Mel McMahon

Beneath Our Feet

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis speaks to Co. Armagh poet, Mel McMahon, concerning his current work-in-progress, Beneath Our Feet, poems written in commemoration of Wilfred Owen. 2018 marks the centenary of Owen’s death in World War One.

Colin Dardis: How important is it to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen?

Mel McMahon: I do think it's important, to mark Owen’s death. The centenaries of various battles of World War One are being marked and rightly so, I think. It was a unique period in human history in so much as mankind hadn’t previously experienced slaughter on those terms and in such great numbers. Amidst the horror and brutality of it all poets like Owen spoke up and spoke out. For the first fifty years after his death his work went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until the ‘Great War’s’ fiftieth anniversary in the 1960s that his voice took on a new poignancy and truly reached out to the public, to individual readers and to those who now teach his work in classrooms. Marking his centenary is an acknowledgement of his work as a poet and his sacrifice as a soldier and hopefully the occasion will alert more people to his life and the work he created.

CD: Is it this personal sense of duty and sacrifice that appeals to you as much as the writing?

MMcM: Well, to give you a little bit of detail about Owen: he didn't enter the war until January 1917. He arrived in Étaples in Northern France on the 1st of January. In those early months, up until May (when he suffered from shellshock), he did not distinguish himself as a soldier. On several occasions he was ill or concussed and did not play a major role in what were seen as key battles. I think within his own regiment, he wasn't exactly applauded.  Early on in his letters and poems we see him feeling like an outsider to the working-class men around him whose discourse is choked with “oath-edged talk”. I don’t think that he felt the affinity with the other men that he thought he would feel. 

He was sent home with shellshock in June 1917 and does not return to the battlefields of France until August 1918.  So much happens to him in that year: he meets Sassoon and Graves, both established war poets in their own right. Both men see a talent in Owen. Graves tells Owen that he must outlive the war and when Sassoon hears in 1918 that Owen is contemplating returning to the Front he threatens to stab him in the leg. I have no doubt that Owen could have stayed in England helping the war effort so I find it amazing that despite witnessing the hellish horror of war he felt a compulsion to return to the battlefields and to the men of the 2nd Manchester Regiment. He returns to the war as a lieutenant and has a soldier, Private Jones, tail him, so-to-speak, to look out for potential dangers. In one battle, at Joncourt in France, Jones is hit in the head by a bullet. Owen is distraught by the event and sits cradling Jones like a parent for half an hour until he dies. Enraged by this loss, Owen, who was a crack-shot, by-the way, marches up one of the ridges to a German gunner’s post, shooting at the enemy as he goes. He takes the machine gun post and sits there for many hours until support arrives. His bravery on that day is marked on a plaque of gratitude in the village. These actions would also see him later receive a posthumous Military Cross.

In one of the last letters to his mother we see a transformed Owen. He now bathes in the warmth of friendship he feels for his fellow men. He writes, ‘I came out in order to help these boys- directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as any pleader can.’. He says to his mother that he's in a band of brothers, couldn't be in better company, and wishes his mother were as happy as he is. 

In November of 1918 Owen, like many of the soldiers, knew that the Germans were on the run and that the war was days from being over. Sadly he paid the ultimate price, losing his life on the 4th November at Ors Canal. Those men who were with him that morning visited his mother, Susan, at the end of the war, and told her how that morning Owen had been with his men, praising them for their efforts as they tried in vain to cross the Ors Canal. At that human level I find Owen very interesting.

CD: Was Owen writing throughout the whole time he was sent back home?

MMcM: Owen had been writing before the war. When he met Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Sassoon told him off for not writing poems that embraced the horror of war as much as they should.  It was a fairly productive time for Owen because he ended up writing some of his most seminal war poetry at Craiglockhart, away from the battlefields.

Craiglockhart itself was an interesting place because it held dozens of men who were recovering from shellshock. During the day those men were encouraged to pursue a treatment called Ergo therapy, where they were asked to focus on things they liked. For example, Owen would have been given a task to write a lecture having researched a topic such as 'Do plants think?' There were walks, too, and the opportunity to swim. I think Owen was taken out of himself and distracted from shellshock through his work with Dr. Brock, an innovative practitioner there.

