A Way with Words: Poet Bill Manhire

by Bill Manhire / 05 March, 2017

Bill Manhire.

Bill Manhire describes his writing day.

It’s often said that poetry is born, as Wordsworth wrote, from the ­spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. But sometimes a commission comes along and pushes you beyond your comfort zone. If all goes well, you learn things and surprise yourself. That was my hope when the Fierce Light project got in touch. I was one of half a dozen poets from combatant nations invited to write about the Battle of the Somme. Our poems might even be made into short films.

Initially, I was sceptical. Wasn’t all the World War I centenary stuff a bit dodgy – a celebration of sacrifice rather than a felt commemoration? I’d even written a short poem that hinted at my reservations, entitled My World War I Poem: 

Inside each trench, the sound of prayer.

Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.

I was also pretty ignorant. My ­know­ledge of WWI mostly came from Wilfred Owen and Blackadder. The commissioning brief encouraged poets to venture beyond the Somme. “Are there contemporary forces, barely ­comprehensible but becoming clearer, that might benefit from the fierce light of art?” In the end, perhaps the biggest challenge would be to connect the world as it was to the world as it is.

At first I wasn’t sure where to focus, but I knew I wanted something more than mud and casualty figures. So I read a lot. There’s plenty of fine historical writing available. Andrew Macdonald’s On My Way to the Somme was especially valuable. But there are some equally fine narratives from New Zealanders who were there on the Western Front. They cluster at the beginning of the alphabet: Alexander Aitken, Archibald Baxter, Ormond Burton.

There was lots to learn. For example, I hadn’t known that tanks were used for the first time at the Somme – the New Zealand Division had four of them. I certainly hadn’t known that the Maori word for France was Wiwi.

I also turned to the diaries and letters of men who saw action. Language seemed to be a constant problem. How could you find words even halfway adequate to describe the horrors you were experiencing? How could you write home to loved ones without softening what you saw?

So my problem – what to write, how to write – was hardly a new one. At one stage I thought I might try composing some new soldiers’ songs. It’s been said that one reason New Zealand forces were called “the Silent Division” is that they didn’t sing when marching. But I gave that idea away fairly quickly. Everything kept ­turning into bad Leonard Cohen:

I dug beyond the rimu

I dug beyond the pine

and the nails they nailed through Jesus’ hands

they also nailed through mine

I had been struck in the course of my reading by just how many of New ­Zealand’s dead are missing. There are ­several hundred individual graves in France and Belgium where the headstone inscription simply reads: “A New Zealand Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God”.

I knew that I couldn’t recover any of those names. But perhaps I could give a few of those dead men a few words to say: something about where they came from, perhaps; or something about how they died. Something to make them a little more present.

The poem I wrote was in 14 small parts, and I called it Known unto God.

And eventually I managed to find my way to “the world as it is”. I found space not just for 100-year-old tanks but also for New Zealand’s Unknown Warrior and the problems he had for a time with 21st-century skateboarders. And I found my ending in the contemporary Mediterranean, where large numbers of people continue to die as a consequence of war – without names, without any sort of headstone. The last speaker of my poem – a child – is one of those many casualties.

See an animation of Known unto God. The poem appears in Bill Manhire’s forthcoming book Some Things to Place in a Coffin (Victoria University Press).

This article was first published in the February 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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