Sam Smiley” (1932) about an African American who signs up to defend democracy but returns from France to find the United States still a racially segregated nation.


The whites had taught him how to rip
A Nordic belly with a thrust
Of bayonet, had taught him how
To transmute Nordic flesh to dust.

And a surprising fact had made
Belated impress on his mind:
The shrapnel bursts and poison gas
Were inexplicably color blind.


On the Western Front, Smiley has learned that democracy is only skin-deep, and that all people are equal before grenades and guns. The poem captures the spirit of rebellion that led to African-American uprisings in St Louis and elsewhere after the war.

Many others deserve recognition, and can be found in anthologies such as We Are the Dead: Poems and Paintings from the Great War (published by Red Horse Press, 2012) and The Lost Voices of World War I (Bloomsbury, 1988).

To avoid the next four years becoming a jingoistic battle of the poets, we should seek out literature from beyond our shores. We might go even further, designating August (when Britain entered the war) as a month in which we read only poetry from outside the UK. We could flood social media with this work as a counter-point to the government’s use of British writers. Doing so would pay deep respect to the “cosmopolitan sympathies” of Ros­enberg, Sassoon and many of their fellow anti-war poets.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs:

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times