Sassoon was very much a hero of Owens’: he was a well-established poet at that time; his war poetry was well known. Owen began to take on Sassoon’s suggestions. Sassoon edited some of Owen’s poetry, and changed titles of some; for example Anthem For Doomed Youth was once Anthem For Dead Youth

Robert Graves, who was a friend of Sassoon's, called there also. He was a great supporter of Owen’s work as well. Craiglockhart, though a sanctuary, an oasis during the day, at night became a place of horror: the darkness brought with it, for a lot of soldiers, nightmares, disturbance and agitation. One of the rules in Craiglockhart was that you were not allowed to smoke in the building, but at night soldiers, suffering from psychosis and insomnia, turned the corridors of the building into smoke-filled spaces reminiscent of the shelled trenches of lost battlefields. Owen was very productive at that time and writes in one of his letters "I must finish my gas poem", which was Dulce Et Decorum Est, not knowing it was going to be one of the seminal WWI poems. He wrote lots of new work there and continued after his discharge from Craiglockhart to write many of the poems which have since become anthologised in the poetry books taught to many school children today.

CD: I want to pick up on your own development of interest in Owen.  Most of us have some awareness of his work but what was it for yourself that's initially really started your interest in him?

MMcM: I don’t remember reading every poet I’ve read for the first time but I remember reading Owen for the first time. I was introduced to Owen in an O-level class, at St. Michael's in Lurgan. I think the first poem I read was The Send-Off. I could immediately sense that here was a poet unlike those I’d previously studied. The poem was populated with soldiers, a ‘casual tramp’ and an eerie silence as the men went off to war and an uncertain future. Those lines

     Shall they return to beatings of great bells
     In wild trainloads?
     A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
     May creep back, silent, to still village wells
     Up half-known roads.

had to be learnt off by heart for an exam, but they’ve always stuck with me. I loved the contrasts in that poem and the way the rhythm shortened and lengthened like a sequence of erratic breathing. There was something about Owen, I felt, that was different.

As a teenager, too, there is a sense of being in flux, being in a stage of transformation.  There’s a sense of lostness about being a teenager. I got a sense of that with Owen being at the front, in writing about the soldiers and the battles and the deaths and the horror. It seemed to make sense to me. The fact that he died in his youth as well created an affinity and seemed to rubber-stamp his credentials as being true to his cause as a poet and a soldier.

There are other war poets, I know, such as Sassoon and Graves and Blunden, and they write terrifically well, but with Owen, for me, there was more compassion and warmth. Yes, there's frustration and anger, but there's a lot of pity, too, that I didn’t find in other war poets. It was Sassoon who said that one of the great things that Owen had was a level of sympathy unique to war poetry.  I need to trust a poet’s voice when I read and in Owen’s voice there is terrific warmth, empathy and authenticity.

CD: That's surprising, given that Sassoon was initially resistant to Owen writing against the war.

MMcM: Well, I think that Sassoon saw in Owen a poet in progress. Owen thought that the war was too dark and too horrific to write about, and that poetry, in some way, was a vessel for beauty. I think Sassoon eventually broke that perception in Owen.  Michael Longley once said when writing about the Holocaust in his ghetto poems, that if poetry cannot deal with man's worst moments, then it is dead. I think Owen probably realised that as well. There is a strange sense of beauty and community that can be created from writing about the horror and pity of war.

CD: You've developed your own full-length manuscript of poems, 'Beneath Our Feet', inspired by Owen. Have these poems had a lengthy gestation period, or have they been written with the approaching centenary in mind?

MMcM: I didn’t go out of my way to write them for the centenary; that wasn't the plan. When I had finished my first book, Out Of Breath, I started going through notebooks to see what other work I had. I came across some poems I had written in 1995 about Owen so the interest had always been there, even over twenty years ago. I started reading books about Owen: Dominic Hibberd's wonderful book, Jon Stallworthy’s, Helen McPhail’s, Owen's letters, etc. I got a little bit obsessive about it! Then I realised Owen's brother, Harold, had written a trilogy of books about their childhood and Owen going to war. The more I read Owen’s letters, the more I became enthused to revisit moments of his life that weren't in his verse. I decided to take those details and explore them in some way in his poems.

