Bryony Doran On What War Poetry Actually Is

 In Poetry

Poetry and War

 NB*From time to time guest bloggers will blog on this site. The views expressed by them are not South Bank Poetry’s.

“The general understanding is that war poetry is written by active combatants”

When I was first asked to write this blog, I decided to look up the definition of ‘War Poetry’.

The general understanding is that war poetry is written by active combatants, mostly men, and mostly from the first and second world war. This is because of the way it is studied at school, though in fact war poetry has also been written by civilians caught up in conflict, or by well-known poets of the day.

This brought me to the question of what war poetry actually is, and who is it that deems it so? A case in point is that when my son joined the army and went to serve in Afghanistan I wrote poetry from my perspective as a mother. I was lucky enough to have these poems included under the sub-title of ‘Bulletproof’ in ‘Home Front’, a quadrilogy of poetry collections by four female writers, published this year. While I was writing the poetry, I did not think to myself – I am writing war poetry. After the book was published I happened to go into my local Waterstones and was surprised to see it on the shelf under the heading ‘War Poetry.’

Did I qualify, as a war poet? I was not a soldier, and yet in retrospect I realised that being a mother of a serving soldier I had unwittingly become part of something bigger than myself, as I say in the opening poem of my collection;

            I’d become part of the army, another dazed parent

            Eating plastic-packed sandwiches thrown casually on tables

            My son was suddenly not my son anymore but ‘Your Soldier’


Were my words worthy of being called war poetry? I did not write them with any worthy intention in mind, it was just that with my newly heightened sensibility I viewed life from such a bizarre angle that I was drawn to harvest events as they occurred. There was no consistency to my writing, unlike my fellow poet and mother of an English soldier, Isabel Palmer, who wrote a poem a week to keep her sanity



I realised, after I had read the other poems in Home Front, that there were many parallels in our work, and the one that was most apparent was that we had all become part of a modern day myth.

Personal events became inexplicably linked to international news events. This was especially true in my case as my son was considerate enough to fly out on the day the Chilean miners were released;

            They rise one by one through the earth in a capsule

            arms tucked back like cormorants gliding upwards


            and on his flight back –

            On the World Service I hear

            Bin Laden has been found and killed



In the foreword to Isabel Palmer’s ‘Atmospherics’ collection, Andrew Motion writes;

            Its subjects have a high level of documentary interest

            and in my foreword, Ruth Padel writes;

both mother and son are caught in the theatre of myth

            Somehow, the mix of war and the immediacy of the world has made our shared experiences appear mythical

Like the old soothsayers who saw parallels in everything.


I was thrilled to learn, through a recent blog written by Leslie Tate, of a woman soldier and emerging poet by the name of Jo Young. I hope that are many more women out there writing war poetry, and that through our combined strength we will bring to the fore the voice of woman in war poetry, and maybe, just maybe, our voice can change the tides of war.

Blog post by Bryony Doran

Home Front is published by Bloodaxe


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