CD: Something that struck me in these poems is that the writing transcends beyond Owen, to become representative of the Great War - or perhaps, of everyone who has ever been at war. I was wondering if that was something you were conscious of, that you were speaking not just for Owen, but for all of the dead?

MMcM: When you write a poem you try to be as true to the impulse behind it as possible. I wanted to be as authentic as I could in capturing some of the details impacting Owen’s life at that time. It would be very difficult, nay impossible, to mimic Owen’s best work and I think it’s one of the reasons why many of my pieces are short poems. They try to capture the breath of a thought and I often try to employ half-rhyme as Owen was one of the earliest poets to realise its power. You always hope that when you write a poem it’s not going to be so idiosyncratic as to exclude itself from an audience. You want it to be accessible at some level. I think that's what Owen was trying to do as well. You get lines in Dulce Et Decorum Est which directly engage the reader: "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest". There is that sense of Owen directly or indirectly being conscious of the reader and trying to involve them in his work. In fact there are times when I feel that the poems have the quality of intimate spoken conversation between friends.

I have enjoyed writing about Owen, trying to see a lost world from his eyes. I hope that what’s there in Beneath Our Feet makes itself relatable to the reader and also gives a sense of Owen’s life and the life, indeed, of many soldiers in that battle and others.

CD: You’ve mentioned to me that a lot of inspiration for the poems comes when you're walking out in the wild back roads of Newry; you and Wilfred Owen go out for a walk together with your dog.  It strikes me that a lot of the natural imagery has been incorporated into the battlefields in your poems. Again, is this something that was intentional?

MMcM: I suppose having visited the Somme and surrounding areas, it's a landscape transformed now compared to how it was described, photographed and painted during WWI. It really was a horrorscape. The war took beautiful ancient forests and reduced them to charred stumps. When working on this project I took many walks near Slieve Gullion, through the different seasons, and let the landscape around me become the battlefields. I had to try to imagine what it would have been like for the soldiers to see beautiful green fields, like those they’d left at home, being turned into toxic gulches of mud. 

Even when you look to battles outside of the Somme, like Passchendale, you realise there were hundreds of men there who didn't die because of shell blasts and bullets; they died because they drowned in these horrible gangrenous pools left by terrible weather conditions, so I did become very aware of landscape. Someone like Owen, a poet, is by very definition attuned to beauty and doesn't like to see the loss of beauty. There were times when he witnessed living landscapes being transformed into corpses, void of life.  He talks in one of his letters about the dangers of terrain in poor weather after days of shelling. He describes the mud as being a "sucking octopus". So, yes, I was very aware of landscape when I was writing those poems.

CD: You have this body of work now about Owen, which you hope to get published during the centenary year. Is it getting harder and harder for a writer to get their work out there, considering the wider field of Irish publishing?

MMcM: It's incredibly difficult to get published today. I was involved with a publishing house; I helped to co-found Abbey Press and even twenty years ago I know how difficult it was to get funding from the Arts Council or patrons. Or even embassies! One of our books was promoted by the Hungarian Embassy. But money is scarce out there, and there are only a limited number of titles a publishing house can print each year. The number of people who are now writing poetry and writing good poetry, has flourished considerably. This has become more obvious through social media, which is great not only for promoting poetry but for promoting events where you can hear these poets read. You go to these events and you see just how many people have written a book or have a book in them. So it is very, very difficult for poets. But it is also difficult for publishers who must discern which writers to choose to develop their own stable of poets. 

CD: Given your own history with the Abbey Press would self-publishing ever be a consideration?

MMcM: I don't know. With Beneath Our Feet there is a possibility that I might get a patron and do it old style. But I do want to get the book out this year, because I think it would lose a little bit of its momentum if it wasn't published during Owen’s centenary year.

CD: For Northern Irish readers, do you think that Owen - a British soldier fighting in what might be viewed as a British war - is accepted from a Nationalist point of view, or would there be very little interest there?

MMcM: That’s a really good question. My wife has Scottish cousins and they are strong Hibs supporters, so they feel strong Irish connections and are quite nationalist in their outlook. When I mentioned I was writing a book of poems about Wilfred Owen, one of them said, "But he's a British soldier. Why would you be writing poems about him? Why didn't you write poems about the1916 Rising?" That's not how it works for me. Obviously with my background there's a lot of affinity with what happened in the 1916 Rising, but it didn't come across to me at the time as fodder for a book of poems; of interest, yes, but it didn't ignite a spark within me that made me think there’s a book of poems in this…

I'm from Lurgan and from a nationalist background so it might be seen as odd to write about a British soldier who grew up on the border between England and Wales, rather than someone more local, say Francis Ledwidge, but I don't see a flag, I don't see a border; I see a person, someone who was a young man, a vulnerable human being going off to war armed with a sense of idealism, some paper and a pen. His story strikes a deep chord with me. I don't tend to view such matters through a patriotic lens.

CD: Owen's poetry has been taken up on both sides of the pro-or-anti war debate. It's interesting that this work is open to interpretation, to be seen as this figurehead, or as this tragic soldier and the voice against war.

MMcM: When Owen first went into War, he actually commented that there was nothing greater than to lay your life down for a brother. By the end of war his view had become more complicated than that. You're right in saying it's been used for both sides of the argument. When I think about that I'm reminded of the epitaph on his gravestone, which is from one of his last poems, ‘The End’.  It reads:

     “Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
     All death will he annul.”

On a first reading one would think that these words show a clear statement of Christian belief in the after-life but the poem is more complex than that and on a closer reading you will find that the lines’ actual meaning is the reverse of the sentiment his epitaph seems to capture.

CD: Tell us more about the actual content and subject of ‘Beneath Our Feet’.

MMcM: One of the things I was trying to achieve was to capture the last two years of Owen’s life, that period when he was active as a soldier. The collection starts off with a poem about John Keats, which maybe is a strange starting point; however, Owen was a great admirer of Keat's work. When he was a young man, he was quite fervent in his faith and in his admiration of Romantic poetry. At one stage, he actually made a comment that he thought he was the reincarnation of Keats. I have a mutual admiration for Keats, so I thought I would write about that.

The sequence of poems travels, from that poem, to cover many events: Owen signing up; being on guard duty; going off to training camp; beginning life at the Front; being sent home from the Front; going to Craiglockhart; going back to the war; and eventually it ends with the telegram his mother receives on Armistice Day outlining his death.  One of the poignant things about Owen's life was that he was killed when the war was nearly over. On the morning of 4th November, his troops rose very early and went to Ors Canal to challenge the Germans on the other side. Unfortunately, he was killed in gun fire. A week later, just as the bells were ringing out for the Armistice on the 11th of November, his mother received a telegram saying that her son had been killed in France. So what started out as a moment of jubilation ended up in a moment of great tragedy and loss for her.

CD: What are your hopes for people's memory of Owen, and actually marking the centenary year?

MMcM: I hope that the centenary spotlights and refocuses people's attention on what exactly is involved in war: the loss, the sacrifice, the brutality, even the futility of it. In recent years, looking at commemorations of the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele it’s almost impossible not be moved by the actual scale of the events at that time. I was in Theipval in the summer, and the monument there has nearly 70,000 names of men who fought at the Battle of the Somme and whose bodies were never found.  The title 'Beneath Our Feet' comes from a comment by the BBC broadcaster, Huw Edwards. When he was commenting on the Somme centenary, he said "Beneath our feet here, are the thousands of soldiers whose bodies have never and may never be found".

I hope the centenary will refocus that sense of loss and sacrifice and make people think twice about how to resolve the conflicts we face today. We need to to be alert and awake to the needlessness of battle and a poet, like Owen, one of the supreme commentators on war, needs to be heard, I would love to see people discover or revisit his voice, because he has so much to say, and so much light to